Today’s school districts experience significant change. The main force of change has a name: COVID-19. In order to keep all school community stakeholders safe and healthy, schools across the United States and globe are to follow governmental guidelines that force them to adjust to a new way of living, teaching, learning and behaving around others. Such forces are greater in combination than the forces of the normalcy teachers and students were accustomed to before. The learning that used to happen in my traditional four-wall classroom in which I, as a Spanish educator, felt more in control is now taking place via the internet in synchronous or asynchronous sessions. As a result, distance learning has become an increasingly important component in many of today’s educational organizations, including my school district: Harmony Public Schools. Such a sudden development also brought a great number of challenges with it, including but not limited to students not logging into the synchronous meets, lack of student participation, motivation, submission of work and knowledge on how to behave in a digital environment. Sustainable change needs to happen to amend this situation in such a way that all stakeholders, my secondary school students, their parents, and educators like me benefit from it. The use of a Blended Learning approach in today’s classroom will increase student engagement, agency and self-efficacy in the classroom.
In most traditional classrooms learning happens synchronously. According to Black (2002), the main advantage of a traditional classroom is the face-to-face interaction, in which student motivation derives from not only the teacher but other students who participate in such an environment (para. 4). However, events, such as COVID-19, forced Harmony Public Schools and other institutions to think in creative ways to meet the needs of all learners and provide equitable access to the necessary technology to each learner and educator. Results from a survey given by Schaffhauser (2020) show that most traditional K-12 educators feel overwhelmed with the idea of teaching learners asynchronously or even in synchronous meetings (paras 1-3). Most teachers give their best effort to meet the needs of their students but struggle through the process due to skills they need to learn for them to be successful supporting students in an online environment. Black (2002) states that the “inability to use raised hands as barometers of student understanding definitely poses a challenge” (para. 15). The goal for teaching and learning in an online environment must be that of enhancing student learning rather than creating information overload for the students. With this in mind, according to Ferlazzo (2020, August 19), a blended learning experience provides students and educators the best of both face-to-face and online learning (para. 5). Besides this, blended learning is a flexible approach that can be adjusted to the needs of each educational institution and even classrooms within the school.
When students learn by participating in relevant and meaningful learning experiences, the engagement increases. Blended learning is not the use of technology tools or software acquired by educational institutions. The main idea behind blended learning is for students to be exposed to a full integration of face-to-face and online learning (Horn & Staker, 2017, p. 35). With the current safety protocols and not knowing for how long they will last, as an educator, I ask myself: how do I teach my students through a screen, keep them engaged and develop student self-efficacy and agency skills? Wheeler, S. (2020, January 26) states that the Blended Learning approach has characteristics of Dewey’s learning theory which describes classrooms as a representation of real life situations. Through blended learning students are given the opportunities to participate in learning activities in a variety of social settings (paras. 4 – 5). Such socialization needs to happen in a structured environment where students learn the norms of social life while interacting in different scenarios when learning content. The classroom is a microcosm of society. The role of the educator is to prepare students to face the challenges that society may have for them. Students in today’s society are exposed to technological advancements. Blended learning has the potential to shift traditional instruction to a more sophisticated way of learning that provides students with the opportunity to have more control over their learning (Maxwell, 2016, paras. 1-2). The flexibility the approach provides through the different blended learning models serve as the medium for students to become more self-directed learners.
Blended Learning Models
Across K-12 educational institutions, four main types of blended learning models evolved and continue doing so as students’ needs come afloat: rotation model, flex model, a la carte model and the enriched virtual model (Horn & Staker, 2017, p. 55). Each model has its unique characteristics that need to be reviewed and analyzed in order to make sound decisions that will lead to meeting the needs of students.
In the first model, the rotation model, students participate in or rotate through different activities on a fixed schedule. Within this model, students experience learning in different settings: small or whole group, individual work amongst others. Some of the most common subcategories in the rotation model include: station rotation, lab rotation, flipped classroom and individual rotation. In the first subcategory, the station rotation model, educators need to design a series of learning stations through which students rotate (Tucker, 2020, para. 6). In one of the rotations, the teacher guides students through a learning activity with the main purpose of closing student gaps in a collaborative environment, which is definitely a benefit of this model. According to Gates (2018), educators need to plan activities that give students the opportunity to learn and grow from each other. Therefore, having scaffolding questions ready to be asked in order to guide student thinking will definitely allow students to advance through the lesson. At another station, a small group of students can work collaboratively on a hands-on activity or performance task using the skills they have learned in different situations. This type of activities will balance online and offline work to give students a break from the screen (Tucker, 2020, para. 8). At a third station, students can work independently on an adaptive software to continue mastering the skills required for the course. The second subcategory, lab rotation, is very similar to the station rotation model. The difference is the staffing structure necessary for this model to be implemented. In my educational setting, the lab rotation model would require the administration team to design a master schedule that blocks the computer lab for those classes that might want to participate in the lab rotation model. The next subcategory, the flipped classroom requires teachers to prepare their content to be delivered through videos which are watched at home. The main benefit of implementing a flipped classroom is reflecting upon the best use of face-to-face time with students. According to Bergmann & Sams (2012), the flipped classroom is a great opportunity to create problem-based learning in the classroom which can be replaced by the videos of lectures designed by the teacher. This model prioritizes the face-to-face time, which means that students when at school work in collaboration with the teacher and other team members on learning experiences that resemble real-life situations. The next subcategory in the rotation model is the individual rotation model. Horn & Staker (2017) state that the individual rotation model “allows each student to work at his or her own pace with a custom playlist.” (p. 45). Such a playlist is designed by the teacher based on the students’ needs and daily assessments. The data collected are used to match students’ lessons and resources that they will be completing the following day. The resources students have access to need to be organized. This requires time from teachers to develop playlists with available resources that will meet the needs of each student.
The second blended learning type is the flex model. In this formal education program, “students are required to show up to a campus where they would access content and instruction primarily online.” (Horn & Staker, 2017, p. 47). The main difference between this model and the previous rotation models is the fact that students do their learning in a brick or mortar environment. Support is provided when needed by the students. There are different ways in which this model can be designed, but it all depends on the needs of the educational organization or individual classrooms where the model will be implemented. Maxwell (2016) states that “ this flexibility separates the Flex model from the rotation model because in the flex model students do not transition between learning modalities.” (para. 6). For example, teachers can require students to meet once a week in order to set learning goals or reflect upon their accomplished goals. In addition to that, teachers can also require certain students to meet more frequently so that they can intervene and close learning gaps.
The third blended learning model, a la carte, refers to “students experiencing a blend of online learning and brick and mortar schooling although there is not a face-to-face component” (Horn & Staker, 2017, p. 49). The main difference between this model and the Flex model is that the teacher of record in A la Carte program is an online teacher, while in the flex program the teacher of record is on campus as a face-to-face educator. This model is mainly used in High School where students have flex time which can be used to work on offline courses.
White (2019) states that an enriched virtual program “provides learning opportunities not governed by seat time like traditional models, but instead determined by the degree to which students control time, pace, and place of learning.” (para. 5). This model allows students to work on or off campus depending on their needs. Students and the teacher of record may meet during the week to go over learning outcomes. The main concern that rises in this model is how students stay on track to earn the credits to graduate, which is the main tangible outcome of any student at a high school level. However, a benefit of this model is that it meets the complex needs of modern K-12 students due to the responsibilities that individuals at their age may have.
Despite the blended learning model educational organizations use, the role of the teacher is pivotal to the success of its implementation. My role in this formal education program, blended learning, is that of a facilitator who guides students through the different planned experiences so that they can meet their learning goals. Researchers state that in a blended learning environment “teachers need to focus on foundational skills because more time needs to be used for student-led, active, engaging activities.” (Fyfe, 2015, para. 7). Such student-centered activities are tailored by the teacher making sure they meet the needs of each learner. As a result of focusing on students, students become creators of knowledge. The freedom they have to explore and create content in different ways using both face-to-face and online technology activities lead them to be in the driver’s seat of their own learning.
Engagement, Student Agency and self-efficacy
Due to unforeseen circumstances, such as COVID-19, most teachers, students, parents and school administrators were forced to rethink and redesign their educational programs to best meet the needs of their student populations. From one week to the next, most schools went from a face-to-face to an online learning environment without a solid infrastructure, and technology platform to sustain such a change. When students are in a face-to-face environment “they have more opportunities for social learning and human interaction” (Tucker, 2020, para. 4). The lack of such social learning caused the engagement to decrease. Although it was surprising to many educators, it makes total sense. For example, in my traditional classroom, I relied completely on lectures and paper and pencil activities. The lack of technology devices at school limited the learning experiences I could offer students. After eight months of teaching my Spanish classes to secondary students, I can say that for the most part I have taught them the use of the technology tools. Reflecting upon this experience, I now know that it is not about the technology tool but about the learning. Tucker (2020) states that “students who participate only in online programs have a higher degree of agency, autonomy, and flexibility, but they may feel isolated or disconnected.” (para. 6). Therefore, a combination of both synchronous and asynchronous opportunities through a blended learning approach will allow learners to continue developing a degree of student agency, and also engage them in learning through different social settings provided by the teacher of record. Researchers define student agency as “the ability to manage one’s learning, which can have significant effects on academic achievement as students take an active role in seeking and internalizing new knowledge.” (Zeiser et al., 2018, p. 1). My goal as an educator is to not only empower but also challenge my students to learn so that they are able to succeed, collaborate, communicate with others and engage in productive ways with the world around them. Bandura (1997), originator of social cognitive theory, states that self-efficacy relates to an individual’s ability to successfully accomplish something. Therefore, self-efficacy will increase through the use of blended learning because students are to set short-term goals constantly. Reflecting upon such goals will allow students and teachers to create a blended learning environment in which students own their learning as they use a wide variety of technology tools.
In the 5th annual ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology, researchers found that although about “38% of students prefer fully face-to-face classroom environments, students who have taken some fully online courses are more likely to prefer blended environments and less likely to prefer face-to-face courses.” (Galanek et al., 2018, p. 6). A blended learning approach that fits the needs of educational organizations can be the catalyst to generate sustainable change. Change is hard but necessary when the world in which students and educators live evolves constantly. Educational organizations need to partner up with their staff to “educate students about the benefits, expectations, and demands of different learning environments to help them make informed decisions about the environments that work best for them.” (Galanek et al., 2018, p. 19). Parents, teachers, administrators are to work together to provide the opportunities needed for students to be equipped with the skills to succeed in the future. In the end, the main responsibility of the educational organizations is to provide students with the support to “determine the best learning environment for their learning preferences and academic needs so that they can make informed decisions on how, when, why, and to what extent they engage in online or blended learning.” (Galanek et al., 2018, p. 25)
The potential for blended learning is enormous. The different models allow educational institutions to design a strong educational program that meets the needs of the population they serve. In addition, a blended learning program will engage students and develop student agency and self-efficacy. Researches state that “teachers need to engage students to develop a cognitive presence online by positioning them as active agents in the learning process instead of reverting to old practices like long lectures” (Tucker & Bell, 2020, para. 9). Students need to become creators of knowledge rather than consumers of it. In traditional classrooms, students would sit and listen to teachers lecture for the entire class period. However, educators need to challenge students as they meet their cognitive and socio-emotional needs. Educational organizations need to analyze the learning outcomes wanted for the students, explore ideas on how to support learning and encourage students to transfer learning, identify students learning styles in which educators can present the information so that they can provide the greatest choice for each learner. By using blended learning, the districts ensure students experience relevant and meaningful learning which in turn will increase engagement and provide a solid foundation for them to be at the driver’s seat of their own learning. The future of blended learning in my organization will “depend on the pace of change and the level of commitment to doing things differently.” (Thorne, 2003, p. 133). My role as a blended learning educator is to have a clear understanding of the make-up of the program so that students can reach their learning goals successfully and be ready to be productive members of this ever changing society.
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