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Three Critical Components for A Successful Blended Learning Classroom

Blended Learning - "My observations and experiences in a nutshell."

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I have been visiting classrooms and observing instruction since 2004 when I was an instructional coach. In recent years, I have heard more and more teachers using the term “blended learning.” Far too often I walk into classrooms that are labeled blended learning classrooms in which the lesson that the teacher is teaching does not have anything to do with the online component that the other half of the class is working on. A good practice is for the content of the brick and mortar lesson (classroom instruction) and the online lesson to be highly connected. According to Wikipedia, “a lack of consensus on a definition of blended learning has led to difficulties in research on its effectiveness in the classroom.”[i]

If I were to go back to the classroom today, I would incorporate three simple elements to strengthen blended learning in my own classroom. They are: direct connection, materials and protocols, and strategic follow-up.

Before I discuss the three elements, I present a working definition of blended learning.

Blended Learning – What is it?

Blended learning is an approach that combines traditional classroom teaching with online instruction. It allows groups of students to engage in direct instruction with the teacher, while at the same time permitting another group to work independently utilizing online or technology-based materials.

Blended learning also lends itself to a flipped classroom model where students may, for example, watch a video at home, take notes according to a protocol, and then come to class the following day prepared to discuss the content of the video. The teacher facilitates the in-class discussion and allows students to share their ideas, connections, agreements, and disagreements as part of an extended lesson or unit.

It is important to note that the online component of blended learning is only as good as the program, materials, or video being used. I argue that blended learning left to its own accord will not produce the results educators are seeking without the intentional utilization of three simple elements of direct connection, materials and protocols, and follow-up.

1. Direct Connection

The direct instruction and online learning components of a blended learning classroom should be tightly connected. This is key and far too often missed in environments dubbed as “blended learning” classrooms. For example, if the directed lesson is on persuasive writing, then students can be reading a persuasive book/article, as the online component of a blended learning classroom. The group with the teacher may be learning about the parts of a persuasive essay and may engage in an introductory shared writing piece, while the group utilizing technology may be involved in reading a “just right” book/article that presents arguments in favor of and against a certain topic. This tight connection of classroom and online instruction will strengthen the overall lesson and will create multiple pathways of understanding and learning. If there is time, during the same class period, the students switch; if there is not enough time, the switch happens the following day when the students who previously worked online now receive instruction from the teacher and those who already worked with the teacher have an opportunity to engage in independent online reading at their “just right” level.

2. Materials and Protocols

During direct instruction students may benefit from graphic organizers for writing, or they can create their own that identifies, based on the example in this case, the parts of a persuasive essay. Additionally, students on the computers may benefit from having paper and pencil to jot down ideas, thoughts, impressions, and viewpoints while reading the online article. Teachers can create and teach students specific protocols to support students in actively thinking about the text they are reading. For example, students can be instructed to put a check mark next to the statements that they agree with and write down connections they made in their own personal lives related to those statements. Furthermore, students can identify a passage that presents a different way of thinking, one they had not thought of, and put a question mark next to statements that they challenge or do not agree with. This type of protocol forces students to read mindfully and with intention and allows them to think about their stance on the issues discussed in the article.

3. Strategic Follow-Up

Follow-up is an important component of any lesson. Teachers should make a point of allowing time for the entire class to regroup and discuss the learning that took place during the class period and over the course of the unit. The purpose of the daily follow-up is to clear misconceptions, solidify understanding, and connect this experience to previous learning. Questions to consider might be: What did we learn today during the directed lesson? Share some of your ideas, thoughts, impressions, and viewpoints while reading the online text? What did you learn about writing a persuasive essay from the directed lesson? How about from the online exercise? What connections did you notice? What were some of the challenges you encountered? These daily or periodic check-ins provide the teacher with information on gaps in student learning and aid with subsequent lesson planning. The purpose of the unit follow-up would be to reflect on learning, make important connections, assess overall understanding, and provide closure that would require similar inquiry and facilitation skills from the teacher.

Conclusion

Careful planning will ensure that the content of the blended learning environment is tightly connected to allow the two forms of instruction (classroom and online learning) to meaningfully relate and enrich and build upon the overall learning experience on a specific topic, standard, or skill. Educational leaders (i.e., directors, principals and coaches) should clearly articulate the critical ingredients of blended learning classrooms which should include direct connections between the content of the classroom learning and online learning, carefully selected online materials, programs, and/or text with the utilization of protocols, and intentional and strategic follow-up. Clarifying the expectations of a blended learning classroom will build consensus and lead to greater uniformity on process that may, in fact, increase the overall effectiveness of improving student outcomes through blended learning.

[i] Blended Learning. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved July 7, 2018.

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