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Saturday, 27 April 2013

On Blended Learning

Blended learning is a form of education that combines face-to-face classroom methods with computer-mediated activities.[1] According to its proponents, the strategy creates a more integrated approach for both instructors and students. From Wikipedia. 

This year I have been experimenting with blended learning.  Blended learning is a combination of face-to-face learning with eLearning.  I call it an "experiment" because I believe EVERY teaching strategy we try is an experiment.  I see my classroom as a giant laboratory.  I try different teaching strategies and then I measure their impact on student learning.  Some are more successful than others; some are very successful with some students and not so successful with other students. 

In Ontario, the Ministry provides teachers with a Learning Management System called the D2L for our blended learning.  Eight months into the experiment and I have to say that I love it and so do my students.  It is fun and engaging.  But has it positively impacted student learning?  I believe that it has; looking at the work that they are producing now compared to what they were doing in September, I think every student has made significant gains, and some of them have made dramatic gains to their learning.  

Because my students have access to the D2L 24 hours a day, they can decide when they need to access information.  I like to post a variety of different types of media to support their learning.  For example, we are currently studying Flight in Science.  As part of this unit, we are learning about the properties of fluids.  To learn these properties we have been conducting experiments together in class.  If anyone doesn't understand the experiment, they can view it or a similar one in a video on the D2L.  They can also access interactive learning activities from the Ontario Educational Resource Bank (OERB) that I have uploaded for them.  Lastly, if they still don't understand, they can email myself, or one of their classmates for clarification. (The OERB is only accessible to Ontario teachers, I'm afraid. It has great learning activities for the Ontario curriculum, but you can link to any online learning activity.) 

Having the D2L available to access information when they need it has really helped the majority of my students become responsible for their own learning.  It has given them control; they know that if they are not understanding, they can do something about it. Dylan William and John Hattie both explain that if students see intelligence as incremental, they will believe that the choices they make can lead to increased intelligence, and that will motivate them to take steps to improve.  But if students believe intelligence is fixed, "I'm not a math person, I'll never understand this", they don't even bother trying.  In fact, they will choose to NOT do their work so that they will look lazy because looking lazy is far better than looking stupid.  I have found that most of my students have come to believe that they can achieve in any subject if they help themselves. 

Using the D2L has made it easier for me to give my students feedback on their work.  They post something, and I can give them personal written feedback immediately.  We've also gotten into the habit of posting the success criteria for their work on our class page so they always have access to it.  They have also begun to give one another feedback, and they use the success criteria to help them decide what to say to one another.  

We have been using the Discussion tool for many of our reading activities.  This has really helped my students to learn how to have conversations around critical literacy.  We use a reciprocal teaching format.  I suggested they post questions they have about what they are reading, seek clarification from one another when they don't understand something, summarize what they have been reading, and make predictions.  I also ask that they consider what the author's message is, and share what they think the author is trying to tell us.  I had to explicitly teach them how to comment on one another's discussion threads at first, but now their discussions are rich and meaningful.  I no longer have to be the one explaining everything - they do that for one another, and I can peek in to see who gets it and who doesn't.

I learned a lot about the power of blogging from the #etmooc I participated in.  In February, we started using the blog tool on the D2L.  I was tempted to have my students create blogs using edublogger, but I am still nervous about having their blogs in the public domain - it is something I am still considering and exploring. (Click on the links to learn more about blogging from Sue Waters). Using the D2L, their blogs can only be seen by students in our board, and they are not nearly as visually appealing as they would be if they were using edublogger because they can't add widgets.  But that hasn't inhibited them.

It turns out my students LOVE blogging - every single one of them.  (I know because they are always asking to have time to blog, and they are doing it on their own time at home). Sometimes I assign topics to blog about.  Then I give them feedback, and ask them to improve their post given the feedback.  Some edit their original post, some opt to write an entirely new post and keep both as "evidence" of their learning.  But the posts I like best are the ones that they decide to write.  Currently, they have decided to have a "video contest".  They are posting their favourite videos. Through my comments on their blogs, I have asked them to develop a critical stance and try to determine what the intended message of the video is. 

One thing I don't like to do is have all of my students on-line at the same time.  We NEVER use the computer lab to access the D2L.  We use the devices I have in the class (five iPads, 3 desk tops, and 4 laptops).  That is enough for half of my class. They either work in pairs, or, because I use a workshop model, some are using the electronic devices, while others are doing something hands on, and still others are working with me in small groups.  Having the D2L has really enabled them to work independently for long stretches of time so that I can easily conference with students one at a time or work with them in small groups. 

Do you use blended learning in your classroom?  If so, how is it going?  If you have any ideas or suggestions to share, I would really love to hear them.  

Next week, I will ask my students what they think about blended learning, what they like and don't like.  Check in soon to hear about blended learning from the student's perspective.

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