Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Student Experience: Blended Learning

We are wrapping up our week of tech camp, where my co-teacher, Michele Eaton, and I have implemented blended learning with 23 fourth grade students. We structured part of our day using the station rotation model of blended learning (see my blog post on the models of blended learning for a full explanation). Our students completed online lessons followed by face-to-face group learning on the same topic.

It was interesting to see our students transition to independent online learning. Honestly, I was surprised at how quickly and easily they made the switch. It only took about two days of direct support before they were able to navigate through the online lessons on their own. Our students were on task, engaged, and persisting to complete their work. Of course, there were times when a few students needed technical help or redirection to focus on the course work, but as a whole, it was such a smooth transition!

Student Perceptions of Blended Learning

I asked students what they thought of our new learning model. Most students responded that they liked working online because they could use their Chromebooks. Here are a few highlights that had me cheering.

This kiddo is an English language learner. I was so impressed with his growth this week. He seemed to really take in the instruction and apply it to his projects. He stated that he liked that he could take his Chromebook home and continue to work on the online content because sometimes it takes a little longer for him to complete his work. When I asked him about understanding the content, he said that he liked that he could play videos and audio directions as many times as he needed.

Our friend here enjoyed practicing the skills we were learning about in small group on his Chromebook. He liked that there were games incorporated within the online learning modules.

She likes that she can learn on her own first and then practice the same skill with the teacher in a new way.

Benefits of Online and Face-to-Face Connection

A critical aspect of blended learning is having a strong connection between online and face-to-face learning. My co-teacher and I were very intentional about creating online content that provided us with actionable data to use in our face-to-face instruction. We could easily tell which students needed more practice and how to best support their learning during our face-to-face time.

At the same time, our face-to-face learning could piggyback off of what students just learned online, allowing our time spent together to be extremely productive. When basic content is covered independently online, the teacher is better able to support students in applying and transferring their new knowledge to more challenging tasks.

In all, I noticed that our students made significant progress in the skills of making inferences and theme. I feel that we made more progress in this week than we would have if had we taught using a traditional classroom model. Using blended learning to teach these skills was incredibly beneficial for our class!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

So Much More Than Screen Time

There is a common misconception that blended learning means students spend most of the instructional day in front of a computer screen working in isolation. I can say that this is nothing like what our students experienced this week at Tech Camp. Independent screen-time learning was only about 30 minutes of our 3 hours together each day. The other two and a half hours consisted of collaborative learning activities and technology-rich lessons.  

Learning centers from left to right: guided reading, online learning, collaborative group project.
Photo credit: Robbie Grimes

Breakout EDU

You have probably heard of the increasingly popular breakout rooms in which participants are willingly locked in a room and must solve a series of puzzles to escape. Breakout EDU is the educational counterpart. Students work collaboratively to solve a series of nonlinear critical thinking puzzles in order to open a series of locks on a breakout box.

The best part about using breakout boxes with students is that you can create puzzles to support the learning your students have been doing in class and online. Students also engage in problem solving, teamwork, and critical thinking. Breakout EDU also has a library of breakouts you can browse, gain ideas from, or replicate.

We had two groups of students simultaneously working to solve identical puzzles in order to open their boxes. Our first breakout is The Case of the Principal’s Prize. The backstory is that our principal heard that we had some amazing technology prizes to give away during tech camp, so she locked them up for safekeeping. She left clues and puzzles that our fourth grade students would be able to solve by making inferences.

Our second breakout is The Crafty Crook Caper. A crook slipped into our building and locked up all our supplies that we need to complete our group project for the week. Students worked together and solved puzzles by applying their knowledge of main idea and details.

To be honest, our students struggled with the breakout activities. Some of our puzzles were probably a bit too challenging for their first breakout experiences. They were not used to needing to complete an activity without explicit instructions for each task, and they were challenged to persevere with difficult tasks. These skills are critical for our 21st century learners, and so I see a need to provide further opportunities for my students to grow in this way.

On a positive note, our students used teamwork and had to communicate effectively with others. Despite the challenging nature of the breakouts, our students were excited to begin each round, and they asked if we could do more.

Tech Integration

We also used technology as a tool for a collaborative project students worked on throughout the week. Students practiced the skill of identifying the main idea and supporting details while synthesizing texts by reading various current event articles. Next, teams wrote a script to convey this information in interesting news broadcasts. We published our student work on our classroom learning page so that students could watch various broadcasts, determine the main idea of the videos, and provide feedback for their peers.
Photo credit: Michele Eaton

Another skill we focused on this week was identifying the theme of fictional texts. After completing two online learning modules along with guided reading lessons with a teacher, students constructed their own fictional stories around a chosen theme using Storybird. This website is a wonderful tool to inspire student writers-and it is free for teachers! Our students chose an image from an online gallery as a starting point for their stories. Later, we had students do a gallery walk around the room where they read various stories and identified the theme their peers were trying to convey.   
Photo credit: Michele Eaton

A Piece of the Puzzle

See? Blended learning doesn’t mean that students are isolated or stuck in front of a computer screen. In fact, after seeing blended learning in action during tech camp, I would describe blended learning as a part of our day, or a piece of a larger puzzle. Our time was interactive and engaging--balanced between collaborative group work and blended learning.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Need for Change

Stop and read that quote again. Now think about today’s schools and classrooms and ask yourself this critical question:

Do our current school systems adequately prepare students for their future reality?

A Problem with Our Current Schools

Any teacher, parent, or student can give you a list of problems in our schools today. Some of the common issues in today’s schools involve student engagement, rigor of academic standards, high-stake testing, and closing achievement gaps.

Perhaps an underlying issue is the larger topic of the way in which we structure our school systems. Consider the current traditional school model. Students are divided by age into classrooms where education is standardized in order to efficiently educate many students.

Despite the benefit of efficiency in this standardized model, today’s educators have recognized a significant flaw in this system- our students aren’t standard. One size does not fit all. In reality, our students have a major need for differentiation. We all know that just because two students are the same age doesn’t mean they have the same educational needs. In fact, a classroom with 25 students has 25 unique learners, each with their own interests, strengths, and needs.

Another major difference between the our school structure and student learning involves the idea of knowledge. Jane GIlbert explains the difference in our understanding of knowledge in her article Catching the Knowledge Wave. Knowledge used to require knowing facts and processes. As our nation continues to progress, knowledge will be measured and used in different ways. It will be less important for tomorrow’s graduates to be able to recite basic information, and more important to think critically, problem solve, and create knowledge.

Did you know that America has had this same educational model since the industrial age? The comparison has even been made that today’s schools are just like industrial factories producing standard students. Times have changed, so why haven’t our school systems?  Today’s schools should be less about students receiving knowledge from their teachers and more about experiencing learning in ways that foster independent thinking and problem solving.

Today’s graduates will enter a global economy defined by its innovation. As Richard Riley predicted, we may not know what jobs we are preparing our students for, and we may not know what problems we are preparing them to solve, but we do know the types of skills they will need. Creativity along with an ability to easily locate and assess relevant information are essential skills.  21st century citizens must be able to collaborate flexibly, think critically, problem solve, and apply technology effectively and ethically.  A different, non-traditional approach to learning is required in order for students to have rich opportunities to develop these skills.

A Solution is Waiting

Could blended learning be that non-traditional approach to address these issues? It could- if it’s implemented to do so.  Blended learning can essentially go beyond differentiation to personalization. It has the potential to allow classrooms and schools to be both efficient and personalized for students. It can change the way in which we structure schools, allowing for customization, meeting each student exactly where they are and helping them move forward.

At the same time, blended learning can also be used to support the current industrial model of schooling. The overall structure of school may not change, but technology can be used to implement blended learning to improve learning.

I teach in a traditional school. My classroom usually consists of both general education and special education students. I see a definite need to personalize education for my students. Meeting their individual needs is difficult to accomplish, at best. I don’t have the ability to change the structure of my school, but there is something I can do in my own classroom.  

I don’t think blended learning is a fad. It’s not another initiative that will come and go. When I think about the future of education, I don’t predict that we will use technology less than we are now. I think the key will be using technology in smart ways. I see blended learning as a great solution for my class in order to better address the needs of my students, promote 21st century skills, and prepare my students for their futures.

If you’d like to hear more on this topic, watch this 5 minute interview with Michael B. Horn: Ending the Classroom Factory Model: How Technology Will Personalize Education

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Implementing Blended Learning

What Does Blended Learning Look Like?

There are four main models of blended learning. Many schools and teachers mix models together to fit the specific goals of their program and the learning needs of their students. All four of these models meet the three criteria of blended learning set by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker in their book, Blended.
  • Online learning:  allows the student some control over the time, place, path, or pace of their learning.
  • Brick and mortar learning: students spend some amount of time in a traditional school setting.
  • Connected learning: online and brick and mortar learning are connected so that one supports the other.

I’ll give a quick overview of each model here, but if you are looking for a resource to go more in depth, check out Blended Learning Universe. You’ll find short videos depicting each model and its application in real schools and classrooms. The four models are:
  • Rotation
  • Flex
  • A La Carte
  • Enriched Virtual


Students rotate on some sort of schedule. There are four main types of rotations within this one model. This model allows teachers in a traditional setting to implement blended learning at the classroom level.
  • Station rotation- students rotate between a series of stations, one of which is online learning.
  • Lab rotation- this is very similar to station rotation, but rather than having students complete their online learning within the classroom, they rotate to a computer lab setting to free up space in the classroom.
  • Flipped- In a traditional classroom, teachers create and teach lessons in which they model content and guide students toward independence. Homework typically allows students to continue practicing these skills. In a flipped model, students do the learning part of the lesson online either at home or at school, then they practice and apply the skills they are learning with direct teacher support.
  • Individual rotation- This model allows for significant personalization of instruction for students. Student data can be used to group students based on need and then provide the type of instruction they will most benefit from. Individual rotation can be highly flexible when student data is used for specific standard or skill based teaching.


The flex model has students working on course material primarily online at school. Teachers are on sight and available to support student learning through small group projects, collaboration, and intervention. Students have a considerable amount of control over their learning in this model.

A La Carte

Students can take a few classes completely online while also attending a brick and mortar school. This setup would be very beneficial in providing advanced or specialty courses online if a school is unable to provide those classes on-site for their students.

Enriched Virtual

Students learning through an enriched virtual model do most of their learning online and off campus. Some face-to-face learning is required and can be individualized based on the student's progress in their online learning. Scheduling is individualized by course and student, so students may meet on campus only a few days a week for a set amount of time.

My Implementation Plan

I have a unique opportunity to try blended learning for the first time. I’m very fortunate to co-teach with my district’s director of virtual and blended learning. We will implement the station rotation model of blended learning during a week-long spring intersession for fourth graders at my school.  The theme of the week is Tech Camp. Students will use various technology tools to create different projects while practicing key reading skills. Our time will be divided between whole group activities and small group stations.

In order to meet the three criteria of blended learning, we want to be very intentional that the online learning will support the face-to-face learning. At one station, students will complete online learning modules covering our key reading strategies of the week.  Student performance on the various tasks within the learning modules will inform small group lessons with me, where I plan to reinforce, practice, and apply the same skills at a deeper level.

After Tech Camp, I plan to implement station rotation within my daily reading groups in much the same way. I love the idea of my students taking more ownership of their learning and controlling the pace of their learning in order to build competency and mastery of reading skills. I think using the online learning portion of our rotations to inform my face-to-face instruction will be really powerful!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Blended Learning Explained

Let’s start by saying that blended learning is not just another term for technology integration. Don’t get me wrong, integrating technology into instruction is wonderful! It increases engagement, allows for students to perform interesting and real-world tasks, and helps build 21st century skills- but it’s not blended learning. (For more on technology integration, see my post Starting with Technology Integration.)

Blended learning can best be described as a continuum.  Imagine traditional schools and classrooms on one end. All the way on the other end is virtual schools, where students complete all their learning at home online. Blended learning takes up the space in between those two learning models.

According to this great book I’m reading called Blended by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker, blended learning is a formal education program defined by three specific criteria:
  • Online learning:  allows the student some control over the time, place, path, or pace of their learning.
  • Brick and mortar learning: students spend some amount of time in a traditional school setting.
  • Connected learning: online and brick and mortar learning are connected so that one supports the other.

Essentially, it blends some aspect of traditional schools and some aspect of online learning to create a hybrid of sorts. It uses time and resources differently than a traditional school might. What makes blended learning a little difficult to pin down is that it can take any number of forms.

Blended learning can also be implemented on many different levels. Whole districts and schools can structure student learning using a certain type of blended learning. At the same time, teachers or grade teams can implement other blended learning strategies in a traditional classroom setting.

It’s my goal to implement blended learning in my classroom in order to personalize learning for my students and maximize my instructional time. My next blog post will explain the different ways teachers and schools can implement blended learning, so stick around!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Starting with Technology Integration

Integrating technology into instruction can have countless advantages for student learning. My students are engaged and practicing 21st century skills while also learning core content.  It’s not the same as blended learning, but who says you have to choose one or the other? My journey into blended learning began with an interest in technology integration. I’ll explain the different levels of integration and share some of my favorite lesson ideas with you.

The SAMR Model

The SAMR model is a pretty well known explanation of four different ways a teacher can use technology in her classroom. Each level uses technology in a different way. Technology can be used to enhance what is already being done in the classroom. It can also be used to transform learning- allowing students and teachers new learning possibilities. Check out this two minute video for some very applicable examples of each SAMR level.

By Lefflerd  CC BY-SA 4.0

Integration Examples

When my grade level received one-to-one devices for our students, my goal was to go beyond simply replacing paper and pencil with laptops and keyboards. I wanted to integrate technology in ways that would not only make learning better for my students, but be manageable at the same time. I decided to take one lesson idea for each grading period and integrate technology into something I was already doing. Here are a few ways I have done that.

Digital Comics

Comics are a great way to teach about conflict. In our unit about story elements, my students used digital comics to practice creating and depicting conflict. It was a great way to engage students. Since comics are relatively short, students were able to create multiple short stories.

Video Book Talks

A crucial fourth grade skill is summarizing the main events in the plot of a story. A typical classroom task might involve simply retelling the main events, writing a summary paragraph, or outlining the story.  

Our one-to-one devices also allow video recording, so it is a natural step for my class to create video book talks. Students record their work and share it with peers in order to recommend further reading. Students practice summarizing a story, creating media, and communicating to an authentic audience with the addition of technology. Better yet, students are encouraging their peers to read books they find interesting!

Project Based Learning: Creating Persuasive Media

I’m thrilled about this PBL lesson I created for one of my graduate school classes.  I plan to implement it this spring with my students in conjunction with our persuasive writing unit. It also addresses our science content about natural resources. Students learn about current issues concerning our natural resources and then apply persuasive techniques when creating digital medial. Check it out: Natural Resources: Make a Change!

Digital Stories

One of the most challenging Language Arts concepts for my fourth graders to grasp is the dynamic nature of characters and plot. My students really struggle to understand how a character impacts the plot of a story. To address this issue, I had my students take the well known story of The Three Little Pigs, and give the Big Bad Wolf a new character trait. This character trait would then change what happened in the story.

After working with my students on this task during reading groups for about a week, I thought about using digital stories as a tool. I created a model for my students, and next school year, I plan to have my students create their own digital stories. Watch my digital story model of the Three Little Pigs and the Lazy Wolf.

Give it a Try!

If you’re unsure about technology integration, I encourage you to take a lesson that you already teach and try to incorporate technology. Make it manageable. It’s a process- and the evolving nature of technology ensures that it will always be changing. EdTechTeacher is a great resource if you are looking for apps, lessons, and collaboration.