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Blended learning revolution: Tech meets tradition in the classroom

Blended learning combines the best of online learning with traditional teaching. The educational trend is showing results – higher test scores, happier teachers and students – as more schools adopt and adapt it. 

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    Blended learning – combining traditional teaching and online learning – is the focus of the April 21, 2014 cover story of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly. At Rocketship's Si Se Puede charter school (pictured) in San Jose, Calif., the new method has increased test scores.
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Fourteen-year-old Gabi Directo is technically in the middle of her freshman year. But in bursts of learning, hunched over her laptop in her Summit Shasta High School classroom, she has managed to zoom at her own rapid pace to the completion of all of her ninth-grade English, history, science, and math classes. By February, she was digging into her sophomore year Advanced Placement biology, physics, and Algebra II classes.

But in her school's "blended learning" program, Gabi has had as much face-time with teachers and classmates as solitary face-to-screen time. The serious and soft-spoken teen is able to "blend" the best of online learning (progress at her own pace through subject content) with the best of classroom work (practicing new knowledge with peers and teachers). For example, her whole math class is working on projectile-motion models. But while some of her classmates' models involve basic graphing to predict where an object will travel, Gabi's factor in parametric equations and map time with distance.

Gabi says she thrives on the traditional classroom group work everyone does at the same time – but she also appreciates that she can use her more advanced skills gained in the independent work she does online, shooting ahead rather than waiting for her classmates to catch up. Likewise, she observes, classmates who struggle with a concept get to take the time they need to master it rather than get left behind.

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"In regular high schools, you have to go at a certain pace," says Gabi as she takes a break from typing an essay on her laptop to take a quick glance at her online "playlist," which lists what material she's completed and what she still has to do, along with her weekly goal. "Here, if you excel, you can go at your own pace.... I'm all done with ninth grade."

Gabi's remarkable progress is not unusual at Summit Shasta, a charter school created this school year here to specifically use the blended learning model. The model being pioneered at Shasta – part of a network of five high schools and one Grades 6-12 school – tailors education to each student's needs by offering high-quality teaching with cutting-edge online programming.

Blended learning is spreading rapidly, say education experts.

"Most American kids are going to be in an environment that is predominantly digital before the end of the decade," says Tom Vander Ark, chief executive officer of Getting Smart, an education firm that focuses on innovation and technology. "Most learning resources are digital instead of print.... I think we'll be able to call most of those environments 'blended' in terms of combining online experience with face-to-face instruction."

But Mr. Vander Ark and other advocates of the new model say that using blended learning to transform education and the traditional classroom means more than just incorporating an online element into instruction, giving kids tablets, or having students supplement class material with courses from Khan Academy (the popular nonprofit interactive education website that allows the teacher to "flip the classroom": Students learn a concept online at home and apply it in class with a teacher).

Advocates of blended learning say that, when done well, it is as much about the time kids are off-line as the time they're online – delegating more rote concepts to online instruction so that teachers can better use class time for small-group discussion, one-on-one check-ins, group projects, or targeted tutoring if students are struggling.

And making it work involves far more than coming up with the money to offer every student a tablet or laptop and selecting good software. Good blended learning programs blow apart the traditional school program, reconfiguring classrooms and school days so that learning can be as personalized as possible. Myriad models to accomplish this are being pioneered nationwide.

It's "a reflection of finally realizing technology's promise to disrupt and transform education in the ways it has disrupted and transformed nearly everything else we do," says Andy Calkins, deputy director of Next Generation Learning Challenges, which gives grants to blended learning programs.

Mr. Calkins and other proponents of the model point out that in most US schools, classrooms look pretty much as they did 100 years ago: one teacher in front of a classroom, teaching the same material to 30 students who are probably at varying levels of readiness. Technology, thoughtfully deployed, can change that, they believe.

"Technology has always been a nice whiz-bang element, but stuck onto the traditional model," says Calkins. "In the last four or five years, really for the first time, we've seen how technology has the power to enable this new learner-centered form of education in effective and efficient ways."

Real-time grades, taking a test until you pass

Blended learning can look fairly traditional in some cases, but radical in others.

In almost every case, it involves a form of this balance: delegating the most basic content – such as math equations, history facts, or grammar nuts and bolts – to online programs in order to free up teachers to focus on individual students.

And charter schools, in many instances, have led the charge – with networks like Summit Public Schools, Carpe Diem Learning Systems, KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) LA Schools, and Aspire Public Schools making it a centerpiece of their education.

Rocketship Education, a San Francisco Bay Area-based network of elementary schools focused on closing the achievement gap among low-income students, was one of the earliest to embrace blended learning, beginning in 2007. At its Si Se Puede (Yes You Can) Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., students regularly tap a screen in each classroom to give themselves positive or negative marks in things such as participation; that computer program also gives real-time report cards to parents who have the ClassDojo smart phone application. Classrooms look pretty traditional, but each class – including kindergarten – also spends 30 to 40 minutes each day in the "learning lab," working on reading and math lessons the computer program adapts to each student's level. The lab is staffed by noncredentialed staff, freeing up teachers to plan and to work with more students, often in small groups based on data from the computer programs on how their students are doing and which areas they may need extra help with.

This "rotational" model is the most basic of the blended learning models, but it has propelled Rocketship to success: Its students perform significantly above average on the California Standards Test, and its schools rank in the top 5 percent of California schools serving similar populations. The Rocketship network is growing – it has plans to open schools in Washington, Milwaukee, and Nashville, Tenn., and expects to serve 25,000 students by 2017.

At the Summit network's Denali charter school in Sunnyvale, Calif., which began this year with 126 sixth-graders and will eventually be a 6-12 school, the look of blended learning is different. On a recent afternoon, students were spread out over a large open, warehouse-like classroom working, in most cases alone on Chromebook laptops at tables, while teachers met at desks one-on-one with students for weekly check-ins, assessing progress and setting goals.

They'd spent the morning in groups finishing up models for a climate-change project they were to present later in the week, and in the afternoon students went online to their individual learning plans and chose units – varying with each student's level – in math, science, history, or English to work on independently. A few signaled to teachers that they were ready to take an online test in a unit they'd completed, and moved to a room with a proctor. If they didn't pass, they were allowed to continue to work through the material and take it again: At every stage, they, and their parents, have an instant sense of how they are doing.

Students get letter grades: 70 percent of their grade is based on their demonstration of "cognitive" skills – the projects they do in class – with 30 percent based on tests on online content.

Sixth-grader Nastasya Stasiv sighs as she pulls up her study materials on the Egyptian pharaohs. She's already tried and failed that particular assessment eight times, and is debating whether to switch to something more interesting – like the class project exploring mitigation strategies to make Sunnyvale more climate-change-friendly – and save the pharaohs to work on at home that night.

"I try to study something I'm interested in at school, and at home I'll study something I'm struggling with," she finally says, as she turns to her climate project.

The process Nastasya is talking about is at the core of the school's separation of "content" (online learning) and "cognitive skills" (practiced in the classroom).

Her mom, Arina Kutuyeva, says she chose the school because of the opportunities it presents for more personalized learning, and so far, she's been very pleased with Nastasya's progress, though she is eager to see her final grades at the end of the year.

"There are always doubts about the success of this kind of learning, because sometimes the child has questions and needs an explanation from the teacher," Ms. Kutuyeva says. "But this way the child can actually teach herself to be able to learn, and get information from different sources without depending on having someone close by."

Summit's blended learning approach developed after the network – which serves many low-income students – realized that while 96 percent of graduates went to four-year colleges, only half were graduating within six years. Three years of serious introspection and brainstorming led to a totally reimagined curriculum and classroom structure, with online learning as a central component. It's a model Summit leaders arrived at not because they wanted to introduce technology, but because they wanted more personalized, self-directed learning focused on high-level cognitive skills kids need to succeed in college and careers.

"We don't think that kids shouldn't have content knowledge, but we do think that, more and more every day, you can Google these things," explains Diane Tavenner, founder of Summit Schools. "What's more important is the ability to learn. And what do you do with that knowledge? How do you analyze and make sense of it?

"Those two different things – content knowledge and skills – should be addressed differently," says Ms. Tavenner. "Our teachers are really focused on those high-leverage, deeper skills."

In his unit on the Industrial Revolution, Summit Shasta history teacher Tyler Sussman has had students delve into the basic facts during online learning time at school and then come to class ready to explore a topic of their choice, such as child labor or the evolving relationship between the United States and China, that they could research and develop a presentation on. During a recent class they met in small groups practicing the oral presentation skills, such as eye contact and body language, they need when they give their speeches.

Some of his students are doing college-level research projects, while others are working at a fifth-grade level – but all are being challenged.

"One of my [freshmen] is nearing completion of 10th-grade content, and working with teachers to apply that content in different projects," says Mr. Sussman. "There are other students who would have fallen through the cracks in different schools, coming in with below-grade-level reading and math abilities, and they're using the personalized learning system to catch up and build a foundation for success."

With so much of their learning now in their own hands, students need to not only master the content and skills to succeed, but also become self-directed learners who have a solid understanding of when they've mastered material and are ready to move on. This is very different from the typical high school where the teacher sets the syllabus and exam schedule.

Some students are motivated from the beginning, while others may take months or years to develop the habits they need. But weekly check-ins with a mentor teacher help them take responsibility for their progress, assess their growth, and set goals. Summit believes all its students are highly independent learners by the time they graduate – and better prepared, as a result, to succeed in college.

"We didn't set out to be blended," explains Jon Deane, chief information officer at the Summit network. "We said, 'Let's redefine what it means to be college-ready, and then we backwards-planned a school."

More than just 'a tablet for every kid'

"Anytime someone says to us 'we're adding tablets,' our first question is, 'Why?' " says John Watson, founder of Evergreen Education Group, a Colorado-based consulting firm. "You'd be amazed how many times there's no good answer to that question. The technology looks innovative and sexy, and it's so easy for an administration to say, 'We want to add iPads.' "

As "sexy" as blended learning has suddenly become, there are plenty of examples of instances in which technology has failed to yield much in the way of results.

The Los Angeles Unified School District's ambitious $1 billion effort to give every student an iPad last year was fraught with equipment problems and complaints about implementation and security breaches by students. The district has had to revise plans.

In Guilford, N.C., the 73,000-student school district's 1-to-1 tablet effort for middle school students stalled when the tablets were recalled by Amplify, a digital education firm headed by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein.

The high-profile problems in those and other school districts caused Florida's Miami-Dade County school district to slow its move to digital learning.

No hard data exists yet on the numbers of students learning online, but Vander Ark, who wrote "Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World," estimates that 3 million K-12 students took some sort of online class last year. The number of districts and schools truly optimizing technology to transform and personalize learning is still small, he says. Doing it well means overhauls that are particularly challenging for large districts to implement quickly.

Early adopters of tablet programs also struggle with the fact that the market for education software and learning platforms does not have the volume yet to create the rapid perfection that, say, smart phone applications do. The truly lauded adaptive programs – Spatial-Temporal Math, Achieve 3000, Accelerated Reader – don't cover all subjects or grade levels.

"It's more like the early days of computing where PCs and Macs couldn't share files with each other," says Brian Greenberg, CEO of Silicon Schools Fund, which promotes blended learning. "A lot of schools doing this well have to manually find solutions.… I think over the next 10 years we'll see a lot better stuff out there."

There is also resistance to the new education model from skeptics who question the wisdom of increased screen time in a world where most children already spend significant time with smart phones and computers.

"There are things I hear when kids are given an iPad, such as nobody makes eye contact in class anymore," says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age." "The whole classroom dynamic can really change…. Kids say it feels different when everybody has a laptop or screen up on their desk."

Dr. Steiner-Adair frequently works with districts on implementing technology responsibly and believes it can be thoughtfully done when districts really consider all the possible repercussions. She advocates having a responsible-use contract, for instance, and syncing that with core values such as honesty, respect, and kindness. She urges schools to pay attention to helping students develop their social and emotional intelligence – how to converse, listen, read social cues, wait their turn.

"Technology is a tool, and we can use it as an ally to create community and healthy relationships if we're mindful and thoughtful about how we integrate it...," she says.

Teachers allowed to reinvent classes

At the Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, Calif., sixth-grade language arts teacher Jana Maiuri is having no trouble engaging her students in a lively discussion about the novel "The Skin I'm In." Debates about the bullied protagonist's close relationship with her teacher swirl around the classroom, and students are physically animated at their desks.

But the only sound in the classroom is the soft tapping of fingers on laptop keyboards. The whole exchange is happening online.

Half the class is writing short-answer analyses to a question that Ms. Maiuri has typed in; the students are required to use evidence and complete sentences and can comment on one another's work. The other dozen students spiritedly type responses to one another about the book.

"It's pretty cool, because you can write it really quick," says Bobby, a tall, blond student, as he watches the screen in front of him fill with his classmates' opinions. He shifts excitedly in his chair as his own comments generate numerous responses. "You can see what they think about your opinion, and you can agree or disagree, and you don't have to talk over each other because you can do it all at the same time."

The typical dilemma with group discussions, agrees Maiuri, is getting everyone to participate – including shy kids. Holding the online discussions gets rid of those concerns, she says: "It doesn't mean I've given up on oral discussion. But with this, every kid can respond at once. They write their thoughts, they respond to other kids – it's exactly what I want in oral discussions, but can't get."

In a nearby eighth-grade class, teacher Jamie Knowles is also using computers to split the class up. But in his case, it enables a traditional – much smaller – discussion. While two-thirds work independently doing an online writing project, Mr. Knowles meets with eight kids.

Edna Brewer – where two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced price lunches – is one of eight middle schools in the Oakland Unified School District using blended learning this year. Some chose to work it in by subject, as the 800-student Edna Brewer did with humanities, while others use it in an entire grade level.

Allowing teachers flexibility in how to use the technology has been key to the success of the pilot project, says Greg Klein, director of blended learning for the Rogers Family Foundation, which funds the Oakland project. Some prefer rotations; others like to use it for more one-on-one time with students or to facilitate discussions or peer editing. And having the teachers research options, come up with a vision, and pitch that vision, meant total buy-in.

Some of the most high-profile examples of effective blended learning come from charter networks, say experts. For example, one Aspire charter in Oakland saw average state standardized test scores rise from 765 to 833 during a two-year period after blended learning was implemented. Summit Shasta reports evidence of improvement on internal assessments just in nine months. But evidence varies across programs and, warn experts, is anecdotal and hard to attribute to blended learning alone, yet.

A lot of momentum in the education community is behind taking what's worked in these models and bringing it to scale in larger districts. Cities such as New York, Detroit, and Washington have highly regarded blended learning pilot projects, as do hundreds of smaller districts. And a number of foundations are working to help incubate good district-wide programs.

Cost can be a factor, though most education experts say it's less than one might think. Extra money is needed upfront for hardware and software – the costs of devices like Chromebook laptops, which are available for about $200 each, have helped bring those costs down – as well as for planning and better Internet bandwidth. But strategic use of online learning can generate savings, particularly by extending the reach of teachers.

"There are some capital expenditures involved in making the shift, but I think it's entirely possible to do better for less," says Vander Ark.

Calkins agrees, in theory, though he believes in most cases any savings will need to be reallocated to other areas.

"I think it's doable at current funding levels in public education, but I don't think it will save people any money," he says.

Calkins and others helping districts and charters build their programs say the key to doing it well is careful planning – with more time spent on issues such as student schedules, class makeup, teacher training, and classroom management than on selecting hardware and software.

Moving slowly, first through small pilot projects, and taking time to think through curriculum, student progression, and effective technology use can be a tougher sell, says Mr. Watson of Evergreen, but that's what he counsels districts to do.

Vander Ark adds that successful blended learning rollouts all share five basic strategies: starting with good goals about what the learning experience should be, studying and learning from other models, choosing a learning platform and digital content, considering staffing and professional development for teachers, and, at the very end, picking a device that makes the most sense. "In our view, that comes at the end of the process," he says.

But they also counsel patience, and tolerance for less-than-perfect results in the beginning.

"This is really hard work," Greenberg says. "So many factors are working against innovation in public schools.... The current system is not doing a very good job by our current students. We need to provide some cover for these schools to be able to take risks."

Rocketship this year launched a major new experiment that, in the end, it decided to back away from. It shifted fourth- and fifth-grade classes into a "flex space" classroom in which the entire grade – as many as 100 students – was combined into a single classroom with several teachers and an aide to direct online learning.

At Si Se Puede one recent morning, one fifth-grade teacher focused on math and two more on literacy, and a tutor monitored and helped students as they worked through varying levels of math online.

The idea behind the model was to offer more targeted instruction through flexible grouping, to encourage teacher collaboration and specialization, and to more fully integrate technology into the classroom, rather than just using it in the learning lab.

But while Rocketship saw positive results at some of its schools, those results varied widely. In many classrooms, the data was no better than it was in Rocketship's previous rotational model, despite the huge effort required for the flex classrooms. Student response was uneven, and some flex teaching teams worked together better than others. Rocketship will abandon that model and pursue the same goals in less drastic ways.

Even when there were good results, "the level of effort required to get those results did not feel scalable," says Lynn Liao, Rocketship's chief program officer. But she also says trying such a drastic approach opened eyes to the potential it might hold in a school less focused on growth and scalability than Rocketship, with the right group of educators.

"If we were one school right now, I think it could be pretty amazing," Ms. Liao says.

Facts vs. skills: Which is best use of teachers?

At Summit Shasta, where the changes this year have been even bolder than the ones attempted in the flex classrooms, school leaders and teachers are pleased with the results so far.

Getting all the content ready for the online instruction took an enormous amount of effort from 50 teachers over the summer.

Summit uses instructional materials from Khan Academy, various Web pages, and some paid adaptive software programs, but the core of its curriculum was built by its teachers.

Next summer, the charter network plans another "Summer of Summit" to continue to develop materials and conduct teacher training – it's a major investment, but one Summit believes will pay off.

Education professionals are closely watching results – looking to surveys, state test scores, anecdotal teacher data, and how quickly students progress and turn in assignments.

"We know what the indicators should look like," says Mr. Deane, of Summit.

Sussman, the history teacher, says he's already seen tremendous growth since August in many of his students. Those who initially seemed to lack motivation have started realizing what they need to do to keep up: Some who were significantly behind have been putting in extra work on weekends, seeking out peer tutors, seeing teachers during their office hours, and catching up. "It's a habit of success they needed to work with in terms of time management, and their understanding of what it means to be successful," says Sussman. "I think they're much more aware than students I've taught before of what demands a class has, and what they need to accomplish to be successful."

One student, says Sussman, began the year without even rudimentary punctuation skills, and his first few essays were essentially stream of consciousness. But Sussman directed him to Reading Plus, a computer program he can work with during his online computer time to improve his skills. Now his punctuation and basic writing skills have improved greatly.

Not that the shifts have been easy for the teachers. Sussman admits he has a hard time letting go of teaching history facts – even though in some cases his students are still watching him give a lecture via a "flipped classroom" model in which his lecture is recorded and online.

And he says that the "almost incomprehensible amount of data" teachers get about students can be overwhelming.

Teachers at Summit get an unusual amount of planning and professional development time, because students do one- or two-week "expeditions" – courses in visual or performing arts, internships, or other enrichment experiences – for eight weeks of the year. But they are also working hard to develop their projects, monitor students' progress, and make sure that the online content materials are sufficient. "It's not more or less work than in a traditional classroom," says Sussman. "But I feel like the work I'm doing is more productive."

With sixth-graders at the brand-new Summit Denali, teachers focus on big interdisciplinary themes. Along with their climate-change project, they worked in the fall on how to represent the past, a unit that involved science, math, history, and English. Students researched key events in the formation of Earth, built a timeline and scaled it appropriately, researched creation myths from other cultures that they shared in a Socratic seminar, and wrote their own creation myths.

"We've seen really impressive growth in their abilities to be self-directed learners – way more than I would have expected sixth-graders to be able to do," says Brian Johnson, the science teacher at Denali.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, he conducted his weekly check-ins with his students.

"How did the modeling go this morning?" he asks a sixth-grade student, as he pulls up her personalized learning plan on his computer. When she admits her group was getting a bit distracted, he probes until she comes up with some strategies to stay on track during the two hours of group work they'll have the next day.

He notices she's on track in math and science, and has successfully completed two content areas that day, but is a bit behind in English and history. She agrees, and sets a goal for taking her Ancient Greece assessment by the following day, as well as more goals for the coming two weeks.

Since August, says Summit founder Tavenner, she's seen growth "at a very granular level" through skills students are demonstrating and rates at which they're learning. Students who'd always relied on a teacher to tell them when to take a test now have internalized a sense of when they know something, and when they're ready to demonstrate that knowledge.

"I fundamentally believe this is the right environment for the vast majority of kids," Tavenner says. "It might be really uncomfortable at first, but that's why they should be here.… We believe learning should be fixed and time should be variable. We need to get comfortable with kids taking different amounts of time to do things."

This summer, she adds, there will be plenty of introspection, evaluation, and rethinking: "I can see 150 things I want to tweak every day. But ... do I feel confident that we've gotten the basic framework and model right?

"One hundred percent," she says.

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