When Does Blended Learning Work Best?

Two school district leaders share their thoughts on blended learning and what student needs it meets.

by / July 5, 2012 0

As blended learning becomes more popular, school districts are grappling with what mix of teaching methods makes the most sense for students.

Those ingredients include traditional classroom instruction, supplemental digital resources, blended learning and online courses. Based on the students' learning styles and needs, school districts have to find a recipe that works for different students.

A combination of online and face-to-face learning has been happening at Riverside Unified School District in California for six years, while Medina City Schools in Ohio is just starting down this road. But both districts have come to similar conclusions: making a variety of learning methods available is a key to meeting students' education needs.

The best learning strategy

At Riverside Unified, students can take fully online classes or only face-to-face classes -- or they can engage in blended learning. By providing more choices, Riverside is trying to offer something on the menu that will reach every student, said David Haglund, principal of the Riverside Virtual School and the district's director of educational options.

"Learning strategies and teaching strategies work best when they're aligned to the needs of the individual student," Haglund said. "So 'Teacher A' telling all 175 of her kids in algebra [class] that you have to use blended learning is the wrong strategy, from my viewpoint."

Instead of telling everyone they have to try blended learning, the district makes digital resources it created available to all students in its learning management system. That way, if students don't grasp an algebra concept from their teacher on campus, they can see the concept presented in a way that resonates with them.

And students who don't grasp a topic through an online video or activity may need to interact with the curriculum in traditional classes and labs.

"Allowing students to pursue learning experiences that are relevant to them -- including traditional seat-based environments and digital learning opportunities -- is the best strategy," Haglund said. "The same thing with adults, frankly. I don't want every teacher to be teaching in a virtual environment because not every teacher has the interest or skills to support that type of an instructional environment."

Students who need more flexibility in their schedules, want real world learning situations or need a confidence boost are well suited for blended learning, said Stacy Hawthorne, technology integration coordinator at Medina City Schools. In a year-long strategic planning process, the Medina community asked the school district to provide blended learning options and integrate technology .

Hawthorne's school district will offer three blended learning classes in the fall for the first time, but it was her daughter's online learning experience that really sold her on blended learning. Hawthorne's daughter previously took an online high school math class from Stanford. Her daughter earned good grades and graduated high school in three years, but she didn't talk in her face-to-face classes.

However, she did contribute in the discussion forum in her online class and felt comfortable asking questions.

"I realized at that point, that no matter how many face-to-face classes she would have been to in high school, she would have never had the confidence to speak up," Hawthorne said. "But the discussion board gave her that."

Medina City Schools plans to provide this confidence booster to the majority of its mid-level high school students by incorporating discussion boards into the blended learning classes. These classes were custom-built by teachers, despite advice from various conference speakers who said they should buy the curriculum.

"My teachers really wanted to build their own curriculum, and it's a ton of work. But when I look at the final product of what they came out with, it's incredible, and I don't think we could have bought that," Hawthorne said.

This fall, the district will develop six more blended learning classes for next year.


The flexible learning approach

Students who take these blended learning classes should have more wiggle room in their schedules.

Riverside Virtual School already feels like a college campus, with classes starting at various times during the day. Students don't have to be there if they don't need to be. And they spend time on the Virtual School Campus or on high school campuses doing hands-on, project-based activities in labs with the same curriculum as their traditional counterparts.

"We weren't looking for a separate educational opportunity for kids," Haglund said. "We were looking to have a more relevant, interactive experience for kids and create some flexibility in their schedule."

At Medina, the blended classes will take place in the first or last school period of the day, three days a week. During the other two days, students work on projects by themselves or in teams.

For U.S. history class, students are building a Medina history app, work that requires interviewing local historians and figures. In an honors math course called Advanced Mathematical Modeling and Quantitative Analysis, local businesses are giving the class real data for students to analyze.

And students are in control of their time. A student may say, "I don't need to work on history this week, but next week I'll need to spend three hours to get an interview done."

"In our mind, nothing's going to replace that relationship with a teacher that is solid in their content, but to say that every kid has to be there five days a week, 50 minutes a day is unfair to every single kid," Hawthorne said. "I can't stand to go to a class when I have to be there and I don't need to be there, especially when I'm paying for graduate credit. So it's unfair that we teach and treat teenagers the same way."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.