Answering Your Questions from Beyond the Pilot

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On the evening of May 13th, over 50 in-person and online participants had the privilege of hearing four expert panelists discuss taking blended learning to the next level in schools and classrooms. There were a number of great questions asked that evening and unfortunately we couldn’t get to all of them – until now! Jennifer Levy and John Watson generously offered to answer the unanswered questions from that evening, and these are their responses. Thank you John and Jenni!

To watch the full panel conversation any time, click here.


Does blended learning change the way we grade?

Jennifer Levy: It can, and maybe it will, change our concepts of grade levels as well.  Right now, a traditional teacher gives the same assignment to everyone and each student is graded on the same rubric.  The students all take the same assessments at the same time.  They acquire knowledge and go through virtually (and hopefully) every level of Bloom’s Taxonomy at the same time.  Blended learning doesn’t work that way.  Ideally, it works like more of a doctor’s prescription.  You receive the homework you do because that is what you need.  You are given the test you are given because that is where you are at.  You are given customized instruction.  Yes, the end goal is the same.  However, the direction, or route you take can be radically different.  Learning is done at a customized paced.  I might propose in the future two kids could be in the same algebra class and one could complete it in 6th months, and the other in 1 1/2 years.  It might enable students to be graded more individually:  Think less taylorization, and more 21st century.

Does “mastery-based instruction” take the creativity and abstraction out of higher level learning?

Jennifer Levy: No.  If anything it guarantees competency and builds in time for constant progressive creativity.  Competency and creativity are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, I might argue it is hard to truly be meaningfully creative without really understanding what you are doing and how to do it effectively.  Creativity is still alive and well in blended learning, often in the form of project based learning in the rotational model. If anything, it now guarantees daily higher order thinking, instead of weeks of lower order content memorization.  In the traditional model, once there is (finally) a basic understanding of those concepts, the teacher can then take the students to the next level.  In blended learning, each student’s mastery is balanced with that student’s ability to create and analyze all at once, just in an organized, structured station.

What are the panelists’ experiences with learning management systems (LMS)? Have they found one superior to another?

John Watson: Dozens of learning management systems exist. Of the leading ones being used by K12 schools (including Blackboard, D2L, Canvas, Haiku, and others), there is definitely NOT one that is superior in all cases. They will all fit the needs of most schools in most situations, and determining which is the best fit requires that school administrators and teachers determine what they want the LMS to do and then demo several of them.

One mistake that some schools make is thinking a student information system that has added a few communications features is an LMS--it is not. An LMS should have communications features, the ability for teachers to create or drop in course content, the ability to edit content, an assessment and grading mechanism, and other tools. The school should ensure that the LMS being considered is being used in similar situations to the one being envisioned by the school.

Jennifer Levy: I’ve used a few LMS’s.  I think it depends what your core goals are and what age you are focusing on.  Blackboard is awesome for college and really enables great discussions.  Schoology is top notch in user friendliness, enabling students to really feel like they already know how to use it when signing on the first time (it looks just like Facebook).  Canvas is really good at enabling a teacher to link performance based outcomes and rubrics with assignments and then linking assignment data back to those outcomes to tweak instruction.  So, again many are great.  The real question is what are you using your LMS for?  Of course, we are all eagerly awaiting Google's LMS, and hoping this will be the game changer that will enable access for all, and really breach that digital divide.

How does a school find quality professional development providers?

Jennifer Levy: This is such a difficult one to answer.  To be honest, the best speakers outside of school are often those who write the books for the ASCD.  Yet, they are extremely expensive. I often think schools should consider sharing the cost with other schools to alleviate the financial burden. (When I am talking price range think the cost of a course at an ivy league for an entire semester and double it. ) Another option is to hire a lesser known college professor of education from Seton Hall, TC, or Rutgers.  Some are better than others, so you really need to vet them.  The third real option, in my view, is to have your teachers master certain concepts from a book you collaboratively read and be responsible for presenting that concept to the other teachers.  If you have a supportive staff this can transform a school into a place that has a real “growth culture”.   I believe it is those teachers in our very school buildings who we need to invest in and grow with.  I might also argue that the normative concept of hiring someone from the outside to come in and give PD is really not the only piece to PD.  PD needs to start with a professional growth plan that is customized to each teacher based on observations by administrators, fellow teachers, and the teacher him/herself.  Teacher driven PD can happen on twitter, reading blogs, at workshops, at conferences, through literature circles run by fellow teachers, and of course in the traditional PD days, but I’d argue you need all of these elements. Connectivity is our best PD, reaching out to strangers from schools like our own and forming teacher to teacher connections will make a huge difference.

John Watson: Issue an RFP via the iNACOL discussion boards, and if that doesn't result in a good enough response look through the conference programs for the iNACOL conference and the online/blended learning strands at ISTE to find additional providers. 

In a middle or high school, do certain subjects lend themselves better to the blended model?

John Watson: Yes at least in the sense that there is much more online content available for math than for any other subject. ELA content is a distant second, with other subjects less developed. Therefore if teachers aren't going to be developing their online content math is an easier starting point than other subjects. 

Jennifer Levy: Yes, absolutely.  I’d also say that it depends what you want out of blended learning in a subject.   On the surface, I would say it makes the most sense to utilize blended learning for reading instruction, because unlike most subjects, the content is not prescribed as it is in middle school science, for example. This assumes you are using blended learning in order to really customize your learning instruction for the learner, by harvesting real, actionable data to guide the teacher in this instruction.   However, you have to be willing to be flexible about the books your students read.  If your curriculum is very prescribed, then it’s not the best choice.  I will say history is particularly easy to blend.  Why?  For precisely the opposite reason: the curriculum, especially in high school is highly prescribed, but done so in such a way that around the country kids study basically the same material for at least 2-3 years of high school.  In addition, blending history simply allows for more time for students to do extended projects.  It also enables the history teacher to not have to help students acquire lower order Bloom’s taxonomy goals more quickly.  There tend to be many facts in history, and for precisely that reason, blended learning can really help refocus a history class to have a built-in, higher order thinking aspect to each and every day’s instruction.  Furthermore, I’d argue that perhaps the best subject that lends itself to blended learning is foreign language.  There are so many incredible digital content providers out there in foreign languages (think Rosette Stone in Spanish, Hebrew, or Mandarin) and the creative assessment tools as well are really incredible.  While a lab model might be best for foreign language, I actually believe this is the type of course that can reap the most benefit from blended learning.  No more do you spend years 1 and 2 simply memorizing vocabulary in class without living the language.  You can begin to actually have conversations with the teacher, fellow students, and people from that country as well. 

On a side note, I’d argue that good digital content for Judaic studies is not too common.  In about five years, I'm hopeful that those who are currently trying might finally put together some better offerings.  The only “blended” judaic content I know of is for 1st grade, and is Tal Am, something many of the elementary schools already use.  It would be nice if this were adapted for more than just 1st grade. 

Feedback is the next day. How do you plan around the feedback?

Jennifer Levy: Good question.  Teachers have been dealing with this long before blended learning.   Traditional classes often give feedback after homework is assigned and graded or after an “Exit ticket” is evaluated.  If you utilize the same approach in blended learning, then that is certainly true.  However, I’d argue that in blended learning you could get the feedback relatively quickly.  If you, as the teacher, obtain it as it is being done (during class) or that night after class, you allow for different feedback options. You can then choose who will be in a direct station the next day based on their needs, or who will  complete additional practice in a work station or for homework the following night.  If you have the opportunity in a lab model to get real time feedback as the kids are taking the test, then the next day when you do the teacher-directed model in the classroom, you can address the areas of weakness either with the whole class, or in groups you pre-assign based on feedback.