Reflecting On A Year Of Blended Learning

Some of the city’s “turnaround” schools, including the one where I work, are listing knowledge or willingness to learn about using a blended learning instructional models as a criterion for hiring teachers.

That’s because we are participating in the iLearn NYC program, a Department of Education initiative to support blended learning throughout the city. The initiative gives schools access to online content from various providers at a reduced cost; a learning management system to host online courses; and professional development, technical support, and training.

The term “blended learning” caused a great deal of head-scratching among some staff members in my school as I’m sure it did in other turnaround schools. As the iLearn coordinator for my school, I offered answers to any questions teachers might have and there were many. Some people dismissed blending learning, regarding it as having little educational value, while others expressed fear that the model threatens the teaching profession. Many other teachers were interested to know more. I thought it worthwhile to share my experience and perspective on blended learning for others who might have similar concerns and questions.

Blended learning, simply defined as a combination of face to face and online instruction, is a pedagogical model that is often and easily misunderstood. It can mean many different things to different educators and usually it means nothing at all to most.  Though it is a term creeping into the ever-expanding teacher lexicon, it remains meaningless to many because it is a pedagogical strategy that is not yet widely in use. When teachers do know what blending learning is, they can easily misunderstand it because it can take many different forms and have many different uses.

When I have answered my colleagues’ questions, I have told them exactly what I know: that blended learning that is not managed ethically can be damaging, but that strong teachers can use blended learning to help all students in new ways.

Like many instructional strategies, blended learning is a tool that teachers were using before there was a name for it. Through class websites and blogs or use of existing web resources, teachers have been supplementing their instruction with online learning since Al Gore invented the Internet. Over the last decade the options have grown tremendously, and some schools are now offering fully online courses with teachers as coaches.

The growth of blended learning has alarmed many teachers who fear it and see it as a strategy of replacing teachers with computers to reduce costs. They have a right to be suspicious. Some schools have indeed used technology to reduce staff and cut expenses. Some teachers simply see blended learning as diminishing the profession by shifting so much of the instructional burden to an online program. As a result, the iLearn NYC initiative has been met at my school with as much suspicion as it has found welcome from educators eager to tap into its potential.

In New York City, blended learning is even more controversial because of its frequent association with credit recovery, the practice in which students are permitted to complete alternate assignments to earn credits for classes that they previously failed. Often, credit recovery involves “targeted” online learning. Credit recovery has received much criticism, and the city recently announced that it would tighten requirements for participation and awarding credit as well as limit the online vendors whose courses could lead to recovered credits.

The concerns that teachers have about the shift in teacher roles in a blended learning environment are reasonable, and criticism of poorly managed credit recovery programs with lax standards is justified. But after a couple of years of experience in different blended learning settings, I believe that fears about a long-run strategy of using computers to replace teachers in New York City are unfounded. Instead, I have learned above all else that a computer program alone can’t teach a child, but that with a quality teacher blended learning can be an effective option for any student.

I coordinated my school’s blended-learning credit recovery program starting in the summer of 2010, and I was surprised by how lax the state and city regulations were at the time and the freehanded approach to its implementation at the school level. The pressure to raise graduation rates, the availability of the technology, and the lax regulations was a recipe for abuse. But I learned that blended-learning credit recovery can be a great option for schools and students when it is managed ethically, is devised in the best educational interest of the student, and offers quality teacher-student interaction. The scheduling flexibility it allows, the quality of the content that can be delivered, the ability to individualize courses, the degree of student access, and the capacity to closely monitor the progress and activity of the students are all undeniable benefits. The key to quality in this type of blended learning program is the same key to quality in any educational program; ethical and responsible leadership. Recently city policy has changed, limiting the number of credits students can earn through online recovery and requiring more focused methods for targeting student deficiencies. I hope better policy will contribute to better and more meaningful instruction.

Being involved in a credit recovery program got me interested in using the benefits of an online program in my regular classes. This year I taught students with disabilities in a self-contained global history class using the iLearn NYC platform. The iLearn platform is a learning management system (similar to Blackboard and other sites that manage educational content for schools and teachers) where teachers can pull content and assignments from vendors or host their own content. In teaching my class this way I wanted to reap the benefits of blended learning that I saw in credit recovery. I wanted students to be able to self-pace and move through a course based on their mastery of material rather than my pacing schedule. I also wanted to able to organize and manage assessment data better and develop my students’ digital literacy skills. Finally, I also wanted to take advantage of the support that multimedia instruction could provide to my students who had various learning and speech and language disabilities and executive functioning deficits such as attention deficit disorder.

There were many challenges at the start. Aside from the initial logistical and behavioral issues blended learning presented, I grappled with the central issue of content and course quality. I tried to use content provided by a vendor company and the vocabulary and task complexity was just too difficult for many of my students. To solve this problem I began to develop my own video content, audio-supported readings and learning activities, and assessments and delivered them through the iLearn platform. While most teachers are not building their own courses, many are adding their own supplemental material to vendor content, and I have found that the training and support is there to do so. The professional development in iLearn was excellent and the support is unheard of in the Department of Education: There is a round-the-clock support line whose operators I think came to know me by my first name by November.

The platform itself is an incredible tool with many different features that can change instruction and the classroom routine. It allows me to release specific content and assessments to students based on any number of conditions that I set: learning profile, reading comprehension level, writing ability, prior knowledge, assessment score, personal choice, task completion — the list goes on. It allows me to host and moderate asynchronous discussions and lets students to submit written assignments in a drop box to which I can provide feedback quickly and easily. I can offer assessments directly linked to my grade book, let students see their grade and progress in real time, give students access to content and assignments 24 hours a day, and much more.

In one lesson on World War 1, for example, I gave students the option of choosing which aspect of warfare they wanted to study; released the chosen content at the click of their mouse; directed them to an online, asynchronous discussion to share and learn from others; directed them to an auto-graded assessment with instant feedback; and then released differentiated homework assignments based on assessment scores. Each component of the lesson is released as the others are completed. It took some work for me to front-load all of the content, assessments, and release conditions, but doing so allowed students to move through the lesson and assessment and participate in the discussion at their own pace, moving seamlessly from one activity to the next with no confusion.

I found that the long-term advantages for my students far outweighed the early struggles. Students quickly learned to treat the equipment respectfully (in most cases), took to the routine, and stayed engaged in their work with little or no distractions throughout each class period. I was able to easily see who struggled with the content and spend significant time with them while other students worked at a faster pace. Managing the different paces was a challenge but also an opportunity to give the stronger students mini-projects while the other students continued in a unit.

Another challenge inherent in this instructional model was providing students with meaningful opportunities for social interaction, because much of the class time is spent with students working individually at their computers. In addition to incorporating more collaborative activities in class, I used the discussion room in the iLearn platform to do community-building exercises and host discussions on current events and class topics. I found it was a format for interaction that these students were comfortable with because they regularly use social media and it gave me the opportunity to teach proper “netiquette” alongside the content and other skills.

The benefits of using the iLearn platform in my blended-learning classes were numerous and varied. The multimedia content and one-to-one delivery supported my students’ needs in many ways and kept them fully engaged in their work throughout class and outside of school. The 24-hour, remote access to content and assignments extended the time of my class and kept some chronically absent students from failing. Overall, all of my students benefited from learning to navigate their own way through the course at their own pace while developing the skills required to learn and participate in this new environment.

And most importantly, the platform helped me be a better teacher. In fact, I had the most satisfying year of my seven years teaching. I think my students did well on last week’s global history Regents exam, but regardless of test scores, my students clearly demonstrated tremendous academic progress and developed important new digital skills.

I learned that teachers need not be fearful and or dismissive of blended learning. Pedagogical models come and go, and it’s a little clichéd to say it at this point, but after my experience, I really think this model has the potential to change the way we teach and learn. I was once a skeptic myself and I have been made a believer.

Sam McElroy is a special education teacher and a coach at a large high school in Queens, where he coordinates the iLearn NYC program.

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