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Harnessing the Full Potential of Blended Learning, Part Two: Best Practices and Classroom Adoption

  • 8 MIN READ

A look at how schools and teachers can mindfully operationalize blended learning best practices with good change management methods.

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Our recent K-12 experiences addressing unfinished learning demonstrate the importance of educational flexibility and differentiation. As importantly, with the full return to school, we have renewed appreciation for the importance of teachers and social interactions to enable necessary learner practice, reflection and application of knowledge.

We know these elements of differentiation and socialization are critical to learning, but this contrasts to in-person class time that is too often focused instead on information delivery such as through teacher lecture. How can blended learning help address this challenge to better support high-quality, in-person instruction?

In Part One of our two-part blog series, we examined these evolved assumptions and definitions of blended learning in the classroom. Here in Part Two, we take a deeper look at how schools and teachers can operationalize those practices, mindful of ongoing system and teacher stresses as well as good change management methods. We again rely on the expert panel from our recent D2L webinar, “In the New Educational Landscape, the Future Is Blended (Learning)”:

Blended Learning Models and Best Practices

With a basic framework of blended learning definitions and theory of change established in Part One, we can now further explore those models and practices for the use of technology in the classroom. As Catlin Tucker acknowledged, “Blended learning is an umbrella phrase with many models.”

In fact, Heather Staker previously helped develop a taxonomy of blended learning models, including the following (noting these are “not mutually exclusive”):

  • Rotation (Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom and Individual Rotation)
  • Flex
  • A la Carte
  • Enriched Virtual

Let’s take a closer look at the elements of the Rotation model (including diagrams from Tucker).

station rotation model
Station Rotation Model Diagram

Station Rotation: In the Station Rotation model, above, students move through activity stations that can range from computer-based learning to small-group teacher instruction to peer-group projects. This model is often used in elementary schools, where students might rotate among independent work, small-group work and whole-class instruction.

flipped classroom model
Flipped Classroom Model

Flipped Classroom: In the Flipped Classroom model, above, course content such as a teacher-recorded video or a short quiz is introduced digitally via a learning management system (LMS). It’s often viewed or completed at home but can also be done during in-class rotations. Synchronous in-person learning time is then repurposed from information delivery lectures to deeper learning activities best supported by the teacher’s direct interaction with students, such as practice, reflection and application.

individual rotation model
Individual Rotation Model

Individual Rotation: In the Individual Rotation model, above, each student receives a customized blend of learning experiences based on their own needs and interests, either assigned or with some choice (such as from a playlist). Students might work on different assignments at different times, with some working online, some performing analog tasks and others working with the teacher or their peers.

Staker explained that updated research and experience suggest a simplified, flexible framework (see the Blended Learning Arc diagram below). This framework allows students to move through various stations or experiences while optimizing teacher time to work directly with them.

blended learning arc by heather staker

  1. Group Discussion (teacher launches a learning block)
  2. Independent Work (content/tasks are individualized such as through an LMS)
  3. Collaborative Work (such as hands-on group projects)
  4. Group Discussion (students reassemble to review and reflect on their learning)

For the teacher, this flow of student activities allows them to use non-group time (2 and 3) for one-to-one check-ins, which would not otherwise be possible if they are only and always delivering synchronously to the full classroom. As such, this model combines mastery learning and individual tutelage and can help reduce teacher load and burnout.

Kareem Farah described a model where teachers replace live lecture with instructional videos they create and deliver through an LMS that allow students to learn at their own pace and be graded on mastery. The Modern Classrooms Project (MCP) uses this single, blended, self-paced but highly customizable model, because it can be challenging for teachers to coherently piece together various strategies and practices from scratch.

While definitions and models are important starting points, our panel agreed with Tucker’s point that “teachers need a collection of models to pull from”—a toolbelt from which they can mix and modify based on their needs, comfort and success.

As schools and teachers implement that continuum, Tucker reminded us to always be mindful of three core pillars of blended learning:

  1. student agency and meaningful choice
  2. differentiation with scaffolds and varied levels of complexity
  3. some student control over pace

“Regardless of the specific model and approach we are using, where do students get to make a decision?” asked Tucker. “The best way to motivate them over time is to give them autonomy and agency, allowing them to make those key decisions about their learning.”

Student frustrations often arise from the lack of agency and individualized pacing. “It is very challenging for a single teacher to support differentiation for 30 students,” said Tucker. So blended learning models allow them to “focus on working with small groups, individual learners, responding to their specific needs.” Blended learning therefore enables teachers to provide leveled supports and scaffolds, vary levels of academic rigor and complexity, or even account for variance of where each student is in the curriculum “to make personalization sustainable.”

How to Adopt a Blended Learning Model

We know from experience that all the best-intentioned, research-based best practices are just theory without effective implementation that recognizes the existing conditions, stakeholder impact and need for supports. D2L’s Howie Bender introduced this discussion, asking the panel, “What is the journey for a teacher? How do we help them move to good, and then to great?”

A shift to blended learning must start with a clear “why” expressed by school leaders, and ideally also by teacher leaders, to create the spark of interest. Empathy to disruption, lost learning time and teacher fatigue is critical for any classroom change at this challenging time. Mindfulness and intentional adoption steps can overcome the knee-jerk teacher reaction, “Please, not another tech tool!”

“Teachers are ready for solutions,” explained Tucker. “They feel the ineffectiveness of traditional approaches … [and] are also exhausted by many unsustainable workflows.”

Farah outlined core school and teacher change principles:

  • Don’t force teachers; use an opt-in model: MCP works with schools to articulate the value proposition, offer flexibility within their model and give teachers the choice to opt in at different entry points. Farah noted, “They must feel they are ready, have the time and have the choice.”
  • Balance theory with practice: “Teachers need actionable strategies, tools and structures or the concept will go in one ear and out the other.” They must know in operational terms if and how it will impact their classroom.
  • Provide supports: Teachers need differentiated time and support. Lean on teachers who are leading from among the coalition of the willing. Those teachers should be the loudest within the community. They are the mentors to provide peer-to-peer support.

To that last point, the group expressed some frustration that teacher professional development is too often one size and does not follow a learner-centered model. “Unfortunately for teachers, learning is [too often] relegated to a handful of professional development days a year,” said Tucker. “They need opportunities to learn that are woven into the fabric of their school day, week and year.”

In fact, research commissioned by D2L found that while 91% of educators expressed interest in targeted or personalized professional learning, only 20% reported increased access since before the pandemic and 24% reported decreased or no access. There were similar findings around the limited availability of professional learning that is ongoing.

“If we are truly going to shift practice in education, the entire school community has to be a learning community from the top all the way down,” added Tucker. That starts with leaders expressing the clear “why,” teacher access to differentiated and self-paced professional learning, and teacher agency and ongoing support to try new models, receive feedback and iterate.

Staker cited research on why teachers want to shift their instructional models. They will change either to lead the way, because the model is broken, to connect with students or because they are forced, she said. Blended learning can be an incentive for the first three, while force should be avoided if at all possible.

Farah noted there is “regression back to traditional practice post-pandemic because teachers don’t have a good alternative; but if they are supported, there is appetite for change.”

Take the Next Steps to Blended Learning

Your move toward blended learning can be evolutionary, but it must be intentional. The first step is to recognize how traditional classroom models are too often leaving teachers fatigued, students disengaged and learning stagnated. We can reimagine the classroom to create a more joyful and rewarding experience where students have increased learning agency and relevance, and where teachers can move from “sage on the stage” to more impactful and rewarding methods of individualized interaction, instruction and support.

The Complete Guide to Blended Learning further outlines key models and best practices, steps for planning and implementation, and tools and resources. The right LMS can support many of these elements, including individualized course pathways, authentic assessment for (and of) learning and learning community (among students and with teacher and family involvement).

Both in-person and online learning are here to stay. We can, and in fact must, bring the best of both worlds together through blended learning in the classroom. With expert support from the likes of Staker, Tucker and Farah, along with instructional leaders in your schools and partner service providers, the new classroom is blended and the future is bright.

For an in-depth discussion on implementing blended learning best practices in the classroom—and to hear more from our expert panel—please check out our free D2L webinar, “In the New Educational Landscape, the Future Is Blended (Learning).”