Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Blended Learning That is Truly Blended

(Originally published on GettingSmart.com on May 10, 2013.)

One aspect of education that will never change is the incessant introduction and demise of buzz words. These days educators are discussing flipped classrooms, flattened classrooms, MOOC’s, infographics, gamification, and, of course, blended learning. Even though blended learning is erroneously becoming synonymous with online, digital learning, it is arguably the most intriguing and perhaps the least mastered of all current buzz words. According to Rob Bock, The Lexington Institute contends “that many schools have embraced the term ‘blended learning’ without grasping its true significance.” Blended Learning HardisonAs my progressive school district in Hall County, Georgia moves forward with the creation of our first Blended Learning Academy, the four concepts of self-knowledge, shared knowledge, student learning options, and an inspirational facility remain at the forefronts of our minds. To me, this hot-topic, instructional method is quite straightforward, and, ironically enough, the main ingredient of its effectiveness lies in its name. In fact, a successful blended learning model is simply…blended.

Self-Knowledge

Although the four concepts mentioned above are equally interdependent, the notion of self-knowledge is seemingly foundational. Even the famous martial artist and philosopher Bruce Lee would have agreed. According to him, “A great deal of pure self-knowledge and inner understanding allows us to lay an all-important foundation for the structure of our life from which we can perceive and take the right avenues.” Think about it. How many times were you asked the right questions as a student? Questions such as: What are your talents? How do you learn best? What distracts you from learning? What are your most challenging weaknesses? What ignites your curiosity? Who was your favorite teacher of all time and why? How will (insert course name) advance you towards your ultimate goals? Without playing an armchair psychologist, all teachers can do one magical thing before ever assigning any learning tasks: allow students’ voices to be heard by challenging them to examine their learning styles, strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, and passions. What will they gain? Self-knowledge. What will you gain? Students who know exactly what they want and how they plan on getting there.     Want to see our first assignment for students entering the Blended Learning Academy at East Hall High School? Take a look here.

Shared Knowledge

Another pivotal principle of a successful blended learning academy is shared knowledge. Without a doubt, all productive environments, whether an educational institution or a Fortune 500 company, practice sharing knowledge. By encouraging students to be transparent learners, they exemplify the wise saying from Ben Franklin, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Here are just a few ways our blended learning team will foster such an environment. First, students will fashion their own personal profiles in such a place as to be visible by all. Each profile will begin with a student picture just above a detailed list of his/her weaknesses, strengths, talents, interests, and aspirations. Of course, this information stems from the student survey mentioned above. Also, each student will be asked to post the current status of in-progress projects or assignments, as well as any areas of needed help. By encouraging, not forcing, students to be transparent and honest with their education, a wealth of shared knowledge is created and maintained by individuals who realistically see themselves as “works-in-progress” and as possessors of unique talents and abilities. This student profile will not be limited to only students. No, sir. No, ma’am. My teacher profile will be posted also with an eager request for anyone, student or teacher, to help me learn Spanish. All notes will be shared by using Google Drive and by merging Evernote with IdeaPaint. Frowned upon gadgets like smartphones will be welcomed, and social media giants Twitter and Facebook will be leveraged to constantly share knowledge. Likewise, YouTube and SchoolTube will be our digital vehicles to transport our knowledge all around the globe.   To further enrich this culture of shared knowledge, two distinct walls will anchor our facility. A Past & Present wall will showcase digital and physical artifacts of exemplary student work. Imagine a perfected essay held by a small picture easel just below a ray of soft lighting. Whether the work of art is a rap parody with originally written lyrics or a mashed-up video showcasing an authentic rendering of algebraic equations, imagine a student’s digital project looping continuously on a wall-mounted flat-screen. In fact, just imagine amazing products that demonstrate mastery of standards from all courses. No matter if the products are digital or physical. As long as they represent knowledge, they should be shared. The second wall is equally as powerful. The Future wall will showcase a physical and digital shared Google calendar to keep all students abreast of the ever-evolving activities. A la the movie Good Will Hunting, students will also be encouraged to challenge their peers by posting unsolved problems, unfinished thoughts, unanswered queries, and unfulfilled requests for help on educational assignments.

Options

With a learning model bolstered by self-knowledge and shared knowledge, limitless options to show students’ mastery of standards is a discernible reality. Like I mentioned earlier, blended learning is NOT just digital learning. It is not, and cannot, simply be the image of a student tapping away on a computer while he consumes online content and has all surroundings muffled by oversized and overpriced headphones. I have witnessed some online courses that are basically digital versions of the same boring worksheets that have been so tirelessly thrown at kids for decades. Can online courses work? Absolutely. Are online courses synonymous with blended learning? Absolutely not. Blended learning is all about options that originate from inviting students to be co-leaders of their own education. Having devoted sufficient time for introspection, students are able to discuss with their content facilitators (formerly known as teachers) how they would like to reach certain standards or accomplish educational goals. Here are just a few examples of the options offered to our students:
  1. Master the standards by completing coursework through our online platform, HallConnect.
  2. Flip a classroom and be a part of creating a full-length movie (soundtrack, manuscript, and all recordings).
  3. Write and record an original song.
  4. Participate in interactive, whole classroom structures.
  5. Produce artistic creations that demonstrate knowledge.
  6. Use any digital tools to show mastery.
  7. Add to an online portfolio.
  8. Blog to the world.
  9. Participate with other students from around the world through video-conferencing tools.
  10. Gamify lessons.
  11. Construct models made of clay, wood, Leggos, etc.
  12. Engage in face-to-face, individual learning with a content facilitator or classmate.
Did I leave something out? No worries. If so, it will be covered by allowing students to self-prescribe a standards-based assignment in a detailed project/problem/passion-based contract. If all invested parties (students, parents, teachers) agree, the contract is signed and the learning begins.

The Facility

Every educator knows the facility that houses a learning environment is crucial to the success of the inhabitants. Without a doubt, the options mentioned above demand a flexible, “breathable” learning environment. And this is exactly what we plan on giving the students. Equipped with a portable 16’x 12’ stage, a musical recording studio, multiple flat-screens, a rocking audio system, a video-conferencing room, a student lounge with soft seating, student tables glazed with IdeaPaint, and an army of laptops and tablets, the Blended Learning Academy at East Hall High School will be absolutely nothing short of amazing. I wish I could walk you through the facility right now. However, our dream is taking shape at this very moment. It has involved a lot of hard work. We have shared knowledge. We have assessed the options. And our students will soon stand at the threshold of greatness. Hmmm. That sounds like learning to me. Learning that is truly blended.     

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