While today’s classrooms are often hybrids of digital instruction and face-to-face learning, educators agree that tomorrow’s lecture halls will go even further into the digital realm, particularly in college. So some K–12 schools are now fostering blended learning skill sets to prepare students for what’s ahead.
Kate Nedved, the teacher librarian at two tech-focused high schools in Vancouver (WA) Public Schools (VPS), has a front-row seat to how students are adopting digital tools. At Vancouver Flex Academy, a 9–12 school, the approximately 100 students are immersed in a blended learning environment. Half their lessons are online; the other half are in the classroom.
Students can schedule one-on-one time with teachers if they fall behind, Nedved says. But self-directing their own learning is a must. At the university level, Nedved points out, professors do not check with their students to make sure a calculus lesson makes sense. College students must problem solve, often on their own.
“We should expose children to [digital learning tools] because that is how we are seeing colleges [teach],” says Elissa Malespina, the professional development co-chair for the International Society for Technology in Education’s Librarian Network and the school librarian at Somerville Middle School in New Jersey. “But they do require kids to be more self-motivated.”
Blended learning can take multiple forms. In the hybrid or flipped model, students watch instructional videos at home, then come to class for guidance on their work. Elsewhere, blended learning can look like online lessons and MOOCs (massive open online courses), which are meant to supplement course work when instructors aren’t available. Students may submit homework on cloud-based platforms. Handheld devices may be used to ask questions during class discussions, which are then sent wirelessly to teachers for answers. Sometimes, devices are used to do research during in-class projects.
Many teachers and librarians believe students will be at a disadvantage if they don’t have some level of comfort using such tech tools. New York City’s Department of Education has committed to blended learning in the more than 250 schools involved in its iZone project, which trains teachers in building blended learning sessions into their school classrooms.
In Cabarrus County Schools in Concord, NC, the entire school system is moving to a blended learning platform by 2016. Classes, including biology, chemistry, sociology, and calculus, will be taught through a variety of online materials that students will use at home, before coming back to classroom lessons the next day.
At Windsor High School in Sonoma County, CA, English teacher Catlin Tucker demonstrates her blended learning approach to parents by incorporating it into her Back to School nights. She sends links to Animoto videos to provide a “window into our classroom,” she explains. It “is a wonderful way to introduce my students’ parents to the flipped classroom model,” notes Tucker, author of Blended Learning in Grades 4–12 (Corwin, 2012).
Some educators who embrace the blended approach also see its limitations. Malespina is a big proponent of students’ use of digital tools. But she also maintains that there must be a balance—and common sense. Supervising an online French class for her middle-schoolers was a bit challenging, as Malespina does not speak the language. If students had questions, they had to source the answers themselves.
Nedved believes that students must develop self-reliance. However, she admits that keeping VPS students focused during an online class has occasionally proven to be difficult. Without proper support, students can feel stranded, frustrated, and alone. That is not the feeling she wants students to take away when they leave the classroom.
“How do we instill that drive to get through an online course if [students] come up to an obstacle?” Nedved asks. “We’re still trying to find the best practices, what tools we can use, so they don’t just stop and feel defeated.”