George Lucas Educational Foundation
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There are methods and models for implementing blended learning -- from the flipped classroom, to the flex model. All of them are on the continuum of just how much time is spent online and in the online classroom. Blended Learning can provide a unique way of not only engaging students in collaborative work and projects, but also personalizing and individualizing instruction for students.

However, there is still one piece that is missing from a great blended learning environment: engagement! As an experienced online teacher of both K-12 and higher education students, I am familiar with the challenges of engaging students in virtual work. Luckily, the blended learning model still demands some in-person, brick-and-mortar learning, so there is a unique opportunity to use this structure to engage students.

#1 Leverage Virtual Class Meetings with Collaborative Work

One of the most prominent features of blended learning is the virtual meeting or synchronous class meeting. Sometimes teachers spend the entire class meeting in a virtual meeting room lecturing and presenting content. The irony is that this meeting is often recorded, and available for students to watch later (so students can watch the meeting on their own time). Instead, use the time that you have with the entire class to problem solve together, collaborate on projects, and use virtual break-out rooms for guided practice. If you want students to be engaged in the class meetings, it must be meaningful. Collaborative work can be meaningful when students problem-solve together, plan, and apply their learning in new contexts.

#2 Create the Need to Know

The key here is an engaging model of learning. Teachers can use project learning to create authentic projects where students see the relevance and need to do the work -- whether that work is online in the physical classroom. The same is true for game-based learning. If students are engaged playing a serious game about viruses and bacteria, then teachers can use the game as a hook to learn content online or offline. Through metacognition, and the "need to know" activity, students "buy-in" to the learning -- no matter when and where that learning occurs.

#3 Reflect and Set Goals

Related to the comment on metacognition above, students need to be aware of what they are learning as well as their progress towards meeting standards. Teachers need to build in frequent moments, both as a class and individual, to reflect on the learning, and set S.M.A.R.T. goals. Through these measurable and student-centered goals, students can become agents of learning, rather than passive recipients. Use reflecting and goal-setting both online and offline to create personal connection to the learning and personalized goals.

#4 Differentiate Instruction Through Online Work

In a blended learning classroom, there is often online work that needs to occur. This might be a module on specific content, formative assessments, and the like. However, students may or may not need to do all the work that is in a specific module. In an effort to individualize instruction, use the online work to meet individual students needs. Whether an extension of learning, or work to clarify a misconception, the work that occurs online can be more valuable to students when it is targeted. Students are no longer engaged in uninteresting busy work, but focused, individualized learning.

#5 Use Tools for Mobile Learning

Edutopia recently published the guide, Mobile Devices for Learning. The guide provides a variety of apps and tips, proposing teachers use mobile learning as part of the learning environment. The great thing is that blended learning can partner well with many strategies and apps. If you use the flipped classroom model, for example, apps like the Khan Academy, BrainPop, and YouTube are incredibly useful. Leverage the flexibility of where students can learn, having them learn outside the four classroom walls. Use scavenger hunts, Twitter, and back-channel chats to engage students in a variety of mobile-learning activities to support your blended-learning model.

Successful blended learning educators and schools are focusing on engagement as they work towards student achievement. We have the unique opportunity to not replicate a system that has not served all students. Instead, we need to look at flexible time and place to innovate through blended learning.

This blog is part of a series sponsored by Herff Jones Nystrom.
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Getting Started with Blended Learning

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suwheeler's picture

I agree with the article that the one piece that is vital for great blended learning to take place is engagement. As a teacher of a primary classroom, I am always looking for ways to engage my students. My school is transitioning into a blended learning environment, and finding ways to keep kids focused and engaged is always a challenge, even online. I like the idea of setting goals with students and letting them take more ownership of their learning and meet standards at their own pace. I plan to use a station rotation model in my classroom, which will allow for a lot of face-to-face time with small groups. That to me is the most important part of this model. I also like the idea of collaborative projects. I'm not sure how this might look yet, but I'm excited to start thinking in this direction. But I know high engagement of all my students will always be my goal.

jgregory's picture

I like the concept of kids problem solving together, planning, and applying their leaning to new contexts. This idea seems like the perfect dream of any educator. I still don't know if I understand how to really make that happen. As we begin the blended learning process at our school, I am hopeful that the online work will meet individual needs to extend learning and/or help students clarify misconceptions. I agree that in this technological world we need to look at flexible time and place to innovate through blended learning. I am excited and anxious about our future with blended learning.

Ryan Galloway's picture

Thank you so much for a great article. I enjoyed reading through it and found it very helpful. There was one quote that reminds me that blended learning is not taking the place of teachers but rather a system of people that provide flexible time and place to help students learn at their pace:

"Successful blended learning educators and schools are focusing on engagement as they work towards student achievement. We have the unique opportunity to not replicate a system that has not served all students. Instead, we need to look at flexible time and place to innovate through blended learning."

Sarah Padilla's picture

I like the concept of differentiating instruction for each student. As a kindergarten teacher of 25 students, I find it hard to differentiate all of my lessons for each student. I think being able to use the station rotation in my classroom next year during math will help me reach students in a different way and make sure I am filling all of their "gaps."

Johanna Kistner's picture

I have little experience or knowledge of a blended classroom; however, I have heard a lot about them, specifically a flipped classroom. With what I have read and heard about them, they sound like a great concept to incorporate into the classroom. Our society is moving towards being more technology- based, so it only makes sense to implement such in the classroom; the blended learning model, although it requires some face- to- face interactions, seems like a positive way to move.
I think making in- class time serve as a time for collaborative problem solving would keep the students engaged; as well as, it would hold them responsible for learning the material prior to coming to class. Do you have any suggestions as to how this could work effectively in a high school English classroom? As with any material or content presented in the classroom, students must "buy- in." Otherwise, the lesson and activities will become meaningless and useless to them. I teach in an inner- city school where many of my students have no motivation to earn a high school diploma nor are they likely attend college; thus, I have a hard time selling the material to them because they don't see themselves making past the streets. With this in mind, I know that if I do not make the lesson or activity meaningful or at least engaging to them, they will refuse to participate.
It is important to meet the students' needs, no matter where the learning or "doing" takes place. Also, having students complete activities that reinforce the learning happening in the classroom will make it more likely for them to retain the information and skills.

Jennifer Ayala's picture
Jennifer Ayala
Middle School ELA teacher who seeks to inspire a love of reading in every student.

These tips are so helpful. I've been interested in the concepts of both flipped and blended classrooms for some time, but I've never been entirely sure how to begin. As I teach in a school with predominantly low income students, a flipped classroom is difficult to achieve, but the model you are presenting of a blended classroom could work well. I've often heard my students mention that by the time they get home to do their homework, they've forgotten what I said in class. I love the idea of the recorded virtual meeting. Allowing my students to "re-live" class at home or during study time would be so beneficial. Thanks for your insights!

Kurt Schake's picture

Andrew, thanks for the helpful insights. Having been an instructor and student in blended classrooms, two of your points really resonated with me:
#1 Virtual. The key is to ensure it is highly interactive. The instructor should actively use chat rooms and break out groups to promote peer-peer cooperation. But, these must have specific assigned tasks. The instructor role is to pop in and out, helping, querying, prodding. Also helpful is a summary wrap up, with student speakers sharing findings and best practices.
#5. Tools. These are vital to engage students, but it is critical that the instructor be adept. Try the virtual tools on peers, before using them with a live classroom. Nothing loses student interest quicker than an instructor publicly fumbling through the mechanics of on-line tools.

dmcmurren's picture

Engagement is the key to all of this but I also think we need to let the students in on so much more. They need to know the goals and help set check points and smaller goals along the way. If we give them more buy in and more "teeth in he game" students will naturally be more focused and motivated. When I observed a blended learning school last month I was so surprised to see such vast differences in student behavior and engagement from room to room. One room had students wasting so much time and when questioned about their current tasks the students really couldn't verbalize any goal or target. They just told me they were working on the I-ready program. Other classes had students completely engaged and focused and the students knew the specific skills and goals that they needed to reach. We can't just stand in front and spew information any more. We have to let the kids in on "the big secret" and give them a much broader role to play. That way the only outcome can be mastery at all levels with motivated students.

Melissa's picture

Thank you for your insights into blended learning. As I begin this journey with my colleagues, I am excited to find ways to differentiate instruction to best meet my students' needs. Finding the best ways to engage students with limited technology is tricky, but something to strive for.

Jamie's picture

Thank you for the helpful tips on increasing engagement when utilizing blended learning. I agree with the thought of goal setting to help engagement and intrinsic motivation. Project based learning that incorporates blended learning will also increase engagement.

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