In Jay Mathews’s recent column, “Nothing Can Replace a Good Teacher,” he describes a sad scenario in which a seventh-grader in Michigan was enrolled in a blended-learning program where the teacher had little interaction with the students, provided them with minimal help with their online coursework, and left them largely to work through their online courses on their own. As a result, the student tested four-grade levels below his age group in reading proficiency.
Over the past three years, I’ve visited dozens of blended-learning programs across the country, and, like in any school, I’ve observed both good and bad teachers.
I’ve visited a handful of blended-learning environments that looked similar to the one described in Mathew’s column where the teacher graded papers or did other work at his or her computer and had little interaction with the students. In these settings, the students were frequently bored, off task, and misbehaving.
I distinctly remember asking one such teacher about how his experience as a blended-learning teacher compared to that of a traditional teacher. He then proceeded to rant about how he no longer felt like a teacher because he spent his days grading papers, rather than delivering content. Unsurprisingly, his students expressed dissatisfaction with the program. The majority of them had failed to make much progress in their online courses since transferring into the program. A large number of them were surfing the Internet, rather than working on their coursework. A group of them even showed me how they had figured out how to cheat on their quizzes and tests.
In contrast, I’ve also visited blended-learning environments where the teacher circled the room answering student questions, making sure students were on task, working one-on-one with students, and engaging students in active learning. Fortunately, I’ve seen this version of blended learning far more often than the first. In these settings, the students frequently reported a higher satisfaction with online learning than traditional classroom learning. The teachers were much more satisfied as well than from their days in a traditional classroom because they could work one-on-one with students and provide individualized learning.
The mood of these two types of settings was completely different. In the second setting, the students were staying on task, working either alone or with other students, raising their hands to ask the teacher questions, and being actively involved in their own learning. When I asked these students, many of whom had previously dropped out of or been unsuccessful at a traditional school, why they were succeeding in a blended-learning program, I always received the same response: “my teacher.”
Teachers are an integral part of learning, in traditional and blended-learning settings. But their jobs are different, and my experience suggests that the job of teachers in blended-learning settings can be far more enjoyable and far easier to scale greatness in this environment. But it’s no guarantee, which is why as we move to blended-learning settings, we need to educate the teachers as well about how to do their new jobs and show them how, contrary to negative perceptions, blended learning can empower them and help them to make a far greater difference in the lives of their students.