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In many professional development sessions at schools, you'll find teachers sitting in a room and listening to lectures. But one Colorado school district has flipped that model upside down.
Academy District 20 in Colorado Springs is an example of one district that encourages teachers to practice blended learning for themselves, so that they can effectively bring it into the classroom.
The district just wrapped up its first year of professional development using blended learning, through a combination of online and face-to-face activities. It went so well that two fourth-grade teachers said they want it to continue next year.
"I feel like I've gained so much knowledge in all different kinds of areas of how to use technology in the classroom," Janice Theda said.
Here's how it worked: A team of five from the district's Educational Services Department created four online modules that dovetailed with in-person conversations in the district's learning management system. These modules included links to articles, presentations and videos on different topics.
In the Moodle-based system called ALEC, the teachers could access all the resources they needed and create their own courses for their classes, technology specialist Lori Hartman said.
Instead of merely talking about technology tools in the first module — as might be typical in a school district —, the team focused on curriculum and learning goals first. In the first module, they zeroed in on Understanding by Design, a framework for guiding curriculum, instruction and assessment.
As the teachers took their own blended learning course, they were also figuring out how to apply blended learning in their own classrooms. They used the framework to decide what they want students to know and do as a result of learning in a blended style, said Nancy White, the district's 21st century learning and innovation specialist. Then the participating teachers developed a way to assess how students are doing. And finally they chose technology tools to help students reach the goals.
Initially, 30 teachers participated in the project. Then an additional group of teachers in two of the district's Schools of Innovative Learning and Technology wanted to take the course. And all the librarians and building technology coordinators also participated to support the teachers. Each of these groups accessed the same resources and tutorials.
The teachers had a month to check out tutorials on technology tools and resources, such as videos that the team developed. Then the 30 teachers met in person for almost a full day to share ideas, discuss issues and build their own online components of a course in small groups. Throughout the day, the five staff members provided one-on-one support as needed.
"Participating in blended learning as a learner helps to really clarify what that could look like in the classroom," White said.
With federal Title II, Part A funds, the school district purchased iPads for this initiative so that teachers could model technology use and create video podcasts. Those funds also paid for substitute teachers to cover them during the nearly day-long work sessions after each module.
Fourth-grade teachers Wanda Lepillez and Janice Theda designed a government course during the blended learning initiative that included reading assignments, teaching videos and a forum.
These teachers also brought in a real-life connection. Lepillez's daughter works for a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., and went to Sudan. She created an educational video that the teachers posted in their course. After the students watched the video at home, Lepillez and Theda created questions and asked them in class over Skype.
Over the course of the year, the project team learned some lessons.
When the blended learning groups for the 30 teachers started, two schools wanted to start working on the modules too. So Christine Schein, coordinator for Schools of Innovative Learning and Technology, worked with them.
But they only set aside one and a half hours once a month to meet in person and just had one person supporting them. That's something Schein would change if she did it over again.
They're still struggling with the definition of blended learning since the definitions range from flipped classroom to indirect instruction in the classroom.
"The blended learning piece is really more about just switching it up, mixing it up,"Schein said.
The librarians and building technology coordinators who participated went through the same course a few weeks ahead of the teachers. Then they used their quarterly Technology, Resources & Educating Kids meetings for face-to-face sessions.
By taking this course, they knew what their teachers were learning and could support them long-term as they collaborated on building courses. During this initiative, they created a professional development course for the teachers in their school with the blended learning approach, White said.
Because the teachers received access to the modules one month in advance of the meetings, they could spend extra time on the tutorials. Sometimes Lepillez watched a tutorial three times to get it. As she looked at the resources in the module, she wrote down her struggles and questions. She brought those up during the face to face session.
"What I appreciated most about the course is that we could work at our own pace, because I went in as a novice," Lepillez said.
At the last meeting of the year, one theme kept running through a small group conversation with teachers, said Linda Conway, library and information literacy specialist.
"It was a lot easier to differentiate the instruction for the students through this module because the kids could go slower if they needed to or faster if they needed to," Conway said.
Next year, this professional development on blended learning will reach more teachers, said Michael Doub, director of Educational Services. More than 50 teachers applied for 25 slots. Contingent on grant funding, the district will do the same professional development with the other half of its 32 schools.
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