Lessons from a “blended” classroom

In 2010, I jumped head first into the world of “blended learning.” It wasn’t because I was eager to learn new technology tools (I wasn’t) or because I wanted a flexible schedule (though that turned out to be nice).

I did it because this was the only way I would be permitted to offer AP Microeconomics, given our school’s rigid 6-period day. Also, the school district had dangled the incentive of a laptop computer for anyone willing to pioneer “hybrid” classes. Yay!

So I signed on, completely naive about what I was getting myself into.

Five years later, I teach both AP Micro and AP Psych as “blended” or “hybrid” classes – meaning they are primarily online but meet once or twice a week in person – and I have learned a lot about what makes these classes succeed or fail, mostly through trial and error.

If you’re embarking on blended learning or even considering it, here are a few tips:

#1 Student engagement is more challenging in blended environments

Students love their devices, and they love having a flexible class that doesn’t meet every day. They don’t actually love learning online, and when it’s a week between classes, their motivation lags. Other classes, jobs and friends are more pressing concerns, and work doesn’t get done. No wonder only 5% of people complete massive open online courses (MOOCs).

I spend inordinate amounts of time trying to develop or find engaging resources that will keep kids’ attention on the class, while they sit at home in their bedrooms at 11 p.m. Sometimes I watch 25 5-minute videos just to find one that explain something like incentives in a cool way. (Personal favorite: The Truth About What Motivates Us)

#2 Building relationships is critical

I see my AP Micro students once a week — on Tuesday mornings at 6:25 a.m. This year, that means just 16 face-to-face classes for the semester, and at their very worst time of day. We know students perform better for teachers they connect to, and these students hardly know me.

I try to make up for this by being consistently accessible online. E-mail me a question at 3 p.m., and I’ll respond by 3:15. I’m not going to check in after 9 p.m., but I will check their messages all weekend and from anywhere on the globe. Students become confident that they can rely on me, even if they don’t see me every day.

Also, research has shown that students get more from video lectures if they know the person in the video. When it’s a lecture, I almost always create my own.

#3 Students need training to do this successfully

I assumed that today’s high school students were more tech savvy than I am. Wrong. Just because they can navigate Twitter and Instagram doesn’t mean they can correctly interpret a Moodle calendar or find the “submit” button.

Many students are confused at the beginning of the semester, and I have learned to be very patient, even waiving deadlines for a few weeks. They can come in my room, log into my computer, and show me what they were doing when they got stuck. Usually it’s nothing I can’t easily solve, but they need a little TLC, or they give up.

#4 Teachers need training to do this successfully

I don’t remember exactly what I learned in my licensure classes in 1993, but it definitely wasn’t “how to plan for an online class.” It’s very easy to link content online (or basically create a high-tech correspondence course), but it’s very difficult to sort out what can be done effectively online and what must be done face-to-face.

Because I have two distinct classes, I’ve been able to experiment. In Micro, weekly seminars are mostly time for me to explain the most difficult concepts, which the students then discuss, practice and apply in the following week. Planning means dissecting a challenging curriculum into tiny digestible chunks that kids can consume mostly on their own.

In Psych, I’ve created many brief online lectures to allow class time for activities, simulations and discussions. I plan down to 5-minute segments, knowing exactly how many activities I can fit in.

For both classes, the biggest challenge is creating effective online discussions. Dull questions lead to dull responses and a lifeless conversation. Given that most student participation happens around 11 p.m. on the night it’s due, I don’t have a chance to reformulate questions mid-stream like I would in class. Instead, I debrief each discussion afterward, trying to write better questions for next time.

#5 Introverts and shy students get a chance to shine online

One big advantage to online discussions is the 90% participation rate. How often do you have a class discussion where nearly everyone joins in? Students who never speak in class will passionately express themselves online, in a forum that feels much safer to them.

Still, there is a tendency toward groupthink, where everyone just agrees with other posts rather than challenging what has been said. This year, I’m going to start assigning “devil’s advocates” to respectfully challenge their classmates in each discussion.

#6 Good resources will disappear (or become too expensive)

Lots of good people — both individuals and companies — have been putting excellent free or cheap resources online for years. They saved me in my first few years of creating these courses. The process of launching a hybrid class is incredibly time-consuming, and you just can’t build everything from scratch.

But many of those resources, like Reffonomics and Aplia (for Econ) and PsychSim and study.com (for Psychology) are suddenly getting big price tags or disappearing altogether. I was not prepared for how angry and let down I would feel. I just discovered yesterday that BFW had taken down PsychSim, and I was suddenly faced with hours and hours of prep work to replace it.

The lesson: You can’t truly rely on anything you didn’t make for yourself.

Would I recommend trying blended instruction? If you’re willing to put in a lot of time up front, definitely.

But realize that you can’t just copy what you were doing in class and retrofit it for an online classroom. You have to intentionally re-think all of the strategies and behaviors that come naturally in class, and you can’t go home at 3 p.m. and shut yourself off from school.

Blended classrooms work – if you make them work.

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