The conversation began at the faculty room water cooler 10 years ago. Actually, it did! A colleague asked if I’d read much about blended learning as a teaching strategy. She shared a link to a blog that provided a brief report on how one teacher in an innovative school was coaching her students to select their own timing, location, and pathways to learning in a high school social studies class as she combined traditional classroom instruction with self-paced and independent online lessons. Intrigued, I searched further for more examples of blended classrooms and soon discovered a trove of resources and best practices. Motivation followed intrigue. Would online lessons be acceptable at my school? Could I beta test a blended format with an AP European History class — surely they are motivated enough to handle the independent work, right? Should I give that much agency to sophomores? What if they are distracted while on the internet? Would students be productive and successful without my presence in the room? How will we take attendance if students don’t come to class every day? (I sense there’s a chorus of chuckling educators in the audience about now.)
The Clayton Christensen Institute was one of the key resources I consulted to begin my journey implementing a blended learning format in AP European History. The description on their website, then and now, is simply stated and could also be a descriptor for schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic:
The definition of blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns:
1. at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace;
2. at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home;
3. and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.
(Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.)
Truth be told, the first year with a blended learning format was wobbly and required a ton of time to frontload my course webpage with engaging online lesson options. It also required me to gain support from two constituent groups — my administrators and the parents of my students. Convincing the department chair of the benefits of blended learning was no problem because innovative teaching is always trending; convincing the parents of my students was another matter altogether. Online lessons without a live teacher seemed for many to equate to lazy teaching. That first back-to-school night session introducing parents to my new method was not the smoothest of my career. With student learning foremost on my mind, the process continued and soon it became obvious that students craved the choice and individualization in their learning process that blended instruction provided. Nothing was lost when I stepped away from the center of the room on our “online days”; in fact, there was more time to connect with students 1:1. Building relationships with students had never been easier or more rewarding. And, student learning was keeping pace. If AP scores are one measure of success, the results were positive year after year. More importantly, blending classroom and online instruction was cultivating a personalized and more engaged student response.
Looking back on the past year of teaching through a pandemic, blended learning is surprisingly not a novelty but what we’ve all embraced as a necessity. Like it or not, our teachers have revealed the versatility and adaptability of online education and students are developing self-direction and self-regulation skillsets. Leveraging technology to support student engagement, and affirming the value of student agency are now pro forma. Students may choose when, where, what, and how they will learn when given clear objectives, effective strategies, and ongoing mentoring and feedback. Innovative teaching might have been the original driver for blending instruction but personalized learning without limits is what will sustain it.