These last few days, it’s been more like Mr. Kaz in Palm Springs, CA for the iNACOL symposium on blended and personalized learning. Yesterday morning I had the privilege of sharing the stage with Vicki Phillips, Director of Education/College Ready for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as three fellow teachers – Brian Johnson, Tanesha Dixon, and Collen Kennedy – who are doing amazing things in their classroom with blended learning.
If you’re not familiar with blended learning, it is the formal education that blends traditional teaching with some type of virtual learning. Usually the blending allows lessons and curricula to be personalized to an individual student’s needs. There are many different forms and models that blended learning can take. One popular tool that many teachers now integrate into their curricula is Khan Academy, an online tool which provides virtual, self-paced learning. Khan Academy has even allowed students outside traditional classes in rural places all over the globe to access a world-class education for free. Pretty amazing. The iNACOL conference is about bringing all of the stakeholders in blended learning together.
The blended learning model I work in is called School of One, and it is a very comprehensive blended learning model. Possibly the most comprehensive. It starts with this premise: Every one student is a unique individual and learns at his or her own pace and in his or her own style. The School of One package (it is essentially part product part service that a school can buy) includes a user interface and dashboard for students and teachers, content, daily groupings, an assessment system, a redesigned and renovated classroom, amongst lots of other little pieces that create this new model of learning.
School of One starts by assessing each of my 300 students at the beginning of the year and then uses a grouping algorithm to place them in personalized lessons every day. If a 6th grader enters my class on a 4th grade level, that student will start with lessons at a 4th grade level; the same is true on the other end of the spectrum. Every one student has a personalized learning path and is assessed daily to manage each student’s progress on that path. If a student passes the daily assessment, the student moves on to a new lesson on the next skill. If not, the student gets a different style lesson the next day on the same topic. Thus, this blended learning model allows me to be responsive every day to the current learning needs of each of my 300 students, something I struggled with tremendously in my old traditional classroom.
Another reason I call this model comprehensive is that School of One has completely redesigned my classroom to fit the needs of the students in this program. What was once three separate classrooms is now one giant classroom. It was completely renovated and reorganized to meet the needs of a program that has seven different types of lessons that, in theory, could all be going on at once: Live Investigation, Task, Small Group Collaboration, Peer to Peer Collaboration, Virtual Instruction, Virtual Reinforcement. Thus, there are live instruction centers, collaborative centers, and virtual instruction centers.
Whatever the model is, the goal of every blended learning model and technology is to allow students to learn in ways they never were able to before. It is to reach students in ways they were not reached before. As I wrote before, I am able to meet each of my 300 students individualized learning needs every day with my blended learning tools. Again, pretty amazing. We have finally acknowledged that students are not a product moving down a factory line to be packaged up by batches, usually grouped by age. They grow non-linearly, and we finally have some good tools to respond to that.
This sounds exciting, but you may be asking: are these models really working?
That’s a complicated question since there there are so many models being implemented. It’s also still relatively early in the process. But Vicki Phillips shared some encouraging interim research yesterday that just came out through the RAND study. Twenty-three schools were studied (my school is not included in this study). In a nutshell, the research suggests (albeit with further research necessary and ongoing) that those twenty-three schools who implemented blended learning practices show significantly higher gains in reading and math than those in the control group. Of course, there are caveats and concerns about bias. But read the study and form your own opinion. (Full disclosure: The Gates Foundation funded this study and is also a partial funder of School of One. It also brought me out to Palm Springs to speak about my blended teaching practices.)
In my classroom, I have seen many students – especially those on the low end of achievement, gain 1.5 and sometimes 2 grade levels in a single year. And kids are engaged and excited to be in School of One every day to boot. Rarely are they bored or overwhelmed. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but it sounds like success so far to me.
The iNACOL conference gives me a lot of hope about where education is going. I have recently been thinking that it may very well be possible that my own kids (should I have them some day) may not even need to attend traditional college. With online and personalized learning tools, will it be commonplace for students 25 years from now to get a high-quality degree while traveling the world? Will college classes will be fully blended? Whatever it is, education is in a transformational phase and my classroom is meeting more student needs than ever and is more exciting because of it.