In my work with Discovery Education, I help schools across the country create modern digital learning environments. Therefore, I often have the opportunity to sit with school administrators at all levels and hear first-hand their thoughts on education. In these conversations, one topic that has regularly come up over the last few weeks is the relationship between blended learning environments and engaging, relevant learning experiences.
A number of the school leaders I’ve recently talked to have indicated that blended learning environments are helping them meet the challenge of delivering relevant and engaging learning experiences to all students that can help spark their natural curiosity. They report that blended learning environments increase student interest in instruction and that they improve focus through constant interaction with resources. Also, they say that blended learning environments encourage more creative thinking as the increased feeling of student ownership of their learning encourages exploration and deeper research. Finally, and perhaps most notably, school leaders who’ve spoken with me shared that they believe the blended learning environments they are creating are promoting the development of students’ real-world skills, such as self-learning, research skills, digital literacy, creativity, and self-management.
While the administrators I’ve talked with provided many different reasons why blended learning was a powerful tool in their effort to provide students relevant and engaging learning opportunities, they all agreed that getting started is, well, hard. Here are five tips for starting a blended learning program I picked up in my interactions with school leaders:
Tip 1: Establish a Blended Learning Leadership Team
This team should be a cross-functional group of stakeholders consisting of students, teachers, building-level administrators, and curriculum leaders. This team should begin by assessing what is needed in terms of infrastructure, digital content, and a learning management system through which students and teachers will interact. They will set the vision for what blended learning should look like throughout the district and advise the district on the resources are needed to achieve that desired vision. This group will also take the pulse of teacher readiness and advise the district leaders on the professional development necessary to successfully implement a blended learning initiative across their schools.
Tip 2: Think Big, but Start Small
Think big. Commit to the shift by including blended learning in every curricular decision the district makes. As curricular decisions are made, ask “How does this support our blended learning initiative?”. Teachers need to see that blended learning will be core to every decision made by the district rather than just another thing.
Then, start small. Begin with a handful of teachers at each school across different curricular areas that are interested in making the shift. Provide them with the resources, professional development, and digital content necessary for success. This pilot team will work through infrastructure concerns on a small scale and provide model classrooms other district teachers can visit to learn about this shift. Nothing is more powerful for teachers than to see a peer demonstrating the desired outcomes with the same resources and student population.
Tip 3: Understand that Professional Development is Key to Success, and Plan Accordingly
As important as the infrastructure and digital content are to success in creating blended learning environments, professional development is critical to the sustainability of a blended learning initiative. Effective professional development ensures a shared definition of blended learning, defines achievable expectations for teachers and students, connects content and lessons to standards, establishes best practices, and helps teachers see how to effectively utilize data to better meet student needs. Through effective professional development, teachers will develop a support structure that grows their capacity to deliver instruction in the blended learning environment. This professional development must be continual and differentiated for teachers in the same way that teachers provide instruction that is continual and differentiated for students. Teachers also need to know that failure is part of the process and that they will be supported as they make adjustments to their practice.
Tip 4: Establish Easy to Use Content Scenarios
If districts utilize learning management systems and digital content that not only work well together, but are also easy to use for both teachers and students, they have removed the first obstacle to success. The last thing a teacher or student needs is a complicated system of resources that don’t work well together or provides more frustration than benefits.
In addition, flexible digital content empowers teachers to fit digital resources easily into their style of teaching, enhancing their lessons rather than having to start from scratch with new lessons. For example, with the right digital content, a teacher-directed lesson on how to solve a rote math problem could be replaced with a video that introduces the content to students as homework. With some background knowledge from the video, students then come to class where they are assigned a real-world sample problem to solve collaboratively. Once the students have had adequate time working through the problem, they can share out their different solutions and discuss pros and cons to each solution. Students are then given five to ten independent practice problems as checks for understanding. This approach not only allows real-world problems to enter the math classroom, but also teaches students to approach problems from a conceptual standpoint rather than just a process-oriented one.
Tip 5: Trust the Process
District leaders, school boards, and the public often want to see quick returns on new initiatives. This is natural. But patience is the key, and your educators, much like fans of the Philadelphia 76ers, must be encouraged to Trust the Process. While it is imperative to set goals, those goals need to be realistic and attainable at the teacher, school, and district level. It is equally important for districts to check on their progress throughout the year. My experience is that when districts introduce something as transformational as blended learning at the beginning of the year, sometimes the monitoring of those initiatives is overwhelmed by back-to-school activities. This, unfortunately, can leave school leaders with little insight to the progress of these initiatives, and little ability to adjust professional development, content or technology to meet teacher or student needs.
These are just a few of the tips I’ve picked up in my conversations with school leaders about how to begin a blended learning initiative. What are your tips and suggestions? Please leave them in the comments section below.
Discovery Education’s Brad Fountain is a passionate educator with over 20 years of educational experience. He began his career teaching in a 3-5 multi-age classroom in rural North Carolina where he utilized some of the earliest educational internet-based web resources. He launched one of the first technology based professional learning programs in North Carolina in the early 2000's and served as administrator of the North Carolina Model School of Technology. After joining Discovery Education, Brad helped launch the Discovery Educator Network and supported the development of Discovery Education's Techbook services. You can reach Brad at firstname.lastname@example.org.