Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking my work on the road. My first stop was The California Charter School’s Association held its annual conference in Sacramento and I lucky enough to get a last minute invitation. Looking over the Conference schedule the night before it was striking how much emphasis was placed on Blended Learning by the programming board. Perhaps this reflects the demand of their constituency, perhaps this is a local representation or perhaps this is demonstrative of a national wave in digital learning.
I had the pleasure of being a part of many interesting discussions and got an in depth view into some specific examples of blended learning approaches. What is fascinating is to realize how broadly the field of education is defining blended learning approaches. For example, there are charter schools that have built their buildings to accommodate a large learning lab. A new elementary school in rural California, Grimmway Academy, has lab space for up to 70 students or so. A team of learning specialists monitor the students progress through a handful of different software programs, pull small groups off the computers to reinforce or re-teach certain concepts, and this team communicates regularly with the classroom teachers to both share data on the students progress and plan upcoming curriculum. This fledgling school approached its design with an idea of blended learning as a pillar around which other decisions were made. Their model cited the previous example of a similar model, Rocketship Education.
Other schools have embraced different aspects of blended learning. For example, Greendot has pulled together a variety of resources that they use to techno-phy the existing curricular structure. Some examples of these are Google apps for education, edmodo, and dropbox. This is similar to the approach that we are exploring at Envision Schools. When I think of the blended learning that we are working to establish it is one that incorporates the affordances of certain new media into an existing physical and curricular structure. Each approach has pros and cons, and is a response to different condition sets.
There were also a plethora of companies and institutions approaching blended learning from a more historical perspective. From what I know the term ‘blended learning’ was first coined to describe distance learning or online learning opportunities that were primarily computer based. Under this particular umbrella there are a wide variety of programs that offer different levels of curriculum, programs that are designed on different approaches to learning, different levels of scaffolding, different levels of technological support. Making educated decisions about which of these are the right fit for your school can be overwhelming. In fact there was a very interesting presentation that touched on the important areas to consider when constructing a rubric and protocol for making these types of decisions for your school community.
Lastly, even the exhibition hall was all a flutter with the accouterments of blending learning environments. Many booths were holding raffles for free ipads, kindles, laptops etc. All of the poster sessions were organized around blended learning. Overall the conference had some interesting points to ponder and exposed me to many companies and organizations that are building and selling blended learning.
Imagine K12 Educator Day
Later in the same week I was invited to attend a bi-yearly event held in Palo Alto. Imagine K12 is an opportunity for new EdTech companies to partner with educators so that the creators and the stakeholders can co-contribute to the development and refinement of new venture. This was an exciting and interesting experience for me.
Firstly, the event was held in a manner similar to a TED Talk. They were punchy and well prepared and got right to the heart of each product. In most cases the person presenting on behalf of the products were the founders or co-founders. This resulted in a really inspired and heartfelt pitch.
Secondly, there was a wide variety of new products and platforms so there was something there for everyone. Prior to the event I had spent sometime on the phone with the founder of Hapara. This New Zealand based company has designed a platform that organizes and manages google apps for education. Really a great product for administrators to look at if the school is using google apps consistently. There were other companies that presented more data management tools that seem really comprehensive and smart, but that I was less drawn to because they were not directly applicable to my current position. I was able to meet and chat with the creators of educreations. This is an exciting tool that one of our math teachers is using to create short videos of his classroom for students to access after class. I have been using educreations to take notes in my statistics class. I can write what the teacher is saying and record the lecture at the same time! Genius.
Lastly, there were two new resources that I feel everyone should spend sometime looking at, so I want to introduce them here. The first is BrainGenie. This site provides instructional tutorials and practice in a variety of Math and Science topics. It is nicely divided into grade levels and is being aligned with Common Core standards. I had a long conversation with the co-founder and he indicated that while he realizes that their platform is very much like Khan Academy, they hope to develop into a tool that is differentiated by the feedback that teachers can provide. So use the site and let them know what you think. The second resource that I saw a lot of potential in is a search engine tool call InstaGrok. This tool can be used to scaffold web-based research in a number of ways. The site organizes information by identifying key vocabulary, by providing a relationship chart for said vocabulary and concepts, by providing images and audio-visual resources, and the most interesting feature is you can adjust the reading level of the resources provided. I can see this search engine being particularly helpful in late elementary and middle school, but I also see how it can be useful even for adults.
All in all both of these experiences have given me many ideas to take back to my schools. I was reminded that it is important to get outside of the classroom every once in a while, to interact and brainstorm with other educators. This process of rejuvenation is essential to being sustainable in ones role, and I believe it is essential to ensuring that the innovations of blended learning approaches continue to cross pollinate and breed.