Blended learning in a 21st-century classroom

Photo by Douglas Young

In the early 1980s, students in a high school classroom banged away at IBM Selectric typewriters while a few others across the hall shared time on a Commodore 64 personal computer. One classroom taught a requisite skill while another pointed toward a future skill. Both were apt and a seminal moment in blending two modes of education. The classroom of the 21st century is far from science fiction; it is the here and now, and today's teachers must mirror the technology and devices mandated by their future students’ university or prospective employer.

Blended learning combines the traditional classroom with online or digital resources and may incorporate a self-paced element based on students’ interests or learning level. Aside from teaching how to use technology, blended learning reduces educational costs, increases the number of subjects learned, helps students strive further in particular subjects and allows teachers greater one-on-one relationships with students.

Imagine your high school graduate son or daughter sitting for a job interview and being asked about their competence with Microsoft Word or file share systems. Picture them in college orientation as they're told they'll need to access assignments via a web-based cloud system and use a plagiarism checker before attaching and emailing assignments. That's the reality for today's students. Some educators are even suggesting students should learn how to write computer code, but at a minimum, comfort and familiarity with basic computer applications are a must for today's learner.

Despite upfront costs, this balanced approach can save money. The long-term investment provides greater use of teacher and student time, an appropriate focus on ever-changing textbooks, and access to the massive amount of free content on the web. Scientific tables and primary-source documents can be easily accessed along with thousands of eBook titles. Teachers can interact with students and continue work in periods of separation, such as snow or sick days, and parent access keeps Mom and Dad involved.

Today’s teachers face many challenges and blended learning may be used as an effective tool in facing those challenges. New technology gives students the ability to explore electives such as Mandarin, 3D computer animation, or fundamentals of engineering. Teachers can encourage hundreds of interests while ensuring appropriate progress and grading. Even for basic subjects, the blended classroom allows for group lecturing while each student can advance at their own pace. Every student reaches the standard level as others excel beyond their peers.

Few school districts can boast a group of teachers more dedicated to blended/personalized learning through technology than Pasadena ISD. Through the Connect Program, Pasadena ISD has watched as the personal learning platform (PLP) and one-on-one check-ins have provided not only greater accessibility for teachers but also more teacher–student interaction, as teachers spend time with each student to advise on individual progress. Students “are truly owning their own learning,” Vickie Vallet-McWilliams, the director of Instructional Technology of Pasadena ISD, told the editor in chief of the Learning Counsel.

I've never met a teacher who chose their profession for the paperwork. These Pasadena ISD teachers are finding that they get to teach more than ever before. “They were way ahead of the district average,” teacher Rebecca Dietz told K-12 Blueprint, describing English language learners who started the program with failing grades and progressed to a 90 percent pass rate. “Through the blended/personalized model, we were able to fill in the gaps.”

I've witnessed teachers and students thriving in the blended environment firsthand. However, I don't pretend there aren’t challenges. Many teachers may fear the learning curve or feel skeptical of these new concepts. Pasadena ISD has proven that it is not only doable, but desirable, and more successes are revealed daily.

Technology is expensive. Broadband internet access for schools and student homes is not always readily available, but we're convinced that free-market solutions and infrastructure development will prevail. Innovations such as cloud-based and browser-independent software make users less dependent on particular devices—stretching the hardware dollar. Grants and private-sector donations can go a long way in meeting those financial demands, and Texas must dedicate itself to this effort.

"It prepares you for…the real world," said student Anna Allen when asked about the Connect Program. Out of the mouths of babes. We've come a long way from siblings sharing a hornbook in a 17th-century, one-room schoolhouse. Change for the sake of change shouldn’t be our goal, but change with the purpose of providing all school districts the tools to maximize education is a step in the right direction. All Texas school children should enjoy an equal opportunity, and the blended classroom provides that opportunity and will make Texas a 21st-century educator.