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From Bricks to Clicks: Blurring Classroom/Cyber Lines

Blended learning combines the elements of online and face-to-face teaching approaches by Liz Pape

At Fayetteville-Manlius High School, a traditional high school in an upscale suburb of Syracuse, N.Y., R.J. Hartwell teaches science. For the past 18 months, he has extended the learning day for his students in untraditional ways — through his Blackboard online component.

At Fayetteville-Manlius High School, a traditional high school in an upscale suburb of Syracuse, N.Y., R.J. Hartwell teaches science. For the past 18 months, he has extended the learning day for his students in untraditional ways — through his Blackboard online component.

On a typical morning before heading to school, Hartwell logs onto his school's Blackboard site to update his announcements page to remind his students that heÕll be available for assignment questions after school through the chat feature of Blackboard. (Hartwell usually heads to the local coffee shop after school for a little decompression time over a latte. Since the shop has wireless access, he also uses the time to chat electronically with his students about homework questions.)

Hartwell also posts some links to information about tropical cyclone Larry, which struck Australia the day prior. During his preparation period, he develops a re-quiz for an astronomy topic his students are struggling with. He plans to open the quiz to his students after he provides additional classroom instruction later that day. He writes himself a reminder to update his announcement after class to give the students information on where to find the quiz on his Blackboard site. He's designed the quiz to give the students instant feedback on their results, and to let them take the quiz as often as they need to show mastery of the topic.

Hartwell also has included the class homework assignments on his site, eliminating the perennial student excuse, "I forgot what homework was due." His lecture notes and PowerPoint slides also are available on the site for those students who want to review the classroom instruction. Hartwell has found this has made document exchange easier for students with learning disabilities. He no longer has to copy his notes for his students' special education teachers — they now have the students download the documents from Hartwell's site.

Increasing Attention
In recent years, thanks to the evolution of the Internet, wide availability of classroom computers and increased broadband access, blended learning is emerging as a new tool in the K-12 educational toolkit.

Defined as learning that combines online and face-to-face approaches, blended learning is accomplished through the combined use of virtual and face-to-face resources, such as those used in Fayetteville-Manlius. Blended learning enables classroom teachers to increase student learning opportunities beyond the school day and school year, more closely resembling the 24/7 model with which the current generation of students is most familiar.

The prevalence of blended learning use in school districts is not yet known. The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics' first report on distance education, "Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2002-03," surveyed distance education through online and video-delivered courses, but did not survey the use of the blended learning approach.

In my over 10 years of experience with the design and delivery of Virtual High School online courses, I've recently begun to realize that the real so-called "killer application" of online education is blended learning, not online courses. During my attendance at national and regional educational technology conferences over the past few years, I've noticed an increase in the number of sessions devoted to blended learning. It seems that school administrators, technology staff and teachers are taking the lessons from online education and modifying them to create blended learning models that can benefit students regardless of which medium they use for learning.

Multiple Advantages
With blended learning, schools now can maximize the use of technology in the classroom, integrating it into every K-12 teacher's curriculum. While blended learning can offer tremendous benefits to schools and educators, its primary benefits are to those we serve: students and parents.

For students, blended learning can lead to more engaging learning experiences. Experts believe that the lack of engagement is a key factor causing students to drop out of school. According to a report, "The Silent Epidemic," by Civic Enterprises, in association with Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 47 percent of high school dropouts blame boring classes for their disengagement. By moving beyond chalk and talk, teachers can accommodate every learning style and capture students' attention using a variety of multimedia elements.

In addition, blended learning can provide teachers, students and parents with real-time feedback relative to quizzes, tests, surveys and other formative assessments. Gone are the days of waiting weeks for test results. Teachers can facilitate immediate online assessments to see whether students have mastered material before moving on. With this approach, teachers can truly ensure that no child is left behind.

In addition, blended learning can offer parents the ability to see their child's assignments, the materials covered that week and what their child has accomplished and how he or she is progressing. By affording parents access to this information, educators can increase parental communication and involve parents in their child's educational process.

Finally, blended learning offers the opportunity to continue learning in times of disaster. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and concerns of an avian flu pandemic suggest a need to consider an online component as a means of continuing the learning process during disasters when students and teachers are not able to attend their schools.

Blended Models
When we talk about blended learning models, what are we blending?

We are blending ways of communicating with students, both asynchronous and synchronous, and blending classroom instruction with online instruction. The role of the teacher as facilitator of the student learning process is better supported in a blended learning model where the online component can foster exploration and the development of independent learning skills in students.

Blended learning spans the area between the traditional classroom and the online instructional model where course instruction is either delivered over the Internet or through two-way video conferencing. Blended learning itself consists of two models: the web-enhanced classroom and the hybrid classroom.

In the web-enhanced classroom, most of the instruction occurs in the classroom and the web enhancement supplements face-to-face instruction. For example, the teacher may put the course syllabus online, as well as the weekÕs assignments or announcements, to further communication between home and school for both students and parents. There also may be weekly self-paced learning elements such as PowerPoint presentations, online quizzes or Internet links to websites to extend the learning day and provide additional resources. In this model, there will be minimal use of more advanced interactive online elements such as discussion boards.

To go from a traditional classroom model to one that is web-enhanced, the instructor and/or administrator first will need to decide the purpose of web enhancement and what types of enhancements will best meet those needs. Then they will need to consider whether the enhancements will necessitate the purchase of outside tools.

In Baltimore County, Md., the instructional need was to increase mastery of algebra and geometry skills. Cognitive Tutor, a product of Carnegie Learning, was purchased to enhance classroom instruction, giving students the time needed, either during the school day or afterward to work on problem sets until mastery is attained. A benefit of the online tutor model is the program's ability to adapt the instruction and materials to the level of the student and to provide online guidance along the way.

Cognitive Tutor can redefine how students view homework and can help teachers redefine how and where they put their instructional efforts. Of the schools in Baltimore County that are using the product, approximately 60 percent of instruction is classroom-based, emphasizing introduction of topic, cooperative learning and exploration activities, and 40 percent is web-based instruction, where the emphasis is on practice of skills until mastery is obtained.

In this model, as well as the others, the teacher will need to work with the product until they are able and comfortable to execute on the planned course enhancements. In addition, they will need professional development so they can take on the role of facilitator, to make a webpage if they so desire, use an online course delivery platform such as Blackboard or best incorporate online curriculum tools into classroom instruction.

In this model we begin to see the learning paradigm shift to content mastery. In addition, the teaching focus will migrate from instructional time as the constant and mastery as the variable to one where mastery is the constant and instructional time is the variable. This enables students who master material more quickly to work ahead and those students who need extra practice to take the time they need to master a concept. Students remain engaged because their instruction is tailored to their specific needs under the guidance of an experienced teacher as learning facilitator. As a result of having basic online learning exposure, students also gain valuable Internet skills that will help them in their future education and career.

A Hybrid Classroom
The hybrid classroom goes a step beyond the web-enhanced model in its use of online elements because here instruction takes place partly online and partly face-to-face. This allows not only an extension of the school day but also of the school year and enables more classroom-type activities to occur outside of the classroom walls.

Because of this split, students will have less face-to-face classroom meeting time to balance the requirement for online time. For example, if a course were scheduled for five days a week, then it would physically meet only four days a week with the fifth being conducted entirely online.

This model originated in colleges and universities and is beginning to trickle down into high schools and middle schools as the need for students to develop 21st century learning skills becomes greater. In 2002, Harvard Business School faculty Brian DeLacey and Dorothy Leonard writing about distance education in the journal Educational Technology and Society contended students not only learned more when online sessions were added to traditional courses, but student interaction and satisfaction improved.

In the Acalanes, Calif., Unified School District, Advanced Placement courses now start before the school year with students engaging in online discussions on the chapter materials that most teachers assign to students as summer reading. Students are able to participate in more in-depth learning of those chapters through online discussions with other students.

Another example of this model in action can be found at Brattleboro High School in Vermont where the grant-funded Asian cultural exchange course is now in its third year. It is an educational opportunity for high school students from a small town in southern Vermont and students from Kunming, China, to learn about each other's cultures. Learning is accomplished in a seminar format, through the preparation of websites (using an application called Tripod that is an online personal publishing community) and asynchronous book discussions.

The course meets two times a week and the rest of the time is spent online. Each April Brattleboro High School students go to China to visit their sister schools in Kunming. This year, students are preparing PowerPoint presentations on U.S. teen culture that they will share when they meet, and Chinese students are learning about Brattleboro students through the course website.

In comparison to the web-enhanced classroom, the hybrid classroom model places more emphasis on professional development so teachers can acquire more advanced and specific online skills. These skills should include the ability to facilitate online discussions and online teamwork as well as support students in online activities. Teachers also need to learn how to construct an effective hybrid classroom that seamlessly blends face-to-face and online instruction. In addition, educators need to consider security issues, particularly ways to secure student information and/or course documents.

Online learning activities may include self-paced content mastery activities, group projects, online discussions and online presentations. The focus shifts to more student responsibility in the learning process with students gaining independent learning and time management skills and a greater sense of ownership and engagement in learning.

If the hybrid classroom also includes global classroom activities like the one in Brattleboro, Vt., students also will have the opportunity to develop global citizenship skills, gaining an appreciation for cultural and geographic differences. This model will help students develop Internet literacy, online collaboration and critical thinking skills.

Combination Courses
Most online courses, either asynchronous or synchronous, using Internet or video, are delivered entirely online, giving students an opportunity to take ownership and initiative for their learning. These online courses help students develop 21st century skills such as online collaboration, communication and presentation, while working in global learning communities and in a manner similar to their future college experience. In this model, teachers need much of the same professional development as in the hybrid classroom.

Manheim High School in central Pennsylvania has coined a unique term for courses they offer that are delivered entirely online but scheduled as a regular class would be and executed using school resources. (See related story) Called "virditional" (derived from the combination of virtual and traditional) courses, Manheim offers classes that are completely virtual but take place in a traditional classroom setting and are supported with classroom-based instructional resources. Students have the benefit of an onsite teacher to support them as they participate in their online courses.

Requisite Support
Blended learning requires the right mix of professional development, technical support and curriculum support to be effective for both the teacher and the student. It requires professional development of teachers, both pre-service and in-service. Teachers need to understand the instructional benefits blended learning brings to students, how those benefits can increase content mastery and 21st century learning skills, and how to go about developing and delivering blended learning instruction.

At Virtual High School, we recognize that much of what we teach in our online professional development courses for VHS teachers is also applicable to classroom teachers interested in blended learning. (For information on the VHS Best Practices courses, visit http://www.govhs.org/pages/ProfDev-BestPractices.) Taking the lessons learned from online teaching and learning and applying those lessons to a model of blended learning for all classroom teachers should be part of a model for the development of 21st century teachers.

Appropriate technical and curriculum support also is required to implement a blended learning program. A web-enhanced or hybrid classroom is only as effective as its online site. The site must be available consistently (usually 24/7), must meet compliance guidelines so it is accessible for students with visual, auditory or other disabilities, and must be secure from intruders. Curricular support comes from alignment of the online materials with the classroom curriculum, school or district's information management system and at a level that is engaging for students.

None of the blended learning models described is meant to replace teachers or schools. Rather they are meant to increase student learning, increase independent learning skills and expose students to a method of learning that is becoming an essential component of lifelong learning. With the proper blend, schools and teachers can increase the engagement of students in the learning process, accommodate a variety of learning styles through the use of multimedia elements, provide students with adaptive instruction and real-time feedback and optimize the lines of communication between schools and parents.

Most importantly, blended learning can help students develop valuable and necessary 21st century learning skills. As the stewards of our students' educations, we have a responsibility to deliver the education that children need in the way that maximizes their educational opportunities. Blended learning can be part of that process.

Liz Pape is president and CEO of Virtual High School, 2 Clock Tower Place, Suite 500, Maynard, MA 01754. E-mail: lpape@goVHS.org