From the Editor’s Desk: Blended Learning Support in Fayette County

Blended Instruction Wordle       In this essay I’ll be discussing exactly what sort of role the Office of Instructional Technology (OIT) might play in your instructional needs. There’s a survey linked at the bottom of this discussion – tell us what you think!
       This topic comes from a discussion in a recent staff meeting about how best to support so-called blended learning – the integration of online tools and activities into face-to-face classrooms. Why should we care? Almost all classrooms have some sort of online presence, if just a static web page with a teacher’s name, phone number, and email address. But a lot of teachers have discovered that online management of instructional materials is valuable, and a few others have discovered that online delivery of activities and discussion can greatly improve student learning outside (and even inside!) the classroom. That’s the blended model, and it’s an important part of next-generation learning and 21st Century skills. (There are a few teachers who have made a profound leap, delivering all lesson activities online, or flipping the classroom – they are most certainly a part of this discussion as well.)
       You may very well be a “blended learning” teacher right now, and not know it. If you use Socrative, or even simpler tools like GoSoapBox, you’re leveraging online tools in support of a face-to-face classroom. But, of course, the real power of blended learning is the ability to extend the classroom and learning across space and time, so students can remain engaged after they leave your space.
       And that reveals the problem in our current gadget-driven, tool-first education technology environment: almost everybody talks about the value of one tool over another, missing the fact that there’s an implied conversation about the implied change in instructional practice. “Tool first” is a disease infecting almost all technology discussions, with symptoms like: “What’s the best app for 5th grade science,” or “What’s the best online PowerPoint replacement.” These are examples of ones which leave out the most important part of the question: “…for…..?” Education technology is all too often a celebration of solutions hunting for problems. It’s no wonder many tech-shy teachers avoid the entire discussion!
       But, for the moment, we’ll bite and go tool-first, with an eye on the prize of supported anytime, anywhere learning. To review, Fayette County has several general online platforms to support learning…

  • SharePoint is almost exclusively an adult workflow platform these days, though it has been used for student learning too, and is still used for student surveys and other minor tasks.
  • Fayette’s iSchool is a full learning management system, in much the same way as Blackboard at the college level. It is used by a core of Fayette Co. teachers, most notably business and technology teachers.
  • Edmodo actually lives somewhere else outside the district, but it has a district umbrella managed by OIT. Its Facebook-like interface makes it a comfortable fit for many teachers as an assignment and discussion platform.
  • WordPress is what delivers the district’s blog system. Although it supports interactive use, it is used mostly as a static web page platform in our district.

…and that’s just the tools Fayette County specifically supports and endorses. There are literally hundreds of online learning platforms on the open Internet – PBWorks, SkyDrive/OneDrive, Google Drive, Schoology, to name a few. Beyond that, there are all of the specialized tools like Socrative.
       There are three ways we might approach a “tool first” discussion of blended learning:

  • “Don’t tread on me.”In this day and age, many teachers need to feel they “own” a tool before they’ll actually use it. That is especially true of the “bleeding edge” early adapters of tools. There’s something exciting about discovering a new tool, being the first to see its advantages, and being the expert as others choose it themselves.
    • The District Role: If you endorse this category, almost any role a district office might have would be viewed as intrusive (more about that later).
    • The Good News: With this approach, everybody chooses the tools they want.
    • The Bad News: If money must change hands, individual teachers, departments, or schools need to pony up. District support of an unlimited number of resources is also simply not possible, so you’re largely on your own. Then there’s the “tool of the week” problem, where teachers are constantly moving from tool to tool without establishing any resources and use patterns with legs. Consistency and early adoption are often at odds with each other. For the overwhelming majority of teachers, this is a complex mish-mash of options without a specific tie to a vision of how blended learning might change instruction.
  • District Ownership.In this approach, a district selects or provides the tool, and trains on its use. You could consider Infinite Campus as an example of this approach (though, actually, IC is a state contract, if you wanted to get technical…).
    • The District Role: The district decides, and the program is implemented.
    • The Good News: This systemic approach makes personal training and technical support conceivable, since the user base is large enough to dedicate staff and money. With consistency comes shared use patterns and resources, and clearly-defined potential outcomes of professional development and classroom experiences. The discussion shifts from tool selection to effective use, and, hopefully, to teacher change.
    • The Bad News: No two tools are exactly the same, and selecting one over another inevitably embraces one tool’s problems as it ignores another’s advantages. Then there’s the problem mentioned above – if the district “owns” it, the teacher doesn’t see herself as the owner, and the tool (and the instructional improvement it might imply) gets ignored, perhaps even resented.
  • District Leadership.In this approach, there is an attempt to solicit teacher consensus on tool selection, but district leadership is still provided.
    • The District Role: The district promotes and supports one or two such tools as an “effective classroom practice” model, without removing the ability of teachers to select other options.
    • The Good News: One might think this is the best of both worlds, since it provides for a district leadership role without disallowing any alternative tool. But…
    • The Bad News: The results of this approach is often exactly the same as the “Don’t tread on me” approach, except that the district has now committed staff and technical resources in support of one or two tools.

The last of these approaches comes closest to matching our current practice, but it suffers from the same problems we see in “District Ownership” – that is, the tools are selected and supported, then generally ignored.
Office of Instructional Technology       There is a fourth approach, which is, the District could ignore tools altogether, and simply support and promote the underlying principal, blended instruction. But is that even possible, or would it work? That is, in the current tool-crazy environment, is it really possible to promote and support such practices, without providing leadership in tool selection as well? Is our office’s lack of success in promoting this model due to the poor quality of the tools the district has selected to support, the lack of interest in ordinary classroom teachers in pursuing the blended model, or a lack of leadership in the Office of Instructional Technology in selecting and supporting a single tool?
       An earlier Fayette Co. CDIP had a designated online learning platform (Fayette’s iSchool). Many smaller districts (especially those with other systemic programs such as 1-1 computing) specifically designate and support a single platform for online/blended learning. From a district perspective, is this the best way to go? From your perspective as a classroom teacher, would you be more willing and able to add blended instruction principles to your practice if you were fully in control, or fully lead and supported by district leadership?
       Fill out this survey and tell us what you think! (It’s in SharePoint – one response per visitor, and, yes, it’s anonymous).

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