Given the ongoing disruption of COVID-19, it is a very real possibility students may not come back at the start of the school year. Several state governors have already suggested that timeline as a possibility to parents. A full return to our physical campuses may not be possible until a successful vaccine is available and student and staff safety can be guaranteed.
At the same time, teachers all over the country have realized how they could improve their teaching with some of the tools and content they have discovered during this hiatus from the classroom. They have found out that quite a few students actually like some elements of online learning. Given these two realities, now is the time to think about what education could look like when blended learning becomes the norm.
Defining Blended Learning
According to Horn and Staker in their book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, “Blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home” (54). This definition describes student-centered instruction, influenced by student choices. What many teachers provided during this pandemic was a more traditional education simply delivered electronically. Most of our teachers have only begun to scratch the surface of the benefits of true online learning. What makes it truly powerful?
- Self-paced instruction, students moving quickly through some material and reviewing as needed (flexibility is extremely important to this generation of students and parents)
- Media-rich content, high-quality instruction
- Choices in materials, resources, and topics
- More focus on mastery, using multiple methods of instruction if needed
- Individual connections with the teacher (collaborative planning of the learning path and feedback)
- Options in demonstrating learning such as projects, presentations, portfolios, with quizzes and tests used more as formative assessments
- Threaded discussions where everyone participates, interacting with each other
If that is what the student gains from the online experience, what is so appealing in the brick and mortar setting? The physical building is best for activities that foster relational and personal development, like athletics, fine arts, makerspace facilities, chapel, clubs, mission/service, special events, and socialization times (like lunch, recess, and just hanging out in the halls). When accreditation surveys ask students and families what is great about the school, it is most often the relationships and culture of the school that is most highly valued. A recent Education Week article on the needs of adolescents underscores those social needs, stating that spending time with friends is “the primary reason teenagers look forward to going to school.”
At the same time, online learning can provide a more individualized learning experience. Those same accreditation surveys often cite low scores for the school in terms of meeting individual learning needs, helping students become proficient users of technology, and employing varied learning strategies and assessments—all strengths that effective online learning can deploy.
Blended learning can help us accomplish the best of both worlds. This will be important as next fall students may range from 100% in seats to 100% online, as well as anywhere in between. Students may come to the building on some days and learn online the other days or mornings and afternoons. Or, in a given classroom, some students will be in seats while some students will be at home online—at the same time. In that case, schools will need:
- the same academics accessible for students in seats and online
- a greater focus on individualization, competency-based learning, and criterion-referenced assessments
- a variety of learning styles, project-based learning, and portfolios
- community-based involvement for students, through experiences like internships
- a greater variety of electronic resources
- new strategies for spiritual formation
Schools will also have less of some things (which, frankly, we have been trying to shed for years):
- industrial model scheduling
- lecture and one-sized fits all learning
- extensive use of paper and pencil testing
- traditional textbooks
Some schools will move to a blended approach and do it well. Others will simply try to put their traditional model online. [Note that during this pandemic, some schools tried to keep a synchronous class going much of the day. While limited amounts of live instruction promotes connection, too much is taxing; students zone out and teachers struggle to keep students motivated]. Teachers and leaders who transform education with online instruction will invest in research and training. They will move from fledgling attempts during this crisis to best practices learned from experienced online educators.
Blended Learning: Key to Surviving…and Thriving
The authors of the book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools didn’t predict a pandemic would bring this disruptive change about, but they were convinced that we would embrace blended learning as a disruptive innovation. And we’re here. A well-known school leader recently commented that every school will write their history as “Pre- and Post-COVID-19,” because blended learning is here to stay.
Being prepared with alternatives that include blended models may save your school from closing in the fall. Moreover, blended models position your school for the likely shift in educational practice in the future. As a recent Forbes.com article explains, “The change will be permanent: educational activity will no longer be face-to-face or online but a blend, able to move from one to another immediately fluidly, continually, through a student’s life, way beyond the school, college, or university years.” This is because when facing a disruption of this magnitude, there isn’t going to be a return to the old. Students and families will gravitate to the new. A well-designed blended approach will likely help schools:
- retain existing families because of safety concerns
- bring in new families, not previously engaged with Christian education or those who had left
- demonstrate a deeper commitment to learning rather than attendance
- redefine what makes for a good educational experience, since we have begun to see what can be accomplished through flexible online learning
- dominate the market going forward because many people have seen what is possible
Taking the Next Steps
The success of a new model will come from having practitioners that educate themselves on best practices and think creatively, and from leaders who have the authority to make decisions. It would help to have the best technology and business people involved, as well. And while planning, it’s important to keep in mind that local health and state officials may issue directives for how many students may be in a building at any given time.
The team should review the school’s mission, then move into the “how.” The first step may be to frame the entire discussion with what will be the same for parents: an excellent education from a Christ-centered perspective. Determine what you can provide through blended learning; identify what the school’s plan should consist of; redefine the value proposition for your families including cost; select the tools, equipment, staffing, training, and tech support needed; develop an appropriate timeline with possible phases; design the program; and create evaluation and improvement strategies.
The team also will have to account for the age and the home situation of all students. Families with elementary children, two working parents, or those without adequate technology may need additional support. It is important to recognize that the current situation may impact families disproportionately.
COVID-19 isn’t so disruptive that it has completely replaced traditional education, but it is fundamentally changing it. It will redefine how students learn around the world. Now, parents and students know that education can be delivered online, with flexibility. That barrier has been broken. Christian schools can move forward into the 2020-2021 school year (and beyond) by blending the best of online learning and the best of face-to-face experiences to give students what amounts to a personalized education within a relational, spiritually rich community.
[Author’s Note: Can this model be accredited? ACSI already has a protocol for online learning that understands that sometimes these programs will be standalone, or 100% online, but often they will be combined with brick-and-mortar schools—a.k.a. blended. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Horn, M. and H. Staker. 2015. Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
About the Author
Dr. Erin Wilcox is the assistant vice president for Academic Services. She is responsible for accreditation and certification at ACSI. Her school experience included technology coordinator, middle school principal, and associate superintendent positions. She has taught online/blended programs at the high secondary and graduate levels and oversaw the development of the online accreditation protocol for ACSI. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.