When eighth-graders in Nancy Foote’s science class at Sossaman Middle School need to learn a concept or work on an assignment, they just need access to her instructional videos on YouTube and their classroom account on Edmodo.
Foote’s students, like many others in Arizona public schools with blended learning environments, spend a portion of their time learning content through digital or Internet-based media in addition to traditional classroom instruction.
A growing number of public schools in Arizona are using blended learning to increase student engagement and achievement, including those in districts in Casa Grande, Higley, Kingman, Kyrene, Madison, Maricopa, Mesa, Prescott and Vail as well as Carpe Diem, a Yuma charter school. K12 at the Y i-Learn Centers in the Phoenix Metro area, Flagstaff and Yuma created by a partnership between Valley of the Sun YMCA and Arizona Virtual Academy also use blended learning.
“We cannot educate students the way we learned, because that’s not the world they need to be prepared for,” said Lorah Neville, executive director of educational services at Kyrene School District. “They need to be critical thinkers, problem solvers and collaborators.”
Effects on student achievement
“Students are achieving faster. They are engaged more,” Birdwell said. “We’re seeing higher scores, and now most of our elementaries are in the 90th percentile in mathematics.”
A student can come in a year behind and will be caught up, through multiple means including access to technology and software from home and classroom use of math and reading adaptive learning technology resources from DreamBox Learning, Birdwell said.
Blended learning directed by teachers has led to four to six months of growth in students’ reading levels in the first two months of this school year and four to nine months of growth in math, said Harold Tenney, principal of Washington Traditional School in the Prescott Unified School District.
“Our children and teenagers are digital natives,” said Tenney about the school’s blended learning program in its second year. “This is truly their language, and the reality is it works.”
The benefits include data-driven intervention, targeted instruction by intervention staff, engaging digital-learning resources, additional time for direct instruction and cooperative learning and effective, efficient differentiation, Tenney said.
Keys to the model’s success
One key to blended learning’s success is how focused it is, Foote said.
“My job as a teacher is to ignite curiosity,” Foote said. “I can take my wonderful 60-minute lecture and get it down to about 8 minutes because I don’t have to say, ‘Put that away. Yes, you can sharpen your pencil. Make sure you sign out if you go to the bathroom. Really, your Dad said what?’ ”
Students don’t have to be home to do their work if they have mobile phones or tablets to access instruction and activities online, Foote said.
“They can be at their brother’s soccer practice and watching the video that’s homework for that night,” Foote said. “(Through this) I become part of that student’s family. I go to their baseball games. I go to birthday parties. I go to their grandparents’ house. I ride in cars with them.”
Blended learning is student driven, Foote said.
“I can repeat something over and over until you make sure that you have it in your brain the way you need it in your brain,” Foote said.
By the time parents meet her, they know her voice, face, what to expect and “they’re very comfortable with me. The kids are, too, because I’m part of their world,” Foote said.
If parents want to know what she’s teaching, Foote said they can go to her YouTube channel, video page and blog.
Another key to blended learning is having master teachers, Tenney said.
Teachers using blended learning often say they do not do paper, Birdwell said.
“That means students are online getting that work,” Birdwell said. “You hear things like ‘Text your response, use the Dropbox, lecture is online, make sure you log on tonight and listen to the lecture so we can have a deeper conversation about it tomorrow.’ It shifts the way students are having conversations in classrooms.”
The model also helps students who are shy build confidence and engage in the classroom differently, Birdwell said.
“We’ve had differentiation, co-operation, collaboration and group work. We’ve had all kinds of strategies that change instruction,” Birdwell said. “This is another kind of strategy.”
How it helps teachers
The blended learning model at Washington Traditional replaced self-contained kindergarten- through fifth-grade classrooms with multi-grade teams with one teacher for math and science, another for language arts and social studies and also enlists academic intervention teachers and para-professionals.
“Our children and teenagers are digital natives,” said Harold Tenney, principal of Washington Traditional School. “This is truly their language, and the reality is it works.”
“We have 62 percent of kids on free and reduced lunch, and a large number of students don’t have access to technology at home,” Tenney said. “We wanted to bring the online instruction into the school.”
The schedule lets team members meet during a common prep period, said Pam Percival, third-grade English language arts teacher at Washington Traditional.
“It used to be you worked in your own classroom and did your own thing, and next door, they did their own thing,” Percival said. “Now we communicate. We put our lab plans on Google docs and the paraprofessional will write what the children did and they help our staff throughout the day.”
Each day, teachers make instructional decisions about what kids need and the students are growing more because of it, said Karen Sampson, kindergarten-/first-grade math teacher at Washington Traditional.
“You constantly find out what the students need to learn, what they know, what they don’t understand and during their lab,” Sampson said. “I get data on the computer and decide what I’m going to teach the students. Before it used to be the curriculum and it would take all year to get through topic one. Now I can see the kids need this, this and then they’re done.”
Teachers also can easily differentiate instruction for all students, Sampson said.
“I’m a big advocate for gifted students, and sometimes they get left aside, but with this interactive, technology-based instruction students can go at their own level as far as they want,” Sampson said.
“For students who need more practice, we have an opportunity to work with a second, third or fourth person through the lab time to reinforce what is happening in the classroom so those students also rise up,” Sampson said.
Students complete assessments in the instructional computer lab, which “gives me more time to do project-based activities, student engagement and co-operative learning activities,” Percival said.
Tenney has “empowered the staff with a model they were able to experiment with, and teachers made decisions as a team,” said Joe Howard, Prescott Unified’s assistant superintendent.
“You can’t do any better for morale in my opinion,” Howard said.
Teachers are also interested in using blended learning for their own professional development, Neville said.
“We have to work with teachers to create the change we want to see in the classroom for kids,” Neville said.
As part of the Kyrene Teaches with Technology Project, master teacher mentors help other teachers integrate technology into their instruction, Neville said. The project has been recognized by the National School Boards Association, and continually evolves, Neville said.
“There is no perfect piece of software out there,” Neville said. “It is figuring out what it is you’re trying to accomplish first. Then going out and looking for the pieces and people to bring that about.”
Costs and savings
After years of budget cuts in Prescott, blended learning began as a creative way to restructure Washington Traditional and combine effective teaching, support services and digital learning, Tenney said.
The district provided $30,000 for additional technology hardware and software, an estimated $90,000 annually was saved by staff restructuring, 8 to 17 percent was saved in teacher staffing and the change did not require increased class sizes or additional classrooms for labs, Tenney said.
“In Higley Unified we were fortunate enough to have a capital override for technology. That was our kick start,” Birdwell said.
Each teacher received a laptop and a Smart Board was installed in each classroom. Throughout the district there are laptop carts, tablets, flipped classrooms where students listen to lectures online at home and do discussions and projects in class, and online programs, Birdwell said.
“We don’t have the same model in each school,” Birdwell said. “We let parents understand that each of our eight elementary schools might have a little different personality.”
How blended learning spreads to other schools
Kyrene’s project began with one elementary school and a middle school and will continue to expand over the next several years to all 25 schools and 17,000 students, Neville said.
“We’re deploying as teams who bring a content specialty or skill and go out and support schools,” Neville said, noting that math and literacy coaches at each school are involved.
“This year 270 students at Washington Traditional benefited from blended learning,” Tenney said. “Next year the model will be used at Taylor Hicks Elementary and more than 560 students will benefit from blended learning.”
In a survey at the end of last year, Washington Traditional asked parents if the blended learning model met the academic needs of their child. Eighty-four percent agreed, and six percent somewhat agreed, Tenney said.
“In the next five years most schools in the nation will be doing blended learning, because it does work,” Tenney said.