I often tell the story of my humble teaching beginnings as a reminder of my growth as an educator. I began my teaching career as a grade 6-8, multilevel, multigrade inclusive teacher in Long Beach, California. It was the first class of its kind in Long Beach USD, and like many bright-eyed, naive, and novice teachers, I was determined to succeed. My new experience was a culture shock, unlike anything I had ever experienced before, having grown up and gone to school in Mississippi.
As a new teacher in a new state with little experience, I was unprepared for the diverse classroom I encountered. Students from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as students with learning disabilities and behavioral problems, challenged me in ways I had never imagined.
I was so overwhelmed at first that I cried daily. Frustrated, exhausted, and struggling to adjust, I contemplated quitting. But I didn’t. Instead, I decided to embrace teaching and work hard to become good at it.
One day, I had a lightbulb moment. My purpose for teaching became clear. It was to learn how to teach every student, regardless of their background or learning needs. I was on a mission to find creative and innovative ways to engage them all.
As a former classroom teacher, and now an education specialist, I remain passionate about ensuring all students learn. I have learned that building relationships and creating a safe and supportive learning environment are fundamental elements of achieving this goal. I also believe in blended instruction, an educational approach that gives students the freedom to learn at their own pace and in their own way, while still providing them with the support they need to succeed.
Shortly after receiving a grant from the Charles Butt Foundation, our Digital Learning team began working with Raise Your Hand Texas to launch the Raising Blended Learners initiative. This initiative showcases strategies and provides open-source resources for using blended learning to personalize instruction and improve K-12 student achievement across Texas. To date, the Raising Blended Learners initiative has impacted more than 40 districts, 1,200 teachers, and 75,000 students across Texas.
Thanks to Raise Your Hand Texas's continued support, we've gained valuable insights into the essential components of successful blended learning programs. Currently, we provide on-time support, coaching, and training for districts and charters in our region.
Building on the success of the Raising Blended Learners initiative, we've identified five pillars, or core components, that are essential for creating effective, engaging, and rigorous blended learning experiences:
- Assessment and Data-Driven Instruction
- Personalized Instruction
- Student Agency
Designing a Blended Learning Experience
The first step to creating a successful blended learning program is to design the blended student experience. This means thinking about how students will learn both online and in person, and how the two parts of the program will work together. It's important to create a learning environment that's both fun and effective, and that meets the needs of all learners.
One way to do this is to use a digital planner to help students keep track of their online and in-person learning activities. This will help them stay organized and on track. You could also use a learning management system (LMS) to create a one-stop shop for all of your blended learning resources. This will make it easy for students to access the online components of your course, such as lecture videos, readings, and assignments.
Here are a few tips for designing a blended learning experience that students would love:
- Give students choices. Let them choose how they want to learn, both online and in person. This will help them stay engaged and motivated.
- Make it fun. Use interactive activities, games, and other engaging content.
- Make it personal. Tailor the learning experience to each student's individual needs and interests. This will help them learn more effectively.
By designing a blended learning experience that students love, you can set them up for success.
Assessment and Data-Driven Instruction
Assessment and data-driven instruction are essential to any blended learning program. You should assess student progress regularly and use this data to drive your instruction, deliver instruction based on your students' specific learning needs, monitor their learning, and provide timely feedback. This will help to ensure that all students are achieving their academic potential and that no one is falling through the cracks.
For example, you could use a platform such as Quizizz to give a formative assessment on a math concept. The results of the assessment can show which students are struggling with the concept and which students have mastered it. Nearpod is another online assessment tool that can be used in blended learning environments. Nearpod provides interactive lessons that include quizzes, polls, and other activities. You can use the data from both Quizizz and Nearpod to track student progress and identify areas where they may need additional support.
Discovery-driven planning is a collaborative approach to designing personalized learning experiences. In this approach, you can work with your students to identify their needs and goals, and then develop learning activities to help them achieve those goals. For example, goal-planning forms and interest surveys can be used to gather information about their learning targets, interests, and preferences. Other examples would be to implement online portfolios to showcase student work and track progress over time or use mind-mapping tools such as Mindmeister or Canva’s free mind map maker to help your students develop their own learning plans.
Personalized Instruction is one of the key benefits of blended learning. You can use digital tools and resources to provide your students with learning experiences that meet their individual needs. This can be done by providing them with different learning paths, different types of content, and different opportunities to demonstrate their learning.
The benefits of personalizing instruction become evident almost immediately when lessons and activities:
- are student-centered
- allow students to incorporate their interests
- encourage students to interact, collaborate, and create
- are good for all kinds of classrooms—including 1:1
For example, interactive simulations and games can provide engaging and personalized learning experiences. The use of adaptive learning platforms can automatically adjust the difficulty level of the content and the pace of instruction based on each student's individual needs. Also, consider choice boards, learning menus, and playlists.
Strong relationships are essential in any learning environment, but especially in blended learning environments. Building relationships with students, both online and in person, creates a sense of community and belonging that motivates and engages learners. Encourage your students to interact with each other and with you outside of class time through online discussions. Hold virtual office hours or meet individually or in small groups using videoconferencing platforms such as Google Meet or Zoom.
Student agency is important because it helps to motivate students and make them more engaged in their learning. Students who have a say in their own learning are more likely to be interested and motivated.
Ways that you can exercise student agency in your classroom:
- Create choice boards or playlists that would allow choice in a variety of learning activities, such as reading articles, watching videos, completing interactive exercises, or working on projects.
- Allow students to work individually, in pairs, or in small groups.
- Implement self-paced learning modules that would allow your students to control the pace of their learning and on their own schedule.
- Use a polling tool to get student feedback on topics, activities, and assessments.
Blended learning can be just as rigorous as face-to-face classes, and sometimes even more so. You can use online tools and resources to create challenging learning experiences that will foster critical thinking and problem solving.
When designing for rigor, it's important to make sure the learning activities are challenging and that your students are held to high standards. You should also consider students' learning needs, how they engage with the content, how they will reflect on their learning, and how they demonstrate their learning.
When designing reading instruction, focus on utilizing tools and strategies to help assess student reading comprehension and identify those who may need additional support. Blended learning can be an effective way to provide your students with reading instruction. For example, districts use Lexia, a blended reading program designed to complement classroom literacy instruction and provide differentiation through a series of activities and learning games. With data-driven instruction and personalized support, students in our region have made significant literacy improvements.
Blended Learning Best Practices
I appreciate the challenges I faced in my first teaching job. They made me a better teacher and helped me develop a deep appreciation for my students' diversity. Had I been trained in blended learning and how to implement it into my instruction, I may not have struggled as much to reach, teach, and engage all of my students.
Here are some tips for implementing blended learning into your instruction:
- Engage every student. Make learning inclusive and accessible for all by using a variety of teaching methods and technologies.
- Personalize and differentiate instruction. Focus on meeting the individual needs of all of your students. Provide them with choices and opportunities to learn at their own pace.
- Make meaningful connections by creating opportunities for them to interact and collaborate.
- Be creative by using technology and other resources to develop innovative and engaging learning experiences. The possibilities are endless!
- Be a forever learner by staying up-to-date on the latest trends and technologies to ensure that you are providing the best possible learning experiences for your students. Blended learning is constantly evolving.