BPLC19: 5 hard-earned lessons from the messy, rewarding work of blended learning

April 25, 2019 | by Chelsea Waite and Jenny White

At this year’s Blended and Personalized Learning Conference, participants faced head-on their ongoing challenges to making effective, personalized and blended learning mainstream. The work’s easier said than done, especially when it comes to expanding practice beyond early adopters, adapting approaches to students’ contexts, or coordinating across teams to support a new instructional approach.

The event, organized by the Highlander Institute and The Learning Accelerator and held in Providence, R.I., was a forum for educators to be frank about their journeys toward instructional transformation; there was camaraderie and acceptance in knowing participants were “all in this together” and that no one was “there yet” on the journey. There was both a stated and unstated understanding that this work can get messy—and participants all brought unique expertise and experience to help each other tackle the mess. Talk of challenges didn’t damper anyone’s spirit, of course; speakers and participants alike expressed the long-term value for students and the system as a whole, echoing a mantra of, “Don’t give up.”

This year’s conference consisted of three distinct days of learning, sharing, and networking. On Thursday, participants visited organizations around Providence that focus on transforming education for the city’s students. On Friday, participants had several venues to choose from, such as observing classrooms across Rhode Island to see blended and personalized practices in action or attending an Acceleration through Networks gathering for advanced practitioners. Saturday was the main event with over 50 sessions facilitated by practitioners from around the country.

Here are five of the Blended Learning Universe (BLU) team’s takeaways from attending on Friday and Saturday:

  1. Strategies to support teachers who aren’t “early adopters”

There was plenty of discussion about how to support teachers in innovative learning environments, especially in cases where you’re moving beyond “early adopters” and toward a whole-school approach. The conversation wasn’t just about teacher hesitancy or resistance. Even when teachers are on board in principle, it can be hard to actually change practice and take on a new or different role in the classroom. At the Acceleration through Networks workshop on Friday, several participants suggested strategies like using video to help teachers observe and analyze their own classroom practice, or creating more time for classroom visits and observations within the school. That same day during a resource speed-dating session, the BLU team discussed new research on what motivates teachers to move towards new instructional practices.

  1. Observing progress, not perfection, helps

When people go on school visits, sometimes they expect to see a state-of-the-art exemplar that we might all aspire to. But what we should actually expect to see is imperfection and learning in progress and then hone an appreciative attitude when people put themselves out there to show what they’re working on. Dana Borelli-Murray of the Highlander Institute said it well on Friday. “This work is part of a movement that’s still developing. It doesn’t always look like we’ve mastered it, but there’s still a lot to gain from seeing the progress.”

  1. Deepen collaboration between digital learning and curriculum teams

It continues to be a challenge for schools to implement blended and personalized learning when the teams for curriculum/assessment and digital learning are not integrated. Sometimes surface-level coordination across these departments isn’t enough for school- or district-wide blended initiatives.

On Friday, we heard one educator share how his district has adopted a curriculum that is high quality but that doesn’t allow for much personalization, leading the digital learning team to attempt layering on a software tool that enables more differentiation. However, that layering has proven superficial because the core curricular materials and the software tools don’t support each other. The layer feels like an add-on, leading to limited impact from the perspective of the digital learning team that is seeking more personalization. Periodic meetings between his curriculum and digital learning teams hadn’t resolved the challenge. This story led our BLU research team to wonder whether a heavyweight team might be an effective approach in this case, since moving towards personalization across the district means changing how a system works, not just its component parts. Having all the right people at the same table is critical to the success of a blended or personalized initiative.

  1. Bridge digital learning to competency-based education

On Saturday, leaders from Chicago’s Intrinsic Schools and Thomas Edison CTE High School in New York facilitated a session explaining how they teamed up with LRNG to create digital badging platforms at their respective campuses. Badging was a significant step for the schools in building competency-based systems. Students earn badges as they demonstrate competencies. At Edison, for example, the school leadership determined the competencies through discussions with industry leaders so that students would be on a career-ready path. Then a team of students and teachers collaborated to figure out the multiple ways that students could earn the badges. A LRNG designer then worked alongside high school students to design a platform that fit their needs. Inclusive and meaningful collaboration was key to this process. But this session’s biggest takeaway was that instructional redesign must be done with a lens of equity and access at front of mind.

  1. Use blended learning to help bring out the best in students

Another standout session at the Saturday Symposium was a 3rd-grade blended classroom simulation, hosted by teacher Robin Ryan and her students from Lincoln Central Elementary School in Rhode Island. Participants walked around the room and engaged with learners as they worked through a Station Rotation. It was clear that the students were leaders—essentially running the classroom and collaborating well with peers. They demonstrated how they owned learning and were excited to talk about math and their learning paths. It was a great demonstration of the daily impact that this messy work can make.  

Have your own hard-earned lessons to share with fellow educators? Share them in a BLU profile of your classroom, school or district. 

One Response to “BPLC19: 5 hard-earned lessons from the messy, rewarding work of blended learning”


April 25, 2019 at 6:47 pm, Robin Ryan said:

My class and I were truly honored to be included in this amazing conference.
It was such a memorable experience. We met lots of terrific educators.

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