Blended Learning’s Impact on Teacher Development


Jul 11, 2011

One of the most frequent questions I get on blended learning is “How do we prepare our teachers?”

This question hit home for me when I toured a blended learning school where teachers did not have traditional classroom responsibility 50% of the time.  They could assemble 3, 10, 20 or 60 students for instruction.  They could do 20 or 120 minute lessons instead of 55-minute lessons dictated by a bell schedule.  They could group and regroup students in real-time using student achievement data.  The teachers were given all the freedom to help students learn but, frankly, it wasn’t obvious how they should optimally spend their time.

As a former math teacher, my revelation was that this is the job I always wanted; blended learning created opportunities for teachers to find new ways to reach students, individualize instruction, and find more time to teach.

Here are some areas that I think will be important when we train the teachers of the future, although we are probably 3-5 years out from answering this question with any degree of rigor:

Responding to Real-Time Student Data. Currently, our best schools get benchmark data every 6-9 weeks supplemented by cycles of inquiry and other manually collected feedback.  As students spend more time online and every mouse-click gets tracked, teachers will gain access to a firehose of real-time student data.  For example, In Khan Academy’s Los Altos pilot, teachers walk around with iPads watching the ebb and flow of learning via a teacher dashboard.  Responding to student data in real-time is a paradigm shift for today’s teachers and a rich area of exploration for training and development.  I think teachers will appreciate knowing more about each student while reducing time spent on in-class “testing” because assessment data collected from online learning will be far more abundant, informative and reliable.  Teachers will jump on the blended learning train when they spend more time analyzing student data than collecting it.

Targeting Instruction. The future belongs to teachers who understand Guided Instruction and/or Response to Intervention, because they are best trained to effectively address learning gaps that hamper student progress.  In a world where student data is abundant, time constraints are loosened, and the goal is to individualize and accelerate learning, teachers will spend more time on targeted instruction (and say goodbye to scripted curriculum).

Building Culture and Student Relationships. Culture and relationships will be more important than ever in blended learning environments, but I think we will see the focus shift from student compliance which is important in a factory model of education to students’ managing their own learning which is important in a more individualized environment focused on mastery (e.g., Montessori).   A new student in a blended learning school may have more face-to-face classes and be closely supervised in a learning lab environment while a “professional” student who is successful working independently  will set her own schedule, be coached by teachers, and have more flexibility in where and how she works.  Relationships will evolve as students spend less time in large impersonal classes and more time in small, personalized groups where they can have higher-quality interactions with adults.  Students can work far more independently if we provide them with greater differentiation and feedback made possible in tech-enabled environments.  For those interested in the daily in-and-outs of culture in a blended learning pilot, check out Brian Greenberg’s blendmylearning blog.

Enhancing and Extending the Curriculum.  When I taught at an inner city public school, I toured a $30k per year elite private school and marveled as a teacher led twelve students through a Socratic discussion of a T.S. Eliot poem.  I valiantly tried to recreate the situation in my class of 28 but admittedly struggled to find the magic.  It wasn’t until I toured a blended learning school and walked into a workshop with a teacher and six students that I understood blended learning’s potential to bring a new set of experiences to students that would enhance and extend their learning.  Schools will use the flexibility afforded to them by offering projects, internships, seminars and other mind-expanding experiences to students; and teachers will have an opportunity to flex their instructional chops in ways that expand, not narrow, the curriculum.

Designing Learning Paths. Teachers of the future will no longer move dutifully from Section 2.2 to Section 2.3 in the textbook.  They will help create learning playlists and/or learning paths for each individual student based on the student’s individual strengths and weaknesses.  These paths will be composed of sets of standards-based learning objects designed to build mastery and provide immediate feedback to students, teachers, parents and other education service providers.  Teachers could architect these learning paths based on a student’s prior learning gaps, optimal learning modalities, and/or interest.  Teachers will no longer burn the candle at both ends creating their own content, they will spend their time organizing and customizing libraries of high-quality learning objects.  Think of it as Lesson Planning 2.0.

Deconstructing the Role of the Teacher. The areas for teacher development outlined above essentially free teachers to specialize and go deeper in their craft.  I never really understood why public schools asked 21-year-old teachers to do the same jobs as 20-year veterans or why every teachers’ job was essentially the same.  Blended learning operators will disaggregate the teacher role in new and interesting ways that support novice teachers, make the profession more sustainable and increase the impact of expert teachers.  A few operators seem to be converging on models where Associate Teachers own the relationships with students and provide first-tier academic interventions, Master Teachers spend a significant amount of their time analyzing student data, designing learning experiences, and providing targeted interventions, and other specialists are tasked with creating projects and experiences that enhance and extend the curriculum.  There will be many permutations, but what is certain is that, in the future, teachers will have more opportunities to play to their strengths.

One thing that is conspicuously absent from the list is technology professional development.  School operators emphasize how important it is to train teachers, prior to school starting, on the software and content that is part of the blended learning platform.

My reasons for leaving technology professional development off the list are two-fold.  First, technology is not a panacea, it enables schools to provide greater individualization which is the focus of much of the above.  Learning how colleagues effectively individualize through technology will just be part of “the work,” not a stand-alone discipline.  Second, social networking is creating communities of “early adopter” teachers beyond the walls of your organization.  Teacher preparation programs can help connect their educators to the best “influencers” of education technology in the field via Twitter and other communities.  EdModo, for example, has done a good job getting teachers to blog about their experiences with emerging tools.

It is early days for the blended learning movement, and doubly so for understanding the implications for teacher preparation.   But the trends towards more flexibility, more data and more individualization will push us to rethink how to best prepare and support our talented educators (are you edu-preneurs listening?).

Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a venture philanthropy that provides growth capital for high-performing charter school networks. He leads CSGF’s “next-generation” learning investments in blended learning programs and is eager to talk to social entrepreneurs who want to re-invent schools. twitter: thinkschools