My Kind of Blended

I have a vision for a 21st century school, and I’m determined to make my vision a reality. I know that a lot of talk is going on right now about education reform and what are we going to do about our current school system. Honestly I’m not sure that the problem of the public school can be fixed from the inside.

I have long believed in the power of the free market – yes it can be used for evil and not good (RE: current economic crisis and meltdown of wall street) but I also know that, just like my students in the classroom, excellence is bred in the evolutionary soup of survival of the fittest (I’m of course being metaphoric here). Anyone who has read 1984 knows that mediocrity is the only thing that comes of everyone doing the same thing because it’s what they are supposed to do, and that is what our public school system has become.

First of all, we have to get rid of the “one size fits all” educational system that we currently have. Okay so maybe we have two sizes, possibly even three if you count special education, but overall you are either advanced or you aren’t, and other than that we all learn the same thing (give or take). I can tell you that from looking around at the population of my school, 65 percent, 65 PERCENT (and I’m understating it even I think) of the students at my school are being failed by the system we have in place. Our test scores are great, our graduation rate is the highest in our district (and that is including the rich schools), we were even Recognized ratings in the accountability standards, and only missed Exemplary by a few points, and still I say we fail them. They know that they are just jumping through a series of hoops in order to graduate, and in the end many of our students are unprepared for the rigors of college, and are certainly unprepared for the real world critical thinking and problem solving that will be expected of them. Not to mention that the majority of the students in my school have little ambition to even attend college (many are poor and first generation (if that) citizens) and so will leave high school with that notch on their belt and join the working world. WHY are we not preparing them for the path that they intend to take???

I’m calling first of all for a return of the vocational school! There is no shame in a student learning a trade that will actually benefit them and give them a valuable, marketable skill (not to mention that many skilled tradesmen and women make more money that us teachers do!) in the process. Many economists are citing the lack of skilled tradesmen as one thing that is hurting our economy as we have to outsource many of the jobs that were originally done by Americans. Many of our students are checking out mentally, and sometimes even physically, because school has lost it’s relevancy to them. We are one of the few first world countries that still tries to force everyone to fit the college-bound educational mold. Why?!

Three girls completing virtual school course work in their bedroom

Christine Ward, left, Katherine Cohoon and Catherine Ward take classes through the Florida Virtual School, the fastest-growing school system in the state.

Secondly, we need to be integrating blended education into the “traditional” schools that remain – classes that meet online the majority of the time and only meet face to face a few hours a week. This would eliminate the need for “seat time” requirements, allow students to work at a pace that fits their lifestyles (when do most of your students do their work… I guarantee you it’s after 7pm) while still giving them a measure of accountability in the face to face meeting times.  Students who are advanced can work ahead or be given supplemental assignments without it being awkward or difficult, and students who are behind or need extra help can get remediation BEFORE the test because the remediation will be a built in part of the course.

Flexible scheduling will also allow for school buildings to be smaller – rooms can be shared when meeting times don’t overlap, which cuts down on maintenance costs, and the role of the teacher switches from that of dispenser of knowledge to that of a facilitator. This could even potentially allow for teachers to take on (slightly) larger numbers of students, as many online tasks can be automated and when you are answering questions and facilitating it takes much less time per student than lecturing, grading, discipline management, etc can take currently. Teachers can also lighten the grading load by assigning collaborative projects in which the students work in more realistic group settings than individually, and even can allow students to critique and assist each other. One of the greatest side-effects of my class facebook page has been that when students have questions they post them on the facebook page, and other students will actually answer them!

Another benefit to flexible scheduling will be in creating a more college like atmosphere to help prepare students for the actual schedule of college. I know that one reason many of my friends struggled in college was the adjustment they had to make to the new schedule. Add in the fact that many professors just didn’t take attendance and you had a recipe for disaster. If students are already familiar with and comfortable with only physically attending classes a few hours a week, plus have it built in as a habit to attend class, I think they will find it easier to adjust and make them more likely to attend their classes. Not to mention the fact that the type of blended classes I envision are going to build in the students a habit of learning on their own and using all of their available resources to make sure they understand, which is going to create more independence and self-reliance – definitely both traits essential to success in college. Right now many students are learning the exact opposite in their secondary school classes (ex. if i keep quiet or alternatively yell out the wrong answer enough the teacher will give me the right one).

Seattle Science Fiction Museum

Flexible scheduling also will be useful to students who are heavily involved in other activities. If you do not have to be in class every day, or can schedule to attend on a different day when conflicts arise in your schedule, then you will have more control over your learning, and be less likely to be penalized for being absent for various activities. As an example I have a student who recently switched into my class, and I kid you not today was the 4th time I have seen her in the 3 weeks she has been in my class. Now she was sick a couple of days, and I was in Arizona at VSS for another 3 of those days, but the rest of the time she has been out for various school activities. Her grades are suffering because she hasn’t been present in class enough to keep up with her work and really know what is going on. Her learning is seriously disrupted by her extra curricular activities but there is no way she is going to give them up if  you ask her. I’m sure that other people have had experienced similar situations.

This idea is still open to suggestions and if you have any I would love to hear them. As I said I fully intend to see my blended school become a reality one day soon, although I may have to leave the public school system in order to do it unfortunately. I would really like to open something like this in Seattle and last I checked charter schools were still a no-go there. Texas allows charters but I love the weather in Seattle… plus I have never seen so much green in all my life. Plus how can you not love a place that has the craziest looking sci-fi museum ever, and a troll under a bridge?!

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jessica on November 25, 2010 at 4:16 PM

    I would LOVE to have had an education like that!! Also to teach it or be the parent of a kid going through school with blended education. Self-pacing makes all the difference to me. I don’t know if it would take fewer teacher hours overall; tests can be automatically graded and discipline should be less taxing, but much more time might be spent in one-on-one instruction. Sort of home-schooling with a family of 30???

    Reply

    • Yes exactly my thoughts – I don’t want anyone to get the impression that it is somehow “easier” to be an online instructor – it’s not if you do it right – but that more time can be spent helping the students understand!

      Reply

  2. I’ve seen the following claim made frequently about on-line or partly on-line education:
    “when you are answering questions and facilitating it takes much less time per student than lecturing, grading, discipline management, etc can take currently.”

    I’ve never believed it. Answering questions one-on-one takes far longer than answering the same question in front of a class. Answering questions on a forum or by e-mail takes far more time per question than answering them verbally in class, especially when it takes two or three iterations to clarify the question that the student really meant to ask. (Note: I routinely have these sorts of interactions in conjunction with my college courses—it is good to clear up misconceptions as soon as possible, but it is more effort than answering questions in class.)

    Reply

  3. You know you are right – on a measure of the actual amount of time that it takes to respond to a question online compared to in person it DOES take longer per student to do this – however I guess the point I was trying to make is that you would have more time to devote to something like that as opposed to the tasks that take up so much of our time in the f2f classroom.

    When I evaluate the amount of time I actually spend one on one with each student, answering their questions (and that is even including answering a question to the whole class – which I will most likely have to answer two or three more times due to students not really paying attention) I probably spend less than one minute per student per week on average. Sound outrageous?

    Think about it – the majority of in-class time in a public high school is spent on the following tasks:
    (1) taking role and other administrative tasks (5-10 minutes/period)
    (2) getting everyone’s attention (~5 min/period unless it’s a Friday or right before a holiday and then it’s more like 10-15 minutes)
    (3) lecturing and/or explaining directions (20-30 minutes)
    (4) addressing students who are misbehaving (depends on the class and the students – can be anywhere from 5 minutes – 20 minutes some days)

    Now obviously my times are estimates but I would say that there is generally only about 5-10 minutes of time each period in which I can actually respond to questions from students regarding procedures, content, whatever. When you have 30+ students in a class, and 5 classes a day that math works out to somewhere between 1.7-2.5 minutes per child PER WEEK.

    In an online environment you definitely do not spend time taking role (the LMS can keep track of when they log in), dealing with as much discipline issues (it does crop up occasionally but not as frequently), and lecture has been converted to something either pre-recorded, read, etc. so the teacher is not actually delivering the content anymore, but facilitating the understanding of the content.

    This opens up a lot more time for the teacher to respond to questions – either in a forum, or in a chat-type synchronous session. And yes you will inevitably get repetitive questions but you can either (a) respond to it again and again (2) direct them to the location where you answered it previously (3) save a template response to that question (ex. if students ask how to submit something you can have that already saved as a template response)

    Additionally you can encourage the students to talk to each other and try to get them to answer each others questions (which does happen if you set up the social network type environment they are familiar with) which will free up even more time for you to answer specific questions.

    Reply

    • My experience may be different, as I teach college, not high school. I never take roll—if I need records of who was present, I circulate a signup sheet for students to record their presence. Getting everyone’s attention requires a few seconds: “Time for class to start”. Those who aren’t going to pay attention don’t come. Lecturing takes most of the 70-minute class time, though I take questions throughout (I start almost every lecture with “any questions?”), and may spend more than half the time answering questions.

      The only discipline issues that take up much time are academic integrity problems (luckily rare in my courses). I have talked to instructors who do distance-learning classes, and they report that the problems of cheating are much larger for the students not physically present. Some find the per-student time spent dealing with cheating among the distance learners so high that they won’t teach courses with distance learning components any more.

      So, I’m rather dubious that an on-line format really offers more time for one-on-one instruction than the traditional classroom format does. Have you been doing it and finding more time? or is this just “grass is greener on the other side of the fence”?

      Reply

      • I actually am an online instructor and also help train future online instructors with a local teacher training program. Personally I have taken college-level online courses and find them to be the worst examples of online courses. I know there are good examples out there but they seemed to be few and far between. Colleges were early adopters of the online format but it seemed like the teachers just took all their material, dumped it on the internet and then told the students to post 3 times per week in a discussion forum. (i’m exaggerating… a bit… but that was basically the format for all of my experiences)

        Cheating is a problem when you try to make the old model of assessments work. Obviously multiple choice tests that are not proctored are going to experience a large amount of cheating (especially if there isn’t a time limit involved). Additionally I would like to point out that there is most likely just as much cheating in face to face classes, teachers just don’t recognize it as easily. I mean check this youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91lQK5SCzlQ the guy teaches people how to make a cheat sheet on a soda bottle. I knew people who wrote stuff on the underside of shirts, put answers on the bottoms of their hat brims, wrote on their arms, etc.

        One of the things that we train our online educators to do is to find ways of authentically assessing student learning. Regurgatory test are going to encourage cheating, but tests and other assessments that require students to think and then synthesize and create something from the information are going to discourage cheating.

        Think about it this way – when in the real world are we not allowed to look up the information necessary to solving our problems? I’m not advocating the end of having students “memorize” certain facts, but overall in life if we need to know something we google it. If our assessments only ask that students can spit back information at you (low level blooms type things) then is that really preparing them for the real world?

        When I design online courses I try to incorporate a variety of assessment styles – personally I feel that multiple choice assessments should be used sparingly. If you are concerned about plagiarism, insist that assignments be turned in through a plagiarism checker software like turnitin.com – I believe you can even set it to allow the students access to their reports to see how they were rated so they can see if they need to fix anything prior to finalizing their submission.

        Just like in a face to face classroom it all comes down to the skill of the teacher and the quality of the class. You would take precautions to prevent cheating in a f2f class, you have to do the same in an online environment, just the parameters are different.

  4. Love this “when in the real world are we not allowed to look up the information necessary to solving our problems? I’m not advocating the end of having students “memorize” certain facts, but overall in life if we need to know something we google it. If our assessments only ask that students can spit back information at you (low level blooms type things) then is that really preparing them for the real world?” Assessment, like teaching, is an art–are we asking the right questions? Are we requiring students to think and come to their own conclusions? Are we asking them to defend why they think as they do? Can they transfer what they learned to a new situation?

    Reply

  5. And (continued thought from prior comment)…every real world problem starts out as an information problem. What is the problem? What do I need to know? Where can I find what I need? Who can help me with this? What’s the best way to do this? Who is my audience? Why does it matter?

    Reply

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