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The Blossoming of Blended


An online education program’s founder pushes for all students to have access to virtual learning options through their public schools


Brendan Bauernschmidt, a sophomore at Ralston Valley High School in Arvada, Colo., started his first day of the school year in typical fashion by attending all six of his classes, learning about course expectations and meeting his new teachers and classmates. But this will serve as one of the few times that he’ll sit face-to-face with others in three of his semester-long classes.

Judy Bauernschmidt
Judy Bauernschmidt

Brendan (who is my son) has a course load with three brick-
and-mortar classes that he attends daily at his neighborhood high school, two online classes that are delivered completely over the Internet and one “hybrid” elective class. For the last, he attends class sessions in person three days a week and remotely participates on two other days each week. When not physically in a classroom, Brendan manages his online courses in English and Spanish 3, completes the work in his hybrid elective class in computer programming and attends after-school wrestling practice.

(My other son, a middle schooler, takes one online class at his neighborhood school as part of his daily schedule, freeing up time to take a high-school-level Spanish class.)

He can work anywhere and anytime on his online and hybrid classes, giving him control over how he structures his time and organizes his daily schedule. He uses the flexibility to manage time, place and pace, accommodating his learning needs and preferences.

Student Eagerness
Brendan’s form of school life is becoming more prevalent in the Jefferson County Public Schools in Golden, Colo., where middle and high school students have the option to combine online and traditional courses as part of their academic schedules. Teachers have access to districtwide training, a learning management system and online course resources to supplement instruction or offer blended learning options to students.

Mitch Conrad, a high school teacher of math and computer programming at Ralston Valley, used those training opportunities before attempting to teach four hybrids each semester. He planned to offer hybrid versions based on his experience teaching one fully online course, which further allowed him to use personal technology tools for student learning.

Conrad follows an “opt-in” approach that allows students to meet in the classroom two days a week and work fully online the remaining three days. Most opted in, which didn’t surprise him.

“Parents support the hybrid approach because they value the skills students develop that they will use in college,” Conrad says.

Students must remain in good standing academically to earn this privilege. He calls it “a motivating factor,” adding, “Students participate in online conversations at a level I have not seen before. All students participate, even the quiet students who would not normally speak up in a brick-and-mortar class.”

Jefferson County students currently can choose from among 70 courses available through the school district’s online school. Some will do so to supplement their regular schedule. Elementary students who can handle accelerated math lessons have easy access to middle or high school courses while they attend their neighborhood school. The number of students choosing a combination of brick-and-mortar classes and online classes grows each year.

I have served as a director of online and blended education for the past 10 years, which included working at Jeffco Public Schools, the largest district in Colorado serving 85,000 students. Leading the effort in online and blended education, I considered my work to be guided by the philosophy that all students should have access to virtual learning options. The vision was shared by the superintendent and school board, which adopted policies to carry out the district’s venture into online and blended learning.

Initial Plotting
Programs like those in the Jefferson County schools require serious discussions during the planning phase. Why do you want to start a blended learning program? What do you see as the purpose? How do you expect the program will serve students’ needs?


The Common Mistakes of Implementing Blended Learning

Additional Resources

Beyond those basics, district leaders should realize that blended learning models may be a solution to other ongoing challenges — student engagement among them. I asked my sons, “What are the top three reasons you like your blended classes?” They rattled off several reasons. These included liking how the course sites hosted their work and progress, allowing them to use fun technology tools, and giving them access to their courses anytime that worked for them.

When planning such ventures, I would ask: “What districtwide issues have we been attempting to solve for years?”

Inevitably, the responses will deal with budgets, student achievement, dropouts, college-level course work, and 21st-century teaching and learning. These will identify target student populations that can be served by blended learning. Is there a need for more options for remediation, extension, access to courses, credit recovery, etc.? How can blended learning be part of the solution to districtwide issues?

Different blended learning models can support district goals. An experienced leader should be able to identify models best suited for achieving those goals. I have all too often seen an appointment of a leader with little to no experience or knowledge of online and blended learning.

A deep understanding of the subject should be a requirement when choosing someone to lead the planning and implementation process — an individual who knows the laws, rules and regulations specific to online and blended education during the planning phase. Best practices should be shared by the leader to assist in guiding decisions during planning, implementation and sustainability.

If a school district assigns this duty to someone with little knowledge or experience, consultants with expertise in the field can provide guidance and, more importantly, ensure the district avoids major missteps that could be costly. In many cases, a district has one shot at proper implementation and buy-in from staff. You want to make the best of the opportunity for a successful launch.

Defining roles and responsibilities within the leadership team should be driven by where the program will be housed. Recognizing that online and blended education are academically focused initiatives is an important start. I recommend the program fall under the direction of the central academic team, yet many school districts associate their online course delivery with technology support, believing information technology should oversee these programs. The academic side of the house must work in close partnership and lead the technology side for successful implementation.

Acknowledging Fears
But experience in online and blended learning is only half of the equation when identifying leadership. Finding that individual is the other half. You will need someone who understands how to build relationships and involve stakeholders. Unfortunately, I have seen school districts appoint personnel with no experience in this area. An effective leader of online instruction understands that part of the role involves serving as an in-district consultant, someone with skills to work with all layers of a district.

In the planning phase, it’s important to dispel the misperceptions about online and blended education. Once, as I was about to begin a presentation to a group of high school principals, I became aware of negativity from some principals in the room. I made a quick change in the presentation, openly acknowledging the negative news media stories some administrators had seen regarding online education. Some were associating the negative media surrounding full online programs with blended learning. This was contributing to their distrust and doubt about the merits, granting little credibility to blended learning before we could even discuss the subject.

We needed to hold a conversation about quality in virtual learning and identify the ways our program differed from the scuttlebutt in the media. I described how we learn in education from unsuccessful ventures en route to developing quality academic offerings. Reluctant principals needed assurance the school district’s proposed program of online course delivery would benefit student learning. I shared student performance data and state comparisons, which supported my message.

These pivotal discussions resulted in more buy-in and growth in blended learning in the district. Changing negative perceptions and educating school principals was the most critical work in my role as a change agent.

Beyond Implementation
Once trust was established, no longer was there a need to “sell” anyone on blended education. Buy-in led to rapid growth and the need to scale up.

The number of students in Jefferson County enrolled in blended and online classes shot up from 150 to more than 7,500 students in the first two years. The number of single blended course enrollments grew from about 300 to more than 12,000 within the same period. The No. 1 referral source: school principals and counselors. Another contributing factor to the gains was the number of teachers who opted for blended instruction, combining the best elements of online and face-to-face education.

During my time working with a statewide cyber school, we also tracked application inquiries to identify the source of referrals. The primary source was word of mouth among parents and students. Over the last 10 years, I’ve fielded inquiries from parents about enrolling children in one or two online courses for acceleration or to deal with the lack of particular classes in their schools. What these parents (including me) and their children sought were blended opportunities — a mix of online and face-to-face instruction.

Blended instruction is likely to emerge as a predominant teaching model. Perhaps two-thirds of school districts nationwide already offer some online or blended courses, according to “Keeping Pace with K-12 Online & Blended Learning,” a report produced by Evergreen Education Group last November.

The Boulder Valley and Jefferson County school districts, which launched programs in 2010 and 2009, respectively, expect substantial growth.

Boulder Universal, the name of the district’s online program, offers part-time and hybrid course enrollment options. Kurt LeVasseur, Boulder’s director of online education, says about 20 percent of the course enrollments are hybrid. “The growth of BU has been controlled by educating brick-and-mortar counselors and administrators about what types of students are successful at BU,” he says.

LeVasseur contends enrollment in full-time virtual programs is needed for about 10 percent of students. “Most students are better-suited to take two or three online courses since this adds routine to their day and helps them manage their time and school workload,” he says, adding that Boulder Valley typically has 300-400 supplemental enrollments at a time.

In Jefferson County, fewer than 10 percent of participants are enrolled in the full-time online program. Mostly these are students who were expelled, homebound, junior professional athletes or others with specific needs.

Motivated Learners
Annual student surveys conducted in these programs show students enjoy managing their time and taking ownership of their academic performance. They say they are more engaged because they can use new technologies embedded in their daily lessons.

Students who have experienced blended learning are becoming advocates for offering these course options in a wider array of fields. “I hope I can take hybrid classes next year,” my son Brendan told me. “They’re my favorite classes at school.”

To take this a step further, I believe all students should have the same options my sons have.

Judy Bauernschmidt is executive director of the eLearning Network of Colorado in Denver, Colo. E-mail: jbauernschmidt@eLNCO.org


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