A long time ago, in a classroom not so far away, a teacher stood at the chalkboard and taught. Fast forward to a school today, and you might find kids tapping away on laptops, recording oral histories on tablets or learning math problems via YouTube.
Harnessing technology in the classroom has created what are called “blended” learning environments — a combination of teacher instruction and online learning. Research by the National Education Policy Center shows that this mix of tech and old-school teaching has achieved only modest test gains, though the effectiveness of blended learning is hard to measure because it comes in many shapes and sizes and differs from school to school. Proponents say this emerging educational strategy achieves results a test score can’t measure.
In Miami-Dade and Broward county public schools, blended learning is at an experimental stage. Administrators say students are more motivated by technology, but it’s too early to measure success on a spreadsheet. “It's not quantifiable for us in Broward yet,” said Guy Barmoha, director of math, science and gifted for Broward County Public Schools. “It’s only our third year of D-5 (a one-to-one laptop program for fifth-graders). I am very apprehensive about making any predictions about scores after one or two years.”
But he feels like it’s a step in the right direction.
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“Everyday life is a blended environment. You don't do everything face to face,” he said. “You do things online, at your own pace. If we don't give students the same type of situation in their learning environment right now, we're doing them a disservice.”
In Miami, Lisa Hauser has taught in both a traditional high school and at Florida Virtual School. Now she teaches at iPreparatory Academy, known as iPrep, a Miami-Dade County Public Schools magnet school. At iPrep, students use school-issued laptops and a blend of online lessons in a technology-rich environment.
In Hauser’s algebra II and pre-calculus classes, students listen to online lectures from Florida Virtual School, and she acts as a guide, checking in on students, answering questions and explaining material as needed. “I rarely do live lectures,” she said. “Students work at their own pace, both in the classroom and at home. They must meet a minimum pace, but can work faster, if they choose.”
Hauser favors the blended learning model over fully traditional or fully virtual. “I think it is way more flexible, and it allows a teacher to individualize instruction, so the students get what they need at their own pace,” she said.
With a live lecture, it is difficult for struggling students to go back and review a lesson. In virtual school, you're missing that human component, Hauser said. While there are discussion boards and chat sessions, it's not the same as sitting next to someone else, arguing over a problem.
“In the blended learning environment, students who are advanced can work ahead, and the student who struggles has the opportunity to go back and learn a little bit slower, without falling behind,” she said.
One challenge is that students initially struggle with learning on their own, being responsible for listening to the lectures and taking notes, Hauser said. “They have to do this without someone over their shoulder or digesting the knowledge for them,” she said.
Ericka Koenigsberg of Pinecrest is a 2015 iPrep graduate. She started at the school her junior year after attending a school specializing in dyslexia, as well as a traditional high school.
“There was a definitely an adjustment period. You had to learn to speak a new language. I didn’t know what a Google Doc was or Edmodo,” she said. “And it can be easy to fall behind if you are not on top of your game.”
But Ericka said it suited her. “I was the student who was driven,” she said. “What appealed to me about blended learning was you didn’t know what to expect. You could be watching something online, watching a YouTube video and writing about it, or going on Khan Academy and doing something for math. It was something new every day, which kept you engaged. And it kept you accountable, because you had to stay on top of your game every single day.”
Ericka’s mother, Debby Koenigsberg, said the learning style worked for her daughter. “Being able to work at her own pace and stop and replay lectures was helpful instead of listening to someone in a classroom drone on. It's not perfect for everyone, but it's really good for a lot of kids.”
Carol Vila, director of technology at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami, oversees a one-to-one iPad program for nearly 1,500 students in grades six through 12. Some teachers use a flipped classroom model, one type of blended learning.
In a flipped classroom, teachers use YouTube videos, self-made podcasts, annotated PowerPoint and Keynote presentations and online textbooks with embedded videos. The student is assigned something to do at home, and the next day, the teacher can discuss the material, answer questions, and make sure the students are mastering the topic, Vila said.
“What I hear from the teachers is that they are able to cover more because it's saving time” over a traditional teaching format of lecture, homework, review, Vila said. “So you can potentially cut down two days into one if it's well crafted.
Vila said students find that technology keeps them more interested and engaged. “Teachers who are teaching this way get higher ratings in student surveys. Students say they are more interesting, more engaging,” she said. “Students like the class. They like the subject. The student perception is that teachers who are using these tools are more knowledgeable.”
Barmoha, of Broward public schools, believes the infusion of technology can wake up bored kids.
“Unmotivated kids are an issue, but teachers have had to deal with that issue since the invention of schools,” he said. “There are always kids who don't do their homework.”
Students who are disengaged don't want to sit in a row, be told what to do and then repeat exercises 50 times, he said. “But if you change the classroom around, and you make the learning environment more engaging for the students and show them how much fun they can have applying that knowledge during classroom time, they should be more motivated to go home and prepare themselves for that discussion the next day.”
The ultimate goal is to make students college and career ready, he said. “It's not only test scores that define a student. We are teaching them skills that you may not be able to measure on reading and math tests.”
Speak Up, an initiative of Project Tomorrow, a national education nonprofit, found the following in a 2014 survey of more than 8,000 schools in the United States and around the world:
▪ Students in blended environments use technology more frequently than their peers in more traditional classroom settings. In addition to technology use in the classroom, these students are also more likely to self-direct their learning outside of school by tapping into mobile apps, finding online videos to help with homework, emailing their teachers with questions and posting content they create online for comment.
▪ When students have access to technology as part of their learning, especially school-provided or enabled technology, their use of digital tools and resources is deeper and more sophisticated.
▪ The availability of online learning continues to increase, with only 27 percent of high school principals reporting that they are not yet offering any online courses for students. Interest among students continues to grow, with 24 percent of high school students saying they wish they could take all their classes online — an increase from 8 percent in 2013.