Blended learning—the integration of online learning into brick-and-mortar school settings—has gained traction, if also notoriety, during the pandemic. Traction because the hybrid arrangements that many schools turned to this year largely rely on blended learning. Notoriety because, in the rush to ensure students had continued access to learning during COVID, many programs suffered logistical and technological challenges.
But when implemented with time to plan, blended learning is much more than a last-resort modality for teachers and students. Effective blended learning breaks the constraints of conventional instruction pervasive in many schools today to unlock customized; competency-based; anytime, anywhere learning for a student population with increasingly diverse needs.
As some school districts’ and classroom teachers’ back-to-school plans investigate the potential of continuing a blended learning component, this summer can provide the perfect opportunity to take a breath and keep in mind the nine design steps toward more successful implementation.
This blog is intended to provide a brief overview of these steps. Head over to the Blended Learning Universe’s design wheel for more in-depth tips and guided worksheets.
Nine steps to consider for blended learning implementation
1. Start with a rallying cry: Identify the problem to solve or the goal to achieve. It’s tempting, but don’t lead with technology considerations. The most successful blended programs begin in response to a desire to (1) boost student achievement and quality of life through student-centered practice, (2) provide access to out-of-reach courses and opportunities, (3) improve a school system’s financial health, or (4) a combination of all three.
2. Assemble a team: Having the right people at the design table is critical to success. For basic resource changes like rolling out a new curriculum, learning management system, or online learning tool, “lightweight teams” are the practical choice. Lightweight teams require an administrator, grade level lead, or department head to coordinate the work to make sure teachers get the professional development and support they need, but teachers can decide on the particulars of classroom implementation for themselves. However, blended learning implementations that involve substantial coordination between teaching teams or significant changes to teachers’ roles and practices require “heavyweight teams.” In heavyweight teams, the people involved in implementing the change must step out of their independent roles and spend the time needed to collaborate on developing a shared solution.
3. Motivate students: Anchor your efforts in the “jobs” students are trying to accomplish. Students are trying to get certain things done each day—we call these “Jobs to Be Done.” These might include wanting to feel successful, having time to connect with friends, or going to college. If we want to successfully motivate students, school should be designed to nail these jobs.
4. Elevate teaching: Teachers remain at the heart of any successful blended program. Blended learning is vitally dependent on how teachers interact and work with students. Students stand to benefit if teachers shift their roles to create more opportunities to be trusted guides and mentors. Some schools place students in small learning communities with a teacher-advisor or assign students to have the same teacher over multiple years.
5. Choose the technology: The right edtech choices are critical to any successful program. If you aren’t satisfied with outside providers, creating your own online content may be a good option (an exercise many teachers had to practice during the pandemic). DIY content, however, can be extremely time-intensive for busy educators. For simplicity and reliability, use a single online curriculum provider. For flexibility, utilize multiple providers. For hyper-customization, consider a platform with multiple providers.
6. Design the classroom: Rethink your learning space to enhance the student experience. With many students back to in-person classrooms for some part of the week or day, consider how to align classroom setups with the principles of student agency, flexibility, and choice that are at the core of blended models. Once you have determined how you want students and teachers to interact with online learning, plan your space accordingly.
7. Choose the model: Align your model with your design considerations. Some blended learning models can be implemented without radically changing staffing, structure, or pacing, and can therefore be easier to integrate into existing classrooms. In addition, schools are more likely to embrace these options in core tested subjects for mainstream students.
8. Create the culture: Blended learning can promote a strong, positive culture. But it can also sustain a bad one. Culture is especially useful—or toxic—in blended programs because blended learning goes hand-in-hand with giving students more control and flexibility. If students lack the processes and cultural norms to handle that agency, the shift toward a student-centered environment can backfire.
9. Refine & iterate: Building a blended learning program is a process, not an event. The first step in that process is to bring a diverse group together and consider what assumptions you are making when going blended. At their outset, blended learning programs can carry many assumptions, some of which may not prove viable. Assumptions may be “the devices will work” or “teachers will be on board” or “students will enjoy self-directed time”, and so forth. Have people at the table in this brainstorming exercise who represent a variety of departments and perspectives, so that the assumptions will be exhaustive.
The components of a blended model can be as diverse as the number of students in a given class or as uniform as an utterly traditional classroom. Getting the details right is key to the success of any blended learning model, and those details will vary depending on the local context. To give students, families, and teachers the best chance at maintaining or improving upon some of the benefits of blended learning this fall, thoughtful design is a must!