By Tom M. Deliganis with contributions from LeAnn Stewart
Every K-12 blended learning implementation is unique. However in order to have your implementation be designated as an authentic and research-based it must adhere consistently to the established best-practices. These include (1) a significant (30%+) use of technology in daily classroom instruction; (2) some level of self-determination by students in their individual daily and weekly academic activities; (3) inclusion of collaborative learning activities; and (4) the transformation of the teacher to student relationship from a “sage on the stage” to the “guide by the side”.
The Challenges of Implementing Blended Learning in K-12 classrooms
When considering whether a blended learning program is an option for your schools, it’s important that you look at the following four major challenges that are common with blended learning implementations:
Challenge One: There are close to two hundred variables that have to be considered, owned and managed in a typical blended learning implementation. Even when school districts have the expertise and experience, they may not have the human bandwidth to deploy a program of this magnitude. Consideration should be given to beginning slowly, and not attempt a full throttle K-12 project at the onset.
Challenge Two: Research tells that around three years is required for a typical blended learning implementation to reach steady state. Few schools can afford to wait that long. The expectation is usually for full program efficacy in less than one school year. I define a steady state implementation as one where the teachers and administrators consider a “blended” classroom as the instructional norm, rather than a supplemental, or experimental.
Challenge Three: A large percentage of technology products purchased by schools in the last two decades have been significantly underutilized. Much of this challenge has to do with the fact that, even though the expertise exists within most districts; people, time and resources are typically fractured to the point where little sustained project management or accountability can be allocated in order to achieve long-term steady state success.
Challenge Four: The traditional model of professional development for significant technology projects is woefully inadequate for a research-based blended leaning implementation. This old model front-loads most professional development activity with little to no accountability to sustaining the skills and the best practices learned.
As many as ten major Blended-Learning models can be found in the educational landscape. However there are four models that are the best options in most public schools. They are Rotation, Flex, Self-Blend and Enriched Virtual. A knowledgeable blended learning partner will have the expertise to work with all four, including certain flavors of the other six or so not mentioned here. Typically we’ve found that the best suited for most public schools is Flex, however you should by no means tied to that particular model. The ideal model depends entirely on so many variables. You need to study these models very carefully and determine which best fits your situation. Below please find some general definitions and descriptions of the four:
Rotation Model: This first model of blended learning, the Rotation Model, fits most closely with the traditional classroom models. For many, it conjures up memories of elementary school days where we went from the reading station to the math station, and then finally to the science station. We did not have any choice or empowerment about when we rotated and in most cases, each station had us working on one path with one set of pacing expectations and goals. Today, students rotate among computer stations, small group work, collaborative projects, and other instructional areas. Rotation happens either inside the classroom or between the classroom and a learning lab. But, where is the student empowerment? Too often, we still control the students’ place, path, pace expectations and time-on-task. This model offers the lowest level of student empowerment. In many ways, it also presents the highest risk for us to merely “put technology into use” instead of truly implementing blended learning.
Flex Model: More common in secondary schools, the Flex Model often includes 1:1 technology access instead of a controlled rotation to available workstations or devices. The students still spend the bulk of their time in a brick-and-mortar building, but they are not held back or pushed forward based on a rigid schedule. This is a favorite model because it seems to champion the use of competency-based progression without giving up the necessary teacher support for struggling students. Teachers easily augment online learning with small group work, projects and/or individual tutoring and coaching. Students feel empowered to control their pace, path, and progress as well as to reach out for immediate assistance to the onsite teacher. This amount and type of support is flexible and opens up a wonderful opportunity for teachers and students to become true partners in learning. The Flex Model also gives districts the greatest opportunity to implement innovative staffing and scheduling.
Enriched Virtual Model: Some of the blended learning publications list the Enriched Virtual Model last, putting it after the Self-Blend Model. We prefer putting it third on the spectrum of student empowerment since the students divide their time between a brick-and-mortar campus and working at a location of their choice. Seen as a whole-school experience, an Enriched Virtual implementation may have minimal on-campus requirements and those may only be “check-point” meetings or required tutoring sessions if the students fall behind in pace. Yet, at the same time, the student often decides where they study, how fast they move through the assignments, and what products they will produce to prove mastery.
Self-Blend Model: As mentioned above, we move the Self-Blend Model to the end of the student empowerment spectrum. Here, the student chooses to take one or more courses entirely online. They totally control the location and pace, and many times, the instructional path. Districts that allow students to take fully online courses are allowing them to self-blend, or self-select one or more courses. All parts of the courses are asynchronous and no onsite sessions or checkpoints are required. While using the Self-Blend Model fully empowers the students, it also presents the greatest risk for learners who have yet to master personal motivation and self-management.
The Secret Sauce Part One – Embedded Professional Development (EPD)
All four “Challenges” outlined above contribute to what I call “the devolved implementation”. Experience informs us that most significant deployments of technology in schools, blended or not, will sooner or later devolve back to teachers using instructional methods with which they are most familiar. This usually happens for a variety of reasons including technical issues, teacher turnover; and first and foremost a lack of accountability to the original design model. Now this assumes that there is a design model. But one must assume so if any professional development (PD) is involved. PD implies that there are certain skills, best practices, goals and an implementation model.
Even the best PD, more often than not, is front loaded. “Now that you’ve purchased our product, we will provide you with 1-4 days of training. After said training, you will now be proficient going forward with all the skills necessary to make this work for years to come!” And they will probably provide a 1-800 #, a website and a follow-up call or visit a year later. Personally, I can’t even recall many of the salient points of a Church sermon a few hours later (even one I really enjoy), much less three days of detailed training on a complex ILS, content library or hardware device. Its little wonder that very few of the many millions of interactive white boards (as an example) sold to schools, are actually used anywhere near their capabilities. These boards are wonderful devices, but the PD is front loaded and therefore structurally inept and impotent. Plus there is no accountability, nor incentive for the users (teachers and etc.) to use, and optimize the information they’ve received. Whether it’s a carrot, stick or both, some accountability needs to be included in any implementation of blended learning in a district. Plus professional development should be an ongoing affair, lasting years rather than mere days.
- Initial Training: Three days up front
- First Six Months: One day a month for six months
- 2nd Six Months to Three Years: One day every three months
- Annual summer workshop.
- Advanced skills webinars
I call this the Embedded Professional Development (EPD) model; where, over a minimum three year period, the trainer(s) never really says goodbye. A model such as this, helps the teachers involved to keep the expected outcomes near their “top of mind”, and allows for the refreshing of key competencies and best practices. EPD is much more effective than the “front-loaded” model, which is doomed to be inadequate, and even deadly to your blended learning implementation.
I marvel that so many highly intelligent educators and professionals, involved on both sides of the ed-tech industry, have persisted in using the front-loaded model. I have witnessed this for more than the 30 plus years that this industry has existed. It almost never works, assuming the goal is to create a persistent, sustainable and steady state implementations. I am confident that millions upon millions of dollars’ worth of educational technology sits on the shelves, or servers; gathering virtual dust due to a lack of use. However there are no bad people involved in this problem, only bad models.
Secret Sauce Part Two – Certification
Even though the EPD model is a vast improvement over the front-loaded approach, it is not adequate to ensure that blended learning implementations don’t devolve over time. Something else is needed. Something called accountability. Accountability is a dirty word to some, however if done well; it can be positive and beneficial for everyone involved. The best accountability systems I’ve seen are always incentive based, rather than punitive. They reward and motivate educators in ways that they (teachers) truly deem valuable. In my opinion the very best model for accountability is a Certification model. Under this model the educators who receive the EPD services are simultaneously participating in a program that provides professional certification for every significant competency level achieved.
- Blended Learning Proficient I – Professional Level – Requires a minimum of 6 months to achieve.
- Blended Learning Proficient II – Expert Level – Requires a minimum of 12 months to achieve.
- Blended Learning Proficient III – Mentor Level – Requires a minimum of 18 months to achieve.
- Blended Learning Proficient IV – Master Level – Requires a minimum of 24 months to achieve.
- ETC – more levels may be added, depending on the nature of the implementation.
- An appropriate professional certificate will be issued for each level achieved.
- Each level achieved includes a financial incentive in the form of a bonus.
Under the Certification model, educators are provided an opportunity to improve their professional “chops” in a manner that is familiar to most of them. When this model is well deployed, then the participants will usually strive to achieve the next level without any external prompting. To their credit, K-12 educators, more than in most professions, take enormous pride in achieving greater professional competency in their chosen field. However in order for it to work, a degree of difficulty and time must be in place for completion of the competencies and best practices associated with each Level. These certifications cannot under any circumstance be easily attained. I reiterate that both a degree of difficulty, as well as length of time must be in in play, otherwise the certifications will seem cheap and nonessential. This will defeat the purpose, which is to ensure that each blended learning implementation reaches steady state consistency, and does not devolve over time. A Certification model will act as the best possible accountability measure you could employ. It uses a carrot rather than a stick, and accountability will cease to be a dirty word.
The exact skills and best practices associated with each competency level are going to be unique to each implementation. School district leadership should work with their vendor partners to determine what the specifics will be for each situation, as well as the respective levels.
So now you know about the Secret Sauce in K-12 Blended Learning. As a 30 plus year professional in the Ed-Tech industry, I am embarrassed by only one thing in my career – that my clients have not always received the full benefit from the products and services we sold them. This admission has nothing to do with bad intent; nor incompetency by me; the companies who employed me; nor my client school districts and colleges. It has everything to do with the inadequate professional development models employed. However I have observed and worked close with companies and clients who have employed an Embedded Professional Development model as well as Certification model. With these partners you see only exceptional and fully realized implementations. Going forward, as educational technology is increasingly viewed as the vehicle for primary rather than supplemental instruction; then implementation, professional development and teacher buy-in will matter even more. Otherwise millions of educational dollars will continue to be wasted on tired and ineffective models.