Creating the Foundations for a Blended Environment

Creating the Foundations for a Blended Environment

So much has been written about blended learning and educational innovation over the past year. I am encouraged that the conversations are starting and innovative models are beginning to emerge throughout the country. My concern as these initiatives hit the mainstream is that educators are desperately trying to fit these new models and strategies into the old ones. In particular, I have witnessed a move to ask teachers to author online instructional programs. I have been a part of several conversations in which leaders excitedly share that their teachers will be writing instructional programs and this will eliminate the need for textbooks. Sound like a great idea, empower the classroom instructor while saving thousands (if not millions) in the process. The problem is: it will not work.


The reason I make this bold statement is simple. The majority of teachers did not choose their profession with hope of authoring instructional programs. They choose teaching in order to help children learn. You may be wondering if there is a difference between the two. I believe there is a very big difference. Teachers are and should be the designers of instructional paths for each student. Each path is designed by considering the curriculum, assessment and instructional tools available.


In the traditional model, we do not ask teachers to author textbooks or instructional programs. The creation of these tools is time and labor intensive. Whether you like the traditional textbook or not, companies pour millions of dollars into the creation, fact checking and design of these materials, school districts do not have the expertise and resources to complete this level of development. The great hope of educational innovation is to free teacher time to focus on the needs of each student. In direct contrast, if teachers are expected to design the learning tools the focus has shifted from the individual student to the materials.


The beauty of the internet based instructional tools is that they are designed to meet a variety of learning styles. Software companies are spending millions of dollars creating animations, educational games, simulations, videos and other instructional tools aligned to standards and assessments. These tools are flexible and can be used in a variety of ways, including replacing the traditional textbook. With these programs available, why on earth would we ask teachers to author instructional programs?


Money—the lack of it—is often the answer. Districts may argue they cannot afford these expensive instructional programs. This is an issue throughout the country. The question is: what can we stop doing in order to direct funds to more innovative instructional tools? Are you still purchasing textbooks? Are you purchasing the same software programs year after year? Are they effective? How are grant funds being used? Are these programs reaching as many students as they can? Before you begin creating your own resources consider the real cost of investing teacher time and energy.


I am not advocating the purchase of any single program. Instead I am urging districts to examine what is out there. It is also essential to look around you and find out what are the other districts in your area are doing. There is power (and value) in numbers. Can you create or access a consortium in order to get the best prices possible? As you begin to consider this possibility let’s examine exactly what you should be looking for in a blended learning tool.


Foundations for Learning

Curriculum, assessment and instruction are the foundations for any educational program. Curriculum, usually defined by state or national standards, identifies the content or “what” students need to learn. Assessment, both formative and summative, provides the information on individual student needs and helps us continually answer the question, “are the students learning?”  Finally, instruction is the art of teaching. Considering the curriculum and the assessment results answer “how” will the students learn. Instruction is the design of a learning path for each student.


Integrated Learning System

The integrated learning system is an internet-based instructional program (or combination of programs) designed to support individualized learning. It includes stand alone assessments and lessons that are prescribed for students based on their performance. This element can replace the traditional textbook. I believe this is the building block that we are leaving out when we try to author instructional programs. There are high quality and low cost options that can support the three foundations for learning. This may be one solution or many and will depend on many factors including, student needs, subject, and the specific district.


First, an integrated learning system should be directly aligned to state and national standards. Clear integration should be evident in the supporting literature and demonstrated in the tools and lessons included in the system. The second key piece to the integrated learning system is assessment. The system should include formative and summative assessments that link directly back to the curriculum. The information provided by these assessments should provide essential information about student learning needs by exactly defining the skills that have been mastered and those that are lacking. I contend that at this level these should be able to stand-alone. In other words, the student will take these assessments prior to learning and when each individual has demonstrated mastery of the concepts. The student should not have to wait for a teacher to administer the assessment. Before you become enraged and get the wrong idea; I am not suggesting the integrated learning system could replace the teacher, as this is just a tool or resource. As you will see later, I believe the teacher is the most essential element of the blended learning environment.


The final piece of the integrated learning system is “off the shelf” lessons. Similar to assessments these should be able to be used on their own as a learning program. Students must be able to progress at their own pace. The lessons should be completely flexible in that, although the program could stand alone, the teacher can select the lessons most appropriate for each student. The integrated instructional system must also include the option for teachers to add or enhance lessons; this will be essential for the final building block. It is also important for the integrated learning system to include a data warehouse that includes all of the previous student data. The date warehouse places all previous student results at the teacher’s fingertips, enabling them to make more informed instructional decisions as they design the learning path for each student.


The Art of Teaching

This level of the blended building blocks is where real learning occurs. The teacher armed with the information from the previous two building blocks designs individualized learning experiences. Beginning with curriculum, the teacher considers a gap and needs analysis. This is a another way of saying; he or she examines the previous standards and assessments and determines what content each student needs to learn. In terms of assessment, the teacher also creates a variety of learning demonstrations that go beyond the integrated learning system and focus on individual needs. Finally, the teacher develops lessons and activities designed to enhance and personalize the learning path. This is where the teacher should be spending his or her time and energy.


A peek into a blended classroom…

The integrated learning system enables students to work at their own pace while the teacher is constantly monitoring and intervening to provide learning experiences. It might help to consider a sample classroom.


In Miss Potter’s 6th grade math class, the students have just finished their online pre-assessment that is included in the integrated learning system. As she analyzes the results student begin working on lessons included in the system selected for them based on their performance. She discovers that the students fall into roughly four groups.


-Sam needs intensive intervention and is missing key concepts from his prior learning

-A group of four is missing a couple of prior learning concepts

-A group of 15 is prepared to begin the grade level geometry concepts

-A group of six students have mastered the majority of the concepts and need learning extensions


Miss Potter designs learning activities, and math labs for each group. While one group is working with her, other students continue to work on the identified lessons they each need to master.  She spends quite a bit of time working one-on-one with Sam on the concepts he needs, yet he is also included in some of the math lab activities. At times, Miss Potter stops the entire class to demonstrate a specific concept or misunderstanding. Formative assessment takes place throughout the learning experience both in the integrated learning system and through teacher designed assessments and demonstrations of learning.


The Bottom Line

The teacher is currently and will continue to be the most essential aspect of the learning experience. The focus for integrating innovation should enable the teacher to utilize all of his or her knowledge and tools to design an individualized learning experience for each student. By implementing an integrated learning system in place of the traditional textbook (or instructional program) the teacher is empowered to pinpoint individual needs and select or create appropriate materials. I urge you to consider this model instead of asking teachers to author instructional programs.


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