Lounge Lessons

Clearing up persistent teacher misconceptions on blended learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Juliana Finegan

credit-the-learning-acceleratorHaving taught high school and middle school for almost ten years, I still have many friends who are educators and administrators throughout the country. Recently I visited a school and was able to reconnect with some of them, talk about life, and chat about education. As we caught up in the teacher’s lounge, I was questioned about my work in blended learning. Some teachers asked about students trapped on computers and learning purely online. Others were concerned about computers replacing teachers, larger class sizes because of devices, and about what should be in a blended learning “section” of a classroom. I was surprised at how many misconceptions about blended and personalized learning are still prevalent among educators, especially some of the top educators I know. Even with the large strides being made around research and development of edtech programs and practices, there clearly remains a lot of work to be done to clarify what true blended learning looks like.

There needs to be more communication between educators, edtech developers, and educational support groups in order to continue clarifying misconceptions right away and ensure that developers are building supply for the actual demand.

In order to allow teachers to fully understand the potential of edtech implementation, there needs to be transparency around not only the what but also the why. Educators need to know that technology is in no way being used to replace teachers, but instead allows educators to know their students better, assess more efficiently, and have the opportunity to innovate their current curriculum.

So what is blended learning?

My first response to my friends’ questions was that while I really appreciated their honesty, none of the examples they asked about were actually blended or personalized learning. Purely USING technology in the classroom is very different that UTILIZING technology to address instructional challenges and teach students more effectively.

I quickly shared that blended and personalized learning should not be a part of a classroom or a set time in class, but instead blended with in-person instruction to add to the whole classroom experience. Students shouldn’t be having personalized learning time, but instead be able to access the content in a personalized way because of the support from the device and the teacher.

Classroom sizes should stay the same but actually feel smaller with the opportunity of additional small group and one on one time because students are working at their own pace. Blended and personalized learning is not replacing the teacher but instead supporting the teacher to give them innovative ways to assess, engage, differentiate, and scaffold learning for students.

Technology should not replace authentic assessments like project-based learning, socratic seminar, and/or science fair but instead enhance these projects and give students new ways to collaborate and explore. Devices and programs don’t tell teachers what to teach but instead give them tools to help students fill gaps and identify areas of strength and growth more efficiently.

I was excited at how quickly my friends let down their guards and changed their perception of the work I do. By the end of the discussion, they were interested in sites to check out, resources to use, and ways to start shifting their instruction to include blended practices. All it took was an honest conversation where they were able to clarify their misconceptions and see how these innovative strategies could actually apply to their classrooms and students.

What can we do?

Just designing, building, or showcasing what we think is needed to implement edtech practices at scale will not work. Instead we need to remember that those doing this work with our students need to be involved as well, and that means hearing and addressing their fears, misconceptions, and misunderstandings. There needs to be more communication between educators, edtech developers, and educational support groups in order to continue clarifying misconceptions right away and ensure that developers are building supply for the actual demand. Innovative practices will not catch fire without engaging those in the classroom and that means being clear with the why and the how. When rolling out innovative practices like blended learning, it is important to remember to:

Stop with the jargon. Blended and personalized learning are not new concepts, just new names, much like the new term “station-rotation” is just the well-known concept of “centers” with a new sparkle of devices. If we present innovative/edtech practices as something that is brand new, then teachers will wonder how it will even fit into their classroom. Instead of introducing it as replacing their current instruction, it should be presented as something that will enhance, support, and invigorate their current teaching. Teachers can personalize without devices but it is a lot less efficient and they can collect real-time data but it is harder to analyze and apply. We need to highlight these shifts as opposed to getting caught up with the current names associated with these shifts, because that is where there will be push back. Jargon can make those not in the field feel like it is a foreign language and beyond their area of expertise.

Showcase how blended learning can be used to address instructional challenges and teach students more effectively. Shifts in practice and mindsets happen when the rationale is clear and the decisions are tied to content, student needs, teacher needs, and school needs. No school, district, or child is the same, so we need to make sure that edtech tools are rolled out in a personalized way that allows teachers to take ownership of implementation. This means modeling best practices with professional development and allowing teachers to experience the alignment to their current practices in an authentic way, much like we hope they will use it in their classroom.

All of us in edtech have the responsibility to take action and clarify misconceptions as they happen by sharing best practices. The only way to ensure this work can be done at scale is that we don’t ignore these concerns but address them with real-world examples and transparency of thought. Blended and personalized learning can change the face of education but it can only be done with understanding and buy in from educators — the ones doing the real work for our students!

Juliana Finegan is a partner at The Learning Accelerator. Juliana has followed her passion for education both in the classroom, having worked for a decade as a Title 1 educator and Teach For America alumna and, more recently, by supporting teachers at the graduate level.

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