Creating Successful Blended Learning Classrooms

By Bill Tolley, Education Week, 10/8/14

For some educators, blended learning—combining face-to-face instruction with online work—is turbulence in their flight path. Peter West recently addressed the challenges that experienced educators face when considering a blended model. When teachers embrace blended-learning, they have to relinquish authority over content and time—the comfort of cruise control—in exchange for an asynchronous, individualized, and messy process.

But the sacrifices are worth the benefits. If teachers want to remain relevant, there’s really no alternative….

What is Blended Learning?

The education technology company Knewton suggests that a blended-learning environment has six different models: face-to-face driver, rotation, flex, online lab, self-blend, and online driver….

The six models are just clay to work with, not pre-set molds. A blended-learning model should never be left out to harden—it’s important to keep the clay malleable and ready to respond to environment, innovation, and student need. I originally developed my blended-learning style through an interest in flipped learning…. (though I never did find time to create my own videos).

If you want to explore blended learning…break your blended-learning model into three essential components: online delivery, student control, and the “brick and mortar” experience. Then choose elements that you are comfortable with—and start tinkering….

Tech-Inclined? Start With Online Delivery

The nexus of any blended-learning course will be an online platform that supports content delivery, administration, and asynchronous learning. The technology of an effective blended-learning environment will be defined far more by its infrastructure than by some “app of the day.”…

Most schools provide…an online-learning environment (or “learning management system”) for grading, attendance, and other administrative aspects. If your school doesn’t provide class space for content delivery and you feel comfortable with blogging, try Edublogs, Google Sites, or WordPress for creating a core class site. All have free versions and extensive support databases….

You can also gently bend toward the blend via online-assessment tools like Juno or Google Forms. These allow you to deliver assessments…asynchronously. They also offer a number of methods to collect and analyze student data. If you’re more daring and want to assess concrete details and data (and abandon some of your summative-style quizzes in favor of memory-building activities), try Memrise. Memrise uses visual aids and memory games to develop long-term memory of key terms and concepts in a fun community atmosphere….

Social Justice Advocate? Start With Student Control

Adopting a blended-learning model doesn’t mean turning over the asylum to the inmates. As Suzie Boss argues, students need to be taught how to work in a messy learning setting….

To ease students into their roles as democratic participants in their own development, provide them with a definition of a social contract with clear expectations. Then work on project content…. Students…will buy in to a process that they co-create and co-own with you.

UDL or PBL Guru? Start With Brick and Mortar

[A colleague] who was preparing to teach a literature class…asked me, “What percentage of the time should I be talking, and what percentage should they be talking?” I replied, “Ideally, you should both be speaking 100% of the time.”…

Imagine a classroom in which students are broken up into four groups. One group…is working on research/homework…. The second group is peer-editing one another’s essays. The third group is at a whiteboard drawing a graphic depicting the change in strategies between [the World Wars]. The final group is seated around a table with the teacher, discussing the unit’s essential questions and devising new ones. Welcome to my 100%-100% classroom.

Brick-and-mortar schooling doesn’t mean what it used to. Teachers no longer need to be sages, gatekeepers, and assembly line leaders. Instead, we can be coaches and tutors who not only guide our students toward content mastery but democratic community building…. Students will need training for this kind of group work. The Peeragogy Project and the Mazur-based peer-instruction blog Turn To Your Neighbor have resources….

A successful foray into blended learning resembles blended learning itself. The tinkering, messiness, and serendipitous, asynchronous, and engaging learning that you will experience while bending into the blend will mirror that of your students’ learning….

A final suggestion: Capture the learning in your classroom via photo and video. Wherever possible, share your work online…. The blended-learning environment is only suspect as long as it is an unknown equation….

Bill Tolley, a New York Times “Teacher Who Makes a Difference,” teaches history at the International School of Beijing.


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