Answers to Your Blended Learning Questions
Teachers had a lot of questions about an Edutopia video featuring a blended learning model developed in a public high school, and the team behind that model has answers.
The teaching practices that create blended learning can replace lecture-based, one-size-fits-all teaching with student-centered, technology-enhanced instruction that allows students to learn at their own pace, mastering content and skills as they go. When Edutopia visited Eastern Senior High School in Washington, DC, to film teachers who are implementing a model of blended learning, our audience had a lot of positive things to say about what they saw in the video.
They also had a lot of questions about how to implement this model in their own classrooms and schools. As cofounders of the nonprofit Modern Classrooms Project, whose work forms the basis of the teaching practices featured in the video, we have answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.
Blended Learning FAQs
1. What exactly is your instructional model? Our model has three components. First, using blended instruction, teachers replace their lectures with self-made instructional videos. This frees up teachers’ class time to work directly with students by eliminating the lecture bottleneck, which makes possible the second component of the model: self-paced structures that empower students to learn at their own pace within each unit of study, either individually or in collaboration with peers. Finally, our teachers use mastery-based assessment to ensure that all students are truly understanding the content and skills they need to be successful.
2. How do you create the videos? There are many ways to create good instructional screencast videos. We use a tablet and a stylus, which makes it easy to write directly on the screen, and to put the videos online for students to access using any learning management system. With tablets, we’ve found Explain Everything to be the most useful tool.
If you don’t have access to a tablet with a stylus, you can use a desktop or laptop computer. Screencasting programs such as Screencast-O-Matic provide similar functionality to Explain Everything.
For more details on the specific devices and programs we use, check out our Blended Instruction Guide.
3. What happens if students don’t have devices at home? We don’t require students to access the digital content at home because it would only exacerbate inequities. Instead, we make sure to provide time for students to watch the videos during class, using school devices. These videos are very easy to watch on a cell phone, however, and many students choose to do that. We also provide time during non-instructional hours for students to use the devices in the classroom to catch up if they fall behind.
4. How much time does it take for students to adjust to this system? The kids adjust to the model in a few weeks. The beginning is key: We usually build short units to start, so students learn the model and get frequent checkpoints and fresh starts. We also encourage teachers to keep their instructional videos short and to constantly engage students in metacognitive activities to help foster their sense of self-direction. We encourage teachers to create an introductory video—like this one for a course on probability and statistics—that walks students through the new system.
5. What about students who fall behind? We only self-pace within each unit. This ensures that students get regular fresh starts and allows them to reflect often on their behaviors and mindsets. We identify “must do,” “should do,” and “aspire to do” lessons in each unit, to ensure that every student masters the core skills while identifying extra opportunities for motivated students to extend their learning.
Maintaining unit-end deadlines—by which time all “must do” lessons must be completed—helps motivate students, limits procrastination, and creates a healthy space for reflection at the end of each unit. Prior to the start of the next unit, students engage in metacognitive exercises where they identify the habits of mind they will improve on in the next unit. Very rarely does a student not master all the “must dos.” If that happens, a more rigorous intervention, like an after-school tutoring plan, would be the next step.
Students can go back and master “should do” and “aspire to do” skills from previous units on their own time, but we would much prefer that students fully master the most essential seven skills in a unit than that they partially understand 10.
6. How do you support students who move at a significantly quicker pace? Having meaningful extensions for high-flyers is essential. We plan at least one “aspire to do” lesson in each unit—generally stand-alone projects or college preparatory activities (such as Khan Academy’s SAT prep) that can really engage faster learners—and provide lots of room for continued improvement through revision of unit-end assessments, which high-flyers may complete early. If students finish those projects or activities, we usually ask them to serve as teacher assistants for the unit, which is an opportunity that they generally love.
7. How do you address students with special needs or learning deficiencies? The accommodations and modifications are similar to the ones used in a traditional teaching model, to ensure that everyone masters the “must do” core skills. Because they’re no longer lecturing, teachers have much more time to support struggling students, and students get the time they need (in or out of class) to truly master each skill.
8. How do you manage students who are unmotivated or off-task? We motivate them—we use the time that we once spent lecturing to really get to know our students, building relationships that help us push each student toward his or her potential. We provide students with regular progress updates, so they know exactly what they need to do each day, and at the end of each unit we challenge them to reflect on what they can do better in the future. Once students understand that they’re responsible for their own learning, they usually find the motivation they need.
9. How do you calculate grades? Our teachers calculate grades in two ways. For each skill that students learn in the course of a unit, we use a binary scale: Students get credit if they’ve mastered that skill, and no credit if they haven’t. In our model, students can revise and reassess a skill until they achieve mastery, which improves their grade as well. This reinforces the importance of actually mastering content, rather than simply completing assignments without achieving true understanding.
End-of-unit assessments like tests or projects, on the other hand, are graded in a more traditional, performance-based way.
In general, this system fits nicely with a traditional gradebook and A–F system. At the end of the quarter, if a student masters 80 percent of the content, they receive a B- on a traditional grading scale. The grade reflects how much the student truly understands.
10. What does this look like in a language or science class? The beauty of our model is that it’s flexible—each teacher sets up the system based on his or her content area, grade level, and expertise, so the model looks different depending on the class.
We have seen, in general, that language teachers like to use frequent whole-class discussions in their courses, while science teachers tend to rely more on videos to prepare students for complex, hands-on activities like labs. We love seeing how different teachers adapt the model differently, and are continuing to learn from them. Our current cohort of educators are spread across middle and high schools and include all core content areas as well as electives.
11. What does this look like in the elementary grades? We haven’t tried it there yet—our youngest students are in sixth grade. However, we don’t think the model needs to change much for elementary school, so long as instructional videos are short enough to keep kids’ focus and to limit their screen time, and so long as the self-pacing windows don’t allow students to get too far off-track. The younger the kids, the more frequent the checkpoints.
If you’re interested in learning more about the work of The Modern Classrooms Project, visit our website or check out our free online PD course. You can also email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit an inquiry through our website.