by Judy Bauernschmidt
Brendan, a sophomore at Ralston Valley High School in Arvada, started his first day of the school year in typical fashion by attending all six of his classes, learning about course expectations, and meeting his new teachers and classmates. But, it was to be one of the few times that he’d sit face to face with others in three of his semester-long classes.
Brendan has a course load that includes three “brick-and-mortar” classes that he attends daily at his neighborhood high school; two online classes that are delivered completely over the Internet; and one “hybrid” elective class. For the latter, he attends class sessions in person three days a week and participates remotely on two other days each week. When not physically in a classroom, Brendan manages his online courses in English and Spanish 3, completes the work in his hybrid elective class in computer programming, and attends after school wrestling practice.
Collen, another Jeffco student, who is enrolled at Drake Middle School, takes one online class at his neighborhood school as part of his daily schedule, freeing up time to take a high-school-level Spanish class.
Both students can work anywhere and anytime on their online and hybrid classes, giving them control over how they structure their time and organize their daily schedules. They use the flexibility to manage time, place, and pace, accommodating their learning needs and preferences.
Definition of Blended Learning
Blended learning takes place in a traditional school building and boosts the effectiveness of education while it transforms the learning experience for students. It combines teacher-led instruction with high-quality digital educational content, which is customized to a student’s needs and abilities. Blended learning is the transformative educational innovation of our time and has the potential to significantly improve K-12 education throughout the country. Blended learning is being utilized by more districts, schools, and teachers to support student learning, and it is becoming more prevalent in Jeffco Public Schools.
Middle and high school students in Jeffco have the option to combine online and traditional courses in their academic schedules. Jeffco teachers have access to district-wide training, a learning management system, and online course resources to supplement instruction or offer blended learning options to students.
Mitch Conrad, a high school teacher of math and computer programming at Ralston Valley High School, used those training opportunities before attempting to teach four hybrids each semester. He planned to offer hybrid versions based on his experience teaching one fully online course, which further allowed him to use personal technology tools for student learning. Conrad follows an “opt-in” approach that allows students to meet in the classroom two days a week and work fully online the remaining three days. Most have opted in, which hasn’t surprised him.
“Parents support the hybrid approach because they value the skills students develop that they will use in college,” Conrad says.
Students must remain in good standing academically to earn this privilege. He calls it “a motivating factor,” adding, “Students participate in online conversations at a level I have not seen before. All students participate, even the quiet students who would not normally speak up in a brick and mortar class.”
Currently, Jefferson County students can choose from among over 50 courses available through the school district’s online school. Some will do so to supplement their regular schedule. Gifted elementary students who can handle accelerated math lessons can access middle or high school courses while they attend their neighborhood school. The number of students choosing a combination of brick-and-mortar classes and online classes
grows each year.
In the planning phase, it’s important to dispel the misperceptions about online and blended education. As an educational services consultant, I have experienced criticisms, concerns, and apprehension from principals and district leaders. The concerns seemed valid and were based on the changes that would take place in traditional classrooms and some negative news media stories regarding online schools. Clarification on quality programs and poor practice is essential; otherwise, there is distrust and doubt about the merits of blended learning, which damages its credibility. We need to have a conversation about quality in eLearning and identify the ways high performing programs differ, to counteract the scuttlebutt in the media. These pivotal discussions result in more buy-in and growth in blended learning. Changing negative perceptions and educating the community is critical.
Jeffco’s online school, Jeffco Virtual Academy, is an example of a high-quality eLearning program. The online school is accredited at performance according to the Colorado State Performance Framework. Good and solid virtual instruction, which includes best practices in online teaching, is evidence that districts can provide quality eLearning options. Jeffco Virtual provides blended learning access to middle school and high school students in the form of an a la carte blended model.
Annual student surveys conducted in these programs have shown that students enjoy managing their time and taking ownership of their academic performance via blended learning. They say they are more engaged because they can use new technologies embedded in their daily lessons. Students who have experienced blended learning are advocating offering these course options in a wider array of fields. “I hope I can take hybrid classes next year,” Brendan told me. “They’re my favorite classes at school.”
Blended learning instruction is likely to emerge as a predominant teaching model in the 21st century. Jeffco Public Schools can help students learn and achieve by allowing all students these types of learning options.
The Christensen Institute (www.christenseninstitute.org) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation.
Digital Learning Now! (www.digitallearningnow.com) is a national campaign to advance policies for a quality digital learning environment.
Colorado eLearning Collaborative (www.coloradoelearning.org) is a nonprofit consortium of schools and districts in Colorado working collaboratively to build quality online and blended programs accessible for all students.
Evergreen Education Group (www.evergreenedgroup.com) works with schools and districts to improve outcomes through blended and online learning.
Judy Bauernschmidt is executive director of the Colorado E-Learning Collaborative in Denver.