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Saturday, 22 March 2014

Empowering Students Through Blended Learning

Last year, I used the Ministry's Learning Management System to teach my Grade 6 class through a Blended Learning format. It was the most exciting and inspirational year of my teaching career to date. 

Next week, my friend and colleague, Penny, will be joining me to present our experiences in using the D2L Learning Management System with our Elementary students at the On The Rise K-12 Conference. Preparing for this presentation has fired me up once again with the excitement that I experienced last year.  

I think Education is one of the most exciting professions that exists.  My motto is: If I'm not having fun, then my kids are not having fun.  And if my kids are not having fun, they are not learning to their potential.  If they are not thoroughly engaged and inspired, if they are not "lost" in the learning, they are not learning deeply enough.  

When I began to use the D2L with my students, incredible things started to happen.  My students began to take ownership for their own learning!  Having a Science background, I approach every new experience as an experiment.  I have often commented on the fact that I see the classroom as a laboratory.  Using the D2L then, was just one great big experiment, and as is always the case in Science, in order to learn, we need to make observations and collect data to definitively determine the impact of the changes we make to the environment.  

I had hypothesized that using a Blended Learning format would positively impact student achievement as measured by report card marks and EQAO scores.  For the vast majority of my students (but not all), this was the outcome I achieved.  But what I hadn't anticipated, was the impact the tools in the D2L would have on my students' Learning Skills.  With the exception of one student, the kids in my class became more self-directed and took greater ownership for their learning using the tools found in the D2L.  

When I began to notice this shift in their Learning Skills, especially their collaboration, communication and self-regulation, I had to pause and think why is this change happening? 

What hit home for me was the the impact of the Assessment For and As Learning practices, (or what I prefer to generally refer to as Formative Assessment practices), that we implemented in the classroom and how the tools in the D2L supported those practices. 

Last year, I really tried to change the format of discussion in my classroom from Teacher - Student - Teacher to Teacher - Student - Student - Student.  But we found old habits are hard to break.  It was easier to develop this flow of discussion using the Discussion tools in the D2L.  Not only that, but we could go back to the Discussion threads and USE THEM as formative assessment.  We could look at our conversations, and talk about how could we have said that differently to extend our peer's thinking or to gain a deeper understanding into their thinking, or how we could have expressed our thoughts more clearly.  As a teacher, I could look at the conversations my students were having and know so much more about what they understood and what they didn't understand so as to tailor my instruction more expertly to meet their needs.  I was able to find patterns in their misconceptions that I wouldn't have noticed otherwise. 

I think the other thing that led to the change was the fact that I could provide my students with more immediate feedback.  They used the paging tools regularly to let me know when they were struggling with concepts.  Students told me that they were more comfortable asking me questions through the D2L than aloud in class because no one but me knew that they were struggling.  However, as the year progressed, and they saw the positive impact their questioning was having on their learning, they began to ask the questions in class as well, and more excitingly, they began to answer one another's questions while I sat back and took on the role of observer rather than expert.

They started to pay greater attention to what helped them learn and what didn't help them learn.  Their communication to me changed from "I don't get it" to explaining to me exactly what they were having difficulty with "I don't get how you know whether you have to multiply or divide the decimal when converting to different units" to eventually saying "I watched the video to see how you solved it, but I solved it a completely different way, and my way is easier and works too because I got the same answer as you did". 

My students began to take ownership for one another's learning as well and truly became a community of learners to the point that they were letting me know which videos I had posted were helpful to their learning, and which ones weren't. They would search for alternative videos and additional links and urge me to share them with the class because they felt their peers needed to see them.  

Using the tools in the D2L, my students were making their thinking visible.  They became more metacognitive and paid attention to their learning.  The Blended Learning format gave my students a voice, and they learned to use that voice.  They were empowered, and teaching doesn't get any more exciting than that!

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