Is your school ready for blended? Tech alone won’t tell.

March 27, 2018 | by Elizabeth Anthony

School hallway 800 x 400It’s that time of year…the time when school, district, and/or network leaders make decisions about the major changes that will take place in their schools this fall. This is often a time when “blended learning” enters conversation, filled with a myriad of promises: to improve the school’s finances, boost student achievement, and cultivate 21st-century learners (whatever that means). And perhaps unsurprisingly, the first question leaders almost always jump to is that of technology: does the school have adequate devices, both in number and function, and infrastructure, such as modems and routers, to support a blended-learning program?

The question of a school’s technical, technological readiness is certainly an important one as sound resources underscore any successful blended-learning program. Yet, it should not be the first question a leader asks to assess a school’s readiness for a blended-learning program, as there are more critical factors in a school’s readiness. In Blended, for example, Michael Horn and Heather Staker recommend technology considerations be made in step five of a nine-step process to designing a blended-learning program.

Gauging readiness to go blended

As I recently explained, there are two factors that we at the Alliance for Catholic Education consider to be far more important to a school’s ability to be successful with blended learning than technology: the cultural and instructional practices currently in place and the leadership’s capacity to enact change. Our primary focus on school culture and instruction springs from our fundamental belief that blended learning amplifies many of the existing characteristics of a classroom or school. Arm a solid teacher in a sound school environment with the right resources, and blended learning can support that teacher to have a transformational impact on his or her students.Throw some technology into a classroom with poor instruction or an unstable environment, however, and it will likely only amplify those challenges.

Therefore, when selecting a school for our blended-learning implementation program we look for indications of a strong school culture and high-quality instruction. A few examples of items atop our list are high expectations for and from teachers and students, a common framework for effective instruction, and implementation of data-informed instructional practices. These indicate that the school is prepared to successfully take critical steps toward success, like motivating students, elevating teaching, and creating the culture (see more about these in the Blended Learning Universe’s design steps).

Our focus then naturally shifts to the person or people who will be leading the school through these critical steps. We believe that school leaders drive student success, and they will drive the success of a blended-learning program as well.

The markers of an effective blended leader

I could write a whole series of posts about the characteristics of great blended-learning leaders, but here’s the bottom line: the mindsets and qualities required for leaders of successful blended-learning initiatives are largely the same as those required for any leaders of bold, broad-scale change.

For example, we pay close attention to the school leaders and their ability (or lack thereof) to successfully implement and manage changes in their schools. We search for evidence that leaders are able to motivate and support their faculty through day-to-day challenges to indicate that they will be able to do the same with a far more significant transition of culture and instruction. Perhaps counterintuitively, we want leaders who can call out problems in their schools. This demonstrates that they are proactive in identifying areas for improvement. And finally, leaders should be able to articulate how blended learning will be part of the solution to the problem they identified. When a leader clearly outlines a problem to solve or a goal to achieve, as well as how blended learning will help to solve this problem or achieve this goal, we know that the school has already taken the most fundamental step towards implementing a successful blended-learning program.

If a school satisfies these two primary selection criteria, only then is it time to consider whether or not the school has the appropriate technology and infrastructure to implement blended learning; and here’s why: it is far easier to help a school buy technology or write a grant for upgrades than it is to change the school’s culture or implement an instructional framework. If you are considering which schools from your district or network should go blended, don’t fall into the trap of choosing the schools with the most technology. Focus instead on these criteria, and you will be far more likely to see success.

To learn directly from schools in the Notre Dame ACE Academies network who have started implementing blended learning, check out their BLU profiles. Consider sharing your school’s journey in the BLU Directory, too!

Our guest blogger Elizabeth Anthony leads blended-learning implementations in K–12 Catholic schools as the blended-learning coordinator for the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE).

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