First Person

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.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.