Before and After: The Journey To Blended Learning
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there were departments full of teachers fighting over laptop carts. Some departments would steal the carts from another department, squirreling them away in secret locations known only to a select few. Others would “forget” to return the carts where they belonged, resulting in an hours’-long quest to find them. The cruelest of the bunch were the secret saboteurs, the teachers who took a perverse joy in failing to have their students connect the laptops to the chargers when they were finished using them, watching with glee as the next teacher joyfully rolled the devices to their classroom only to discover a cart full of digital paperweights which rendered their carefully drafted lesson plans useless. The battle of the carts was a yearly event that reached its climax in the third and fourth quarters when everyone was knee-deep in their research unit at the same time. Tempers flared. Feuds formed. Blended learning, if anyone knew what that was, was a strategic impossibility. There weren’t enough devices for individual departments, let alone individual students.
My how times have changed. COVID revealed how absolutely vital student devices are to continuity of learning and schools all across the country quickly found the money to make sure as many students as possible had one of their own. Goodbye battle-of-the-laptop-carts, hello one-to-one devices.
And hello blended learning.
What is Blended Learning?
As the name suggests, blended learning is instruction designed to blend live and digital approaches to learning. Technology, the argument goes, is not simply a tool for learning to rely upon solely in emergencies, as so many of us did during COVID, but a powerful resource that should be used as part of regular instruction to improve learning outcomes for everyone.
Blending Learning is Not . . .
Blended Learning Is . . .
In a blended classroom, students receive live instruction as usual. This may involve mini-lessons on a new skill or concept, small-group tasks and discussions, station activities; the usual approaches to learning with which you are already comfortable. Where blended learning is different, however, is that you incorporate digital tools and resources on a regular basis to support learning.
Examples of Blended Learning Techniques in Practice
- Recorded Slide Decks When you create a slide deck to support your lesson, you upload that slide deck to your school’s LMS, being sure to record the slide deck in advance so students who are absent or in need of review can access not only the static slides, but the important commentary that helps them understand that content. Depending on the length of your slide deck, this may add about 10-20 minutes of work to your planning one time but, if you use a platform like Microsoft PowerPoint to record your slides, you can swap out or rearrange slides very easily in upcoming years, only needing to record any new content you add. This will save you time for content you reuse each year. Most importantly, however, recording your voice over the slides ensures that all students are able to benefit from your instruction, even if they were absent from class on the day you delivered it. (Note: Accessibility matters: be sure to add captions to your recorded slide deck before uploading)
- Digital Bulletin Boards You know the fifty pounds of sticky notes you purchase each year? The ones that some industrious students turn into sharp little arrows which they launch into the ceiling tiles? Well kiss them goodbye because their days are numbered. With digital bulletin boards like Padlet, students can engage in the same sticky-note style activities they always have, but they can do so in a way that a) doesn’t cost money, b) doesn’t waste paper, c) doesn’t disappear after the lesson concludes, or d) doesn’t end up permanently stuck to the ceilings. Just about any activity you can conduct with sticky notes can be conducted using Padlet and you can save their work as a pdf (to prevent the more mischievous of your students from adding inappropriate notes after the lesson ends) and upload it to your LMS. This way, you and your students can return to the activity at any point in the future to support their learning.
- Collaborative Learning Documents Swap out poster-paper activities by creating collaborative learning documents which are posted to your LMS. Whether students work alone or in groups, they click on the digital document and complete their work electronically. Make sure you have editing rights to the documents they are working in so you can drop feedback comments directly into the document—comments which, importantly, will live on long beyond the lesson, allowing students to return to your feedback at a later date to deepen their learning. And yes, of course you still also circulate around the room to observe their work, answer questions, and provide live feedback.
- Supplemental Resources I often find that I want to cover more content than I have time to cover, forcing me to make difficult choices about what to share with students. What better way to teach poetry, and the creative process, for example, than to have students listen to an interview with a poet as they discuss their work? But, alas, by the time students complete a reading, analysis, and discussion of the poem, there usually isn’t time for these types of enrichment activities. Posting these extra materials to the LMS system, however, and encouraging interested students to view them (or, if you want to ensure they don’t miss out on these opportunities, requiring them to watch and respond to x number of author interviews as part of their learning) is a great way to include those supplemental goodies that often get passed over in the crush to cover content quickly. And speaking of supplemental resources, did you know we offer a collection of FREE educator resources like lesson plans and activities? Yup. All you need to do is enroll in Hidden Gems (for free), and you'll get access to a growing catalog of free teacher resources.
- Options for Accessing Content You don’t have to limit outside resources to supplemental work, either. Harnessing the power of your school’s LMS can be a great way to support a range of learning styles. Increasingly, I’ve moved away from lengthier introductions to new content, condensing my whole-class lessons as much as possible into smaller chunks of learning which I supplement by including a range of “learn more” options straight in the LMS system. The content that I know most students will struggle with is taught to the whole class, but students then have time (about 10-15 minutes) to complete additional learning where they can access more information about the topic. I provide this information in a variety of formats, allowing them to select the best format for their learning style. When I was introducing my students to a technique known as affinity-mapping, for example, I posted an article, a blog, and a video about what affinity maps are and how to use them and allowed students to choose which format they accessed the information in. This meant that visual learners were able to see examples by clicking on the video option while those who learn best while reading information slowly were able to take their time, digesting the content in the written blogs and articles. While students accessed this material, I circulated around the room making myself available for any questions that came up.
- Posting Learning Journeys Complete with Daily Itineraries Imagine that you’re a student who has an unexpected family emergency come up. With no notice, you find yourself out of school for a week—or longer! You know that each day you miss class, you fall further and further behind. You want to make sure you can stay on top of your learning, but your teacher is busy and doesn’t always answer emails as quickly as you’d like. Fortunately, your teacher has embraced blended learning, and they are careful to post the entire learning journey your class will be traveling on to the school’s LMS. At a click of a button, you can see the itinerary for each day you are absent. Here you find the pre-recorded slide decks, step-by-step instructions on the tasks the class completed, and links to content-based and supplemental materials. You can click on links to the digital documents where you can see your classmates’ work and where you can upload your own for evaluation and feedback. You can do everything you would have missed in class, but you can do it at a time that works for your suddenly chaotic schedule. When you return to school, you are all caught up, alleviating any stress your prolonged absence may have caused. By posting the learning journeys to your LMS page, this can become a reality for your students, ensuring that all students have access to the same high-quality instruction regardless of whether they access that information synchronously or asynchronously.
Just as employees are increasingly given the flexibility they need to work from the office or from home, students should be offered instructional support that allows them to succeed even when they need to be away from the classroom. Blended learning makes supporting all learners easy.