By now, most would agree that technology has the potential to be a useful tool for learning. Many schools have invested in some form of technology, whether it’s in computer labs, tablets, or a laptop for every student, depending on their budget.
But for many schools, finding a way to integrate the use of tech in a traditional setting — teacher-centered classrooms — is proving to be a challenge. What educational software should be used? What criteria should the software be judged against? And what happens to the role of the teacher and classroom activities when students are using software for practice exercises?
At this point, just a couple of years into the movement, there are no definitive answers yet. Different schools are trying different blended learning models. Most schools allot a designated computer lab time when students use computers for math, literacy, or other type of software. But teachers who are more advanced in using technology and more comfortable with experimenting have students rotate through different learning modalities at different times, including time for online learning, working with the teacher face-to-face, and working on projects in groups fluidly. In the most extreme cases, students spend most of their day on computers, just as they would in the workplace.
But for any of those tactics to work, educators agree that the key is to have a clear vision of what the technology is being used for, and how that will affect the teacher’s role. For schools just beginning to dabble in classroom technology, that’s a daunting idea. Many aren’t willing to upend the existing systems for this new model.
Catlin Tucker, an English teacher in Windsor, Calif., who integrates tech into her students’ school and homework, takes full advantage of what the technology affords her. “Shifting some work online to complement traditional classrooms creates much needed time and space in the classroom,” Tucker said. If technology can replace elements of in-class instruction, classroom time can be leveraged to deepen learning. “[Teachers] can embrace project-based learning and create student-centered classrooms to build on the work that’s completed online.”
That might be easier said than done. While Tucker has come up with a strategy that works for her, it doesn’t always work for others. Liz Arney, Director of Innovative Learning at Aspire Schools, which has a small group instruction model, says students follow the teacher’s pacing guide, which doesn’t always align with what level they’ve progressed to on the software. Kids could be coming into the teacher-taught space at very different points in their online learning. It’s up to the teacher to figure out how to reconcile the two.
What’s more, the quality of the available software isn’t always great. “The programs are just really mediocre,” Arney said. “No one has any business in my mind letting the program tell them what to teach. The programs are just not strong enough.”
The software also promises to provide educators with valuable information on students’ progress day by day, but Arney doesn’t believe the data on student comprehension is reliable.
“It’s a fair question to ask if the technology is good enough or the system is strong enough,” said Brian Greenberg, a Bay Area educator who’s been practicing different ways of using tech in schools.
He’s optimistic that the software will get better, but he’d like to see small-scale experimentation before disseminating ideas to schools everywhere.
CHALLENGES ARE OPPORTUNITIES
One of the biggest challenges of blended learning is also what excites advocates most — allowing kids to progress at their own level and pace. “We will move to a model where we don’t assume all kids are learning the same concept in any given day or week,” Greenberg said. “It’s going to be more about teachers having nimble classrooms.”
But teachers already have a mountain of work and asking them to keep track of where each learner is on the software — which may or may not correlate to core standards — is a tall order. Greenberg says the teacher is crucial to ensuring that blended learning is effective. The technology should free educators to do more of what only they can do — give context to concepts.
Tucker says the teacher needs to have a strong sense of what the technology accomplishes and how her teaching can encourage students to think creatively. “Computer programs alone will not radically change the teaching paradigm,” Tucker said. “Learning does not take place in the act of listening to (or viewing) information explained, but rather in the moments when we are asked to make sense of that information, to wrestle with ideas, to apply, evaluate, synthesize and use what we have learned to create something,” Tucker said.
CASE BY CASE
It’s important that schools show a commitment to the coming change, Arney said — and to have a strong staff and principal.
“The tech is going to kill you the first year. Everything is going to go wrong. You have to have the stomach for that,” she said.
Greenberg’s organization, Silicon Schools Fund, will experiment with blended learning models to find what works for different kinds of school structures and populations. He doesn’t believe anyone has gotten it quite right yet.
“I think the right tone in this world is to be cautiously optimistic. Anyone who says this is easy you should walk away from,” Greenberg said.