What happens when you mix technology with classroom instruction, robust data, a desire to keep students engaged and an increasing push to personalize learning? Voilà, blended learning.
It sounds so simple when the instructional model is boiled down to its core components and purpose. Yet as a person who trains educators to use blended learning in the classroom, I can tell you that getting the model right takes instructional expertise, big ideas and determination.
As a blended learning coach, I’ve helped hundreds of teachers become data and technology literate to create engaging blended learning environments that meet the needs of their students. Through these collaborations, I’ve found two things to be true. The first is that blended learning can significantly improve student learning and growth; the second is that these results can only be achieved if effective use and understanding of high-quality data is part of the blended learning model that is implemented.
“3 Ps and a D” for Student-centered Learning
The Christensen Institute defines blended learning as an approach to teaching and learning that leverages online resources to create a personalized learning experience over which students have meaningful control.
Accordingly, I teach my trainees to rely on the “3Ps and a D,” which are the key components of a successful blended learning strategy: Path, Pace, Place and Data. Together, these concepts can transform a classroom.
With this model, students choose their own path, work at their own pace, in their own place, and the teacher becomes a facilitator of learning by using data to ensure optimal student growth by personalizing student support. Effective blended learning teachers understand that the “3 Ps and a D” do not represent a surrendering of all instructional control, but rather function as ways for students to take ownership of their learning under the expert guidance of their teacher. Educators should focus on:
Student-driven learning paths: Students can pursue topics that interest them in formats that are appealing and engaging. A blended learning teacher can provide students different modules to learn objectives covered in class. Some students want to learn from the teacher in small groups, while others learn best watching a teacher made video or a game that teaches a particular skill. By providing choices students can determine how to master their learning targets. For example, while learning about fractions, the teacher can provide students choices of different learning content. The student can learn about fractions while watching a Zaption video, practice working with fractions through online games, work in collaborative groups to create a project that uses fractions and learn from the teacher in a small group setting on how to solve different fractions.
Student-driven learning pace: Students can get a personalized experience, spending more time with challenging material and moving past concepts as they grasp them. For example, if a student masters a concept, the teacher can skip him or her along through the unit. The student will work in the area where he or she needs to learn more about a concept, rather than waste their time on a concept they already understand. If a student struggles with a concept, then the teacher can slow him down and walk him through the sections, re-teaching a concept as needed.
Student-determined place of learning: Students can take advantage of online resources at home, in a library, from a laptop computer and in the classroom where they can make use of the teacher and their peers at school.
And, the data: Teachers take the data from their students’ learning to inform their instruction moving forward to best facilitate their students’ individualized learning paths. For example, a teacher will determine if a student needs to reassess their path based on their data. If a certain path is not supporting his or her learning, the teacher will work with the student to find other paths that better support their needs.
How Blended Learning Can Help Students
Before becoming a blended learning coach, I taught second and fifth grade students. When I first brought blended learning into my classroom in Worthington, Ohio, my students were given the flexibility to move on to more challenging concepts at their own pace. They began grasping material faster than ever before. The result was more than two years worth of academic growth for 100% of my students within the course of a single school year. One student, in particular, came into my classroom reading at a second grade level. By using data from the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment, technology and small group instruction, the student left my classroom reading and writing at a fourth grade level.
Now that I work as a coach with teachers across the country, I have seen other educators achieve extremely promising results with their students from this approach. For example, at Yeshivat Noam, a school in Paramus, New Jersey, students’ reading scores almost doubled after we integrated blended learning strategies into the school day.
Possibilities and results aside, if teachers don’t have access to the right kind of data, blended learning is rarely successful. Numbers mean little if they aren’t collected from high-quality assessments that provide accurate, precise and real-time data about student learning. The MAP assessment, for example, has been extremely useful to me and to many of the educators I work with. It allows teachers to check in on students’ progress in reading and math at key points in the year without taking up more than an hour of classroom time. In a blended learning setting, MAP is particularly useful because it provides very specific information about what each student has already grasped and what they’re ready to learn next—allowing teachers to identify online resources that can best help students grow further.
When we enable students to take more control of their own learning, we need even more information about what’s working and what’s not so that we can effectively facilitate that process.
Tips for Getting Started with Blended Learning
For those teachers looking to get started with blended learning or to enhance the current model they use in their classrooms, I recommend keeping three things in mind:
Start small: Identify natural opportunities to build more flexibility into your curriculum and take advantage of topics that adapt well to online learning.
Develop a framework for rotating learning stations: You’ll want to develop a set of three to four stations for your classroom—and practice using them—where students can experience technology-enhanced learning, hands-on activities and small group and one-on-one instruction with a teacher.
Integrate assessment and data into your instructional process: Blended learning just won’t work without high-quality, precise data about each student’s progress.
Blended learning has the ability to not only improve student growth, but also keep students engaged in their learning. According to Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker of the Christensen Institute, “done right, blended learning breaks through the barriers…It preserves the benefits of the old and provides new benefits—personalization, access and equity, and cost control.”
Like any learning model, it takes time, patience and investment to advance student growth. But what’s most exciting throughout the process is teachers’ practical use of assessment data to connect their students with targeted instructional resources.
In 2014 I worked with an English Language Arts teacher to use data to drive classroom instruction. We created a list of topics for which the students needed extra help and support and grouped the students into ability groups based on the data. Our weekly coaching meetings explored reading data from Achieve 3000, an online program, and we created lists of online and offline activities that targeted student learning needs. By the end of the year, students’ reading scores improved significantly.
Student learning objectives, determined based on data, should guide teachers in their search for effective online resources. Doing so opens their practice to the millions of standards-aligned free resources that are readily available through platforms such as Khan Academy and the RIT to Resource tool designed by NWEA.
Additionally, teachers can save and organize their online resources using management tools such as Symbaloo, PowerMyLearning and BlendSpace. These and other tools make it easier than ever for educators to develop targeted blended content and instruction and to accelerate growth and achievement for each and every student.
By recognizing that blended learning has the power to engage students and help them take ownership of their learning in ways that are not always possible in a traditional classroom, teachers are able to take key steps toward providing instruction that is student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered. The ever-increasing abundance of high-quality, and often free, online resources to which teachers have access has opened instructional gateways that have previously been available only to the very few. Now, by introducing blended learning into their classrooms, all teachers are able to provide differentiated instruction that responds to students’ learning needs and to student interests. This is the very essence of great teaching and learning.