Blended Learning is on the syllabus next year at BI School

Fri, 04/18/2014 - 2:00pm

After a year of intensive research, Block Island School administrators and teachers are making plans to incorporate blended learning, which combines online and traditional teaching methods, into local classrooms next year.

According to Superintendent Robert Hicks, blended learning is well suited for the Block Island School because implementation costs are relatively low and the payoff can be high.

“We will be able to offer students greatly expanded educational opportunities, a lot more variety, and access to many more resources,” said Hicks.

Principal Kristine Monje, who has two children in the high school, agreed. Noting that she had earned her master’s degree on the internet, she said, “I love blended learning. I’ve been a fan of it for a while and I believe it really fills a need for us.”

Both Monje and Hicks were quick to point out that the online element will be supplemental to the in-person teaching at the Block Island School. “We don’t want to replace teachers with computer programs,” said Monje. “We have to balance the two. This will not be our main way of delivering instruction, this will be one way of delivering instruction.”

Tailored approach

Plans for the 2014-15 school year are to create one mobile laptop lab and one fixed computer lab in the high school and to set up computers in one classroom for the elementary grades, which will serve as a laboratory for developing systems and expertise at that level.

“We’re going to move a bit more aggressively on the secondary level,” said Hicks, explaining that they plan to use a software system created for 6th to 12th graders called Edgenuity.

This past December, Hicks and Monje took a group of parents and educators to observe blended learning at two Providence schools, Pleasant View Elementary, a public school, and Village Green, a charter high school. After watching students use Edgenuity at Village Green, they began devising ways to tailor a program that would fit their own school’s needs.

A common concern with online learning in school is that it decreases the need for teaching staff. Neither of the schools in Providence, nor others that have been researched, found this to be true. Some, in fact, had hired more staff and volunteers. “That was a big concern of mine,” said Monje. “Will this decrease the number of teachers? I did not want to replace a live teacher with a product.”

At Pleasant View Elementary, the group from Block Island observed a traditional teaching approach with an added computer lab element that the students rotated through. Students talked with the Block Island group about how much they liked their computer work and how they felt it made them better students throughout the day.

“They adapted something that was traditional,” said Monje. “I didn’t believe in blended learning for elementary students until I saw that.”

Since there is no Edgenuity-type software available for early grades, it makes implementing a blended learning approach at elementary level much less of a turnkey operation; teachers have to develop their own curricula, according to Hicks.

“We plan to look for one elementary teacher here who wants to be trained and set up a classroom as a model learning environment,” he said.

Adopting Edgenuity for the high school, on the other hand, will make introducing blended learning much easier and will allow the Block Island staff to address one particular challenge the local school has long wrestled with: offering and administering all the various levels of math that older students either require or wish to take.

“One of our big struggles has been around math at the upper level — how to let students go in different directions in math with one teacher for (grades) 8 through 12,” said Hicks, adding that after the high school math teacher, Nathaniel Shaw, worked with the software he told Hicks the program would allow him to meet that specific challenge. “Using Edgenuity is really going to make our scheduling nightmares for high school math so much easier,” said Monje.

Shaw’s class will have the fixed computer lab so that he could, for instance, be teaching four students Calculus, AP Calculus, Algebra, and Personal Finance at the same time. His job, after tailoring the online lessons to his and the students particular needs, becomes monitoring their progress on a daily basis and offering help and guidance as they make their way through the online courses.

“The programs themselves generate reports on student progress that you need to analyze on a daily basis.” explains Monje, “If you don’t read how they are doing on a daily basis, you can’t customize students’ instruction properly and that’s what makes it work, a blend of teacher input and the computer-guided instruction.”

The mobile laptop lab could be used, as an example, to enhance a field biology class with virtual labs that all the students are working on together. It can also address another ongoing challenge that is one of the downsides to a small school: providing enough electives for high school students. Currently students either take one of the courses taught by a Block Island School teacher or they take an online course without teacher guidance, which can be problematic for many students who need supervision and/or personal connection. “With this model,” says Hicks, “teachers and parents can go online at anytime and see exactly what students have done and where they are in their work, holding kids accountable.”

Edgenuity will allow a student wanting to take a subject not offered to take these classes with support from a teacher certified in that subject. Hicks offered the example of social studies as an area where older students often desire diverse electives. With blended learning the Social Studies teacher could offer an elective lab and individually support three students, one taking psychology, one sociology and one current history, for example.

Guidance counselor Betty Gomes is working with next year’s juniors and seniors to identify needs and desires. “This is a process that happens anyway,” said Hicks, “but now more accommodations can be made. The basic Edgenuity package comes with 20 high school courses to offer kids, so we’ll be able to use technology to fill gaps.”

Meeting these major challenges means the Edgenuity focus for this first year will be juniors and seniors. “It’s available going down to sixth grade, so I expect as we learn it and understand it and find better ways to use it, it will expand,” said Hicks.

Biggest Hurdles

According to Hicks, the current equipment budget allows for the purchase of both hardware (between 15 and 18 computers) and software (Edgenuity), but it will need to be acquired and installed. Teachers will need to be trained on the software, which will happen before the end of the school year so they can prepare during the summer.

The wireless capacity within the school should be accommodated by a state bond after the Board of Regents and Department of Education decided every school in Rhode Island should have appropriate bandwidth — a recommendation with which the legislature agreed. Hicks said the school department will work to install a system that will provide expanded access, better signal strength and more sophisticated management software before the end of the current school year. In addition, said Hicks, the signal strength to the island is due to improve with new tower access.

Lastly, the part-time technical support person at the school, Hank Woodward, has given notice. The school is working with administrators at North Kingstown School to redefine the job description so that it will work to support these blended learning initiatives. The job should be posted in May, said Hicks.

“I see this as a learning process over the next year. We are at the very early stage of this state-of-the art program, so I foresee a lot of changes coming. I don’t think we fully understand the potential for this,” said Hicks.

School Committee member Elizabeth Connor, whose son is in the fifth grade, agreed: “I’m excited about blended learning. Our kids need to have more technology skills, so we need to incorporate them into the school. It should be more integrated. Incorporating it this way means our kids are learning and evolving with the technology so they’re not playing catch up.”