"Teamwork Makes the Dream Work- Building a Successful Blended Learning Program"
Article reprinted with permission from EdSurge. Original publication August 24, 2017
The quiet innovation among a group of school districts in Iowa is leading to unique, sustainable and transferable solutions for blended learning programs. With support from Grant Wood Area Education Agency, Eastern Iowa schools are dramatically changing the face of classroom education through blended learning, and are doing so without relying upon funding outside of their normal operating budgets.Three years ago, with the help of the education agency the Grant Wood Area Education Agency (GWAEA), Iowa rolled out its initiative to implement blended learning as a model for the state. Prompted by district administrators’ desire to find ways to build student agency, engage student passion and personalize learning, we hoped blended learning would shake up the status quo and spark large scale change.
Going into the pilot, we knew two things:
First, teachers had already been introduced to the concept of personalized learning through a statewide initiative called the “Multi-Tiered Systems of Support” (MTSS). MTSS is a process that uses data to identify the academic and behavioral supports every student needs to be successful.
Second, Iowa had formed a collaborative to investigate, develop, and implement competency-based education (CBE) pathways for students and create a framework to guide the statewide implementation of CBE. In a competency based system, students advance upon proficiency and receive rapid differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. The collaborative identified blended learning as one vehicle to implement competency based education and personalize student learning.
With this context in mind, GWAEA launched its blended learning pilot program in 2014, selected for its ability to converge local and state initiatives while providing a pathway to personalized learning. The pilot was designed to create and then evaluate the most effective, scalable, and sustainable method of incorporating blended learning. We knew that meant more than simply integrating technology into the school day. Blended learning is an instructional methodology that combines face to face and online learning to personalize the learning experience to meet the specific needs of each student.
The end result of the pilot was a sustained blended learning program for the districts and key learnings to support the effective implementation of blended learning as a pathway to personalization. Getting there wasn’t easy, but through trial-and-error, we created something worth emulating. Here are our takeaways, three years down the road.
Provide professional learning that allows participants to experience blended learning
It was very challenging to help educators understand how to deliver their instruction in a blended format without having observed it in action or experiencing it themselves. We found that the teachers who learned through a blended format and who had the opportunity to observe blended learning in the classroom were able to implement more quickly. We now provide professional development for educators in a blended format, modeling the strategies that would occur in the classroom.
Provide ongoing feedback from those who understand blended learning AND instructional coaching
While our professional learning helped our teachers to understand blended learning, it remained a challenge for them to implement. When provided with an instructional coach who provided ongoing observations with feedback and targeted coaching, the implementation was quicker and more effective. We now require each team to designate a blended learning coach who will serve in this capacity.
Invest in training coaches
Before joining the pilot, school districts committed to bring a team of teachers, an instructional coach, and the building administrator to several full days of training throughout the school year over two years. They also committed to implementing blended learning experiences for their students. At the onset we didn’t adequately equip the coaches with the training, tools and processes to effectively support the teachers. We now offer a Blended Learning Coaching Academy where we train coaches on the critical design and implementation steps needed to launch a blended practice along with techniques and coaching practices to support teachers throughout this process. This had made all the difference in getting stronger results.
Differentiate the learning for principals and superintendents
While teachers needed the blended learning “nuts and bolts,” we found that principals needed support to understand how to scale blended learning within their building, and superintendents needed to understand how to provide leadership and support for this across the district. Because of this, we added a learning strand for principals to provide them with a rich and engaging blended experience where they learn to transform their schools with blended and digital learning to personalize education for their students.
The learning is based on the “Leading Digital and Blended Learning-Building Principal Capacity” course developed by the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. To support superintendents, we provided learning through a series of sessions related to leading change and facilitated a book study utilizing the book “Blended, Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools” by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker.
Provide team time for collaboration, reflection and planning
Time is needed for team reflection, planning and collaboration. Establishing and communicating a solid plan for why the school is moving into blended learning and implementing actions to make it happen is critical in gaining the support of all stakeholders. The schools that designated time for teams to plan together on a consistent basis had greater success with implementation.
Be patient with implementation AND impact data
Personalizing the learning experience for students is a complex undertaking. Allowing teams to implement strategies that fit their readiness level and their classroom context as opposed to a particular model is most effective. While qualitative data can be collected to measure progress around such things as changes in instructional practices, increases in student engagement, decreases in office referrals, etc., the changes in student achievement occurs more slowly over time.
Evaluate the impact
After three years of working with schools to implement blended learning, we are beginning to see impact in both student engagement and achievement. Educators report that blended learning has helped them utilize student data to be more responsive to student needs and better able to personalize the learning for students. Students report that they like the blended format as they believe they learn more, learn better, and have more opportunities to ask questions.
One alternative middle school classroom reported great growth on their district common assessment where in 2015-16 (before implemented blended learning) only 22% of students were proficient on District Common Assessments but after implementing blended learning in 2016-17 85% of students were proficient on the assessments. An elementary school whose blended learning goal focused on increasing math proficiency found 85% of the students proficient in math on the Iowa Assessments prior to blending and after implementing blended learning 92% of the students were proficient.
Teachers, students and administrators report increased engagement. As shared by one of our principals:
While we discovered that a four pronged differentiated approach to professional learning for teachers, coaches, principals and superintendents was most effective, we also know that continued learning and support is needed through a second year. Next year we will provide a learning strand for continuing teams to go deeper with personalization, establish demonstration sites, create a repository of tools, and pilot coaching software for blended learning coaches.
Implementing blended learning as a pathway to personalization requires a collective effort that takes time and patience. But with the collective commitment and effort from the superintendent, principals, teachers, and instructional coaches, teamwork can make the dream work.
Dr. Lisa Wilson was an educator for over 30 years serving in the public and private sectors. She retired from her position as an administrator at Grant Wood Area Education Agency in 2018.