It’s amazing how quickly administrators and instructors at Stanton Elementary School went from blended learning neophytes to true believers. As Ian Quillen of Smithsonian Magazine explains, just a year ago Stanton staff didn’t know the meaning of the phrase as they came across it repeatedly while searching for online tools that helped raise engagement among their students. Today, the concept is being developed and improved in Stanton classes that cater to over 400 students.
Stanton, located in Southeast Washington DC, is hardly the only school to discover the benefits of an approach that combines the best aspects of technology with those of a traditional classroom learning environment. For the students at this public school, that represents a portion of the day spent doing math problems on their Dell computers or Apple iPads, all individualized to each students’ individual skill level.
At Stanton, students in grades 3-5 spend 45 minutes a day on an iPad or a Dell laptop working on ST Math, an online math program that challenges each student based on his or her skill level. For example, one student could tackle multiplication tables, while someone in the next row completes double-digit addition problems. Some do all their work by typing and touch-screening their way through problems and solutions, while others swivel between scouring the screen and scribbling on scrap paper. Teachers rotate through the room, helping students when they stumble on a given problem.
Time runs out, the devices are packed and pushed to another classroom, and the rest of the day proceeds with nary a computer in sight. But the straightforward structure of Stanton’s blended learning program is just one example of blended learning’s loosely organized front that, despite wide variations in individual practice, appears to be quite powerful.
It seems that after years of being on the fringe, blended learning was simultaneously discovered and embraced by districts all over the country. According to Susan Patrick of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the number of schools experimenting with the approach has trended upwards every year of the organization’s existence.
A recent report titled Keeping Pace found that about 2/3 of the country’s school districts offer some kind of a blended learning program. Of course, caveats abound. Because of how much flexibility the approach offers, what exactly blended learning is can be difficult to define and implement effectively.
Stanton and many other elementary schools fall into the rotational category, where students alternate between working online and working in a traditional classroom during the same course of study, usually math or English/language arts. High schools are perhaps the most likely to operate a self-blend model, where a student takes one or two online courses—often Advanced Placement or credit recovery courses—to supplement their in-class education.
The other two categories are a bit more specialized. The School of One math program in New York—which gives each student a uniquely tailored schedule of online lessons, group work and traditional classroom lectures—was an early example of a flex model. Enriched virtual models include any school where students get most of their instruction online, but periodically meet with a teacher or teacher aide.