Tech Tuesday #6: TCEA Reflections–Doing Blended Learning Right

What happens when a Georgia girl gets flown to Austin to present at conference where the goal is to keep it weird? Let’s just I fit right in, except for the fact that sweet tea was a hidden treasure I had a hard time finding. But I didn’t mind having to navigate the loss of my favorite drink, as long as I got to share my love of OneNote and gamification. My passion for gaming the classroom first hit me when I was reviewing resources from a Georgia technology conference. Having just left the classroom about four years ago to work for technology in the district office, I’m still very much aware of teachers’ struggles to get their students to be motivated and turn in work. The concepts of badging, leveling up, and missions seemed to be what I was looking for, and what I would love to share with teachers. At this conference in Texas, I decided to give my gaming brain a break and follow a couple different tracks: blended learning and using an LMS with little ones. Thus, my overview below will not cover every session I attended but those where I got valuable information related to those two topics.

On the blended learning track, my first session was “Blended Learning for Elementary” on Tuesday morning. Because I’m from a Microsoft-using district, and many of these sessions focus on Google tools, I always go in with the mindset that I will need to adapt. In this session, I certain received several insights on what I could adapt. As teachers are sharing Office Mixes with students, they can use their LMSs to deliver either a Word online or PowerPoint cloze-style online recording sheet for students to take notes and make sure they got everything out of the video. I also thought of ways to use the new Microsoft Whiteboard app for students to do collaborative brainstorming; now all it needs is an embed feature, so students can access the web version without having to download an app. Later that morning, I went to a session on “Hacking Canvas,” hoping to learn even more ways to make our district’s chosen LMS do more. In this session, I was reminded how much I like Thinglink for its linkable hotspot capabilities. The session leader gave us the idea of using a Thinglink image to give a classroom tour with a reminder of procedures that happen in each area of the room. Because these enhanced images embed beautifully in Canvas, I want to show them to teachers for a way to bring even more capability to blended learning.  A Wednesday workshop continued my thought process about the pedagogy behind the tools with blended learning. Using different types of hammers, the workshop facilitators showed us that a good tool is not always the right tool. Different types of blended learning should be used when they work, not all the time. They emphasized the tendency of many teachers to fall back on old habits, even with new technology, and reminded us that an LMS should not be just a filing cabinet, but a place where the resources truly are interactive. They reminded me of the true definition of blended learning; students have at least partial control over time, place, path, and pace in which their learning takes place. My final blended learning workshop, which was later on Wednesday afternoon, added these tips to my well-rounded exposure to this topic. These presenters emphasized the need for student engagement; their workshop itself relied on a “BLT” theme to get our attention, which stood for Blended Learning Toolkit, and even involved the presenters wearing themed shirts. They showed us how hyperdocs could be engaging but still meet academic content. They also suggested having students create memes to summarize reading pieces. Finally, they showed through their examples that a teacher should always plan two different activities or articles for each standard students are to learn. This tour blended learning certainly broadened my horizons, and I look forward to being able to share with teachers as I model strong blended learning in my own trainings.

My second path for the conference was bent on trying to find ideas for engaging young learners, and thus their teachers, in using our Canvas LMS more effectively. Though I did get some ideas, which I will share momentarily, other interaction came with fellow attendees in person and on social media. One such interaction came when a group I met in a session shared that they were having the same trouble as me getting their K-2 teachers from Seesaw into the Canvas LMS. I was able to share information with them to help students do work in Seesaw but then submit it and share with parents in one place, Canvas. Also during the conference, a podcast episode I recorded with a first-grade teacher got a tremendous number of retweets and listens. That fact prompted another trainer to reach out to me on Twitter for some inspiration on getting more use for the LMS with his K-2 teachers as well; nothing but positive can come out of organic interactions and brainstorming sessions like those. As far as more formal sessions, I went to one on Tuesday morning called “Canvas for Littles.” In that session, I was reminded that by organizing our materials well in the LMS, we are “buying time back” to work with students. The facilitators told us that anything that takes students more than three clicks to access is too much. I was inspired to think about how I can simplify the workflows I’m asking teachers to try with their students to limit students’ and thus, their own, frustrations with putting work in the LMS for little ones. As far as practical ideas, I saw that Padlet embeds right into Canvas for students to use without going out of the LMS. Also, although the example was with Google Docs, I saw a drag-and-drop flower label worksheet that would be cool to share with students. The two presenters were both instructional technology specialists like myself; they reminded me that my making a resource to share accomplishes two things: it inspires my teachers to create the next one, and it helps me build up a repository of resources I can with teachers in the future. Everything I learned along this “littles” track may not have been new, but I was fired up afresh to get my teachers and young students using Canvas even more.

Technology conferences aren’t just conferences. Perhaps the best part of any conference is the congeniality that develops among new friends who find common areas of interest, all looking for solutions to help their kids do more. TCEA was that for me. Though I mostly teach adults nowadays, the excitement of my new friend and roommate attending the conference was tremendous. The travel program for MIE Experts should continue to be a valuable resource that educators like me can access to find renewal, ideas, and an outlet to show the great things about Microsoft tools to a larger teaching community.

Want to see my top ten tips for doing blended learning right? Watch this video from my weekly Facebook Live session, happening every Tuesday at 8:00 PM EST right here.

Tech Tuesday #5: Ten Tips for Blended Learning Done Right

Blended learning is a relatively new concept to me. I certainly was implementing some online or technology-driven learning in my classroom a few years ago. However, the concept of blended learning was just really a phrase in the back of my mind. Thus, with my district implementing a Learning Management System (LMS) which allows for blended learning for the first time on a widespread basis, I thought it would be important for me to learn more about it.

I just got back from the TCEA Conference in Austin, Texas. At that conference, I decided to change my normal pursuit of gamification strategies to a two prong attack on a different subject line. I followed the track of blended learning, and then also within that subgenre, using an LMS with little children. I hope to share some of those second ideas more in a further post. Today’s post, though, is all about the logistics of blended learning, specifically my top ten tips for those who want to start it off right.

Ten Tips for Blended Learning Done Right

Number one. Use your learning management system as a one-stop-shop. Again, I want to go further into LMS for Littles in a further post, but suffice it to say here that you need your students to believe that everything they need to be successful in your class is found in one place, and that’s the LMS. Now, blended learning means that students have face-to-face and online learning. Thus the blend. However, the learning management system is certainly an integral part of the operation. If you don’t send your students there frequently, they don’t have a habit, and they don’t know how to login. They need to know that you are putting all of your best resources there for them to use. Forming a habit with students and parents will strengthen your ability to blend in one of the four situations I’m about to discuss.

Blended learning involves student control, at least part of the time, in each of the four areas which I will specify as blended learning tips 2 through 5.

Time, Place, Path, and Pace

Number 2. Students need control over their path. Maybe some students need to navigate through video content while other students need an article or a worksheet. The bottom line is that students have different needs and thus, they need different opportunities to learn. We call that paths in blended learning. Some teachers get as detailed as making personalized playlists for students. Maybe you’re not ready there yet,  but it’s important that students are at least beginning to exercise choice over the path of their learning.

Tip three. Students also should have some control over their pace. Give me a literature passage, and I can dissect it in no time. I can give you brilliant insights on the metaphors and the symbols and the characterization. But give me a calculus problem, and you will definitely see my pace become different. It should be all right for students to master content when they’re ready, whether that be faster than everybody else or slower. Pace is a huge component of a successful blended learning.

Number 4: students should also have control over time. Now I’m going to go ahead and discuss the big elephant in the room. I don’t mean that your students should be doing all their work at home and then coming to your class and acting like maniacs in their free time. What I do mean, though, is that if they work better in the morning or in the evening, we should account for that preference at least part of the time. I definitely work best in the early morning hours. As a matter of fact, I’ve often thought I would be just as productive if I only worked half the day 🙂 Training students to prioritize their most important tasks at their most productive times is also valuable life skill and one that is perfect for blended learning. If they have a playlist or a hyperdoc or a module in a learning management system that they can attack in their preferred order, that prioritization really will go a long way in their success.

Tip number five. The last area in which students should have control in blended learning is over place. This concept can range from flexible seating in the classroom to being able to do some work in the media center or at home or in a blended learning period. Blended learning makes possible this flexibility and place that is crucial to success.

Three Benefits of Blended Learning

My 6th tip is that blended learning done well should allow you to buy back time. Imagine all the processes that you explain over and over or the concepts that are something that students need to study in review. If you’re able to turn those into your online modules and then work with students who still don’t get them after repeated exposures, you are buying back both students’ time and your own time. The video content is doing the work that you might have had to do in twice as much time.

In the same vein, tip number 7 is it blended learning allows you to clone yourself. You may have students on multiple learning paths, but there may only be one teacher in the room. I know when I taught high school that was usually the case. Even students who were on special ed consultation didn’t necessarily have a caseworker or co-teacher in the room. Blended learning allows you to create content for most of the students most of the time so that you can pull small groups of students that you need to either enrich or remediate to your desk while the others are getting high-quality instruction.

I hope that those of you who are teachers and parents will appreciate tip number 8. It is to make blended learning, in both its explanation and its execution, simple enough that parents can help. We can pretend that parents won’t access the learning management system from home on behalf of their students, but instead, let’s find meaningful ways for them to participate. Let’s create videos that show how to navigate our system. Let’s eliminate options that are unclear in our menus or on our settings. Let’s make sure that parents who want to help their students to be successful can find what they need, and thus that students will truly be more empowered in their quest for time, place, path, and pace.

Number nine is crucial for every type of learning, not just blended. In addition to strong content, engagement has to be a priority. Just slapping some resources up in a module is creating a $1,000 pencil or another boring digital textbook. It’s not going to further the learning like blended learning is meant to do. It’s important to put interactive resources and formative assessments throughout the content.

Finally, tip ten is that blended learning is a perfect opportunity to build in differentiation with high-quality resources. One workshop I went to in Texas suggested that for every standard, the teacher has at least two learning options available. You could create those by learning style or by readability or whatever method you choose, but building in two options is auto-differentiating and also increasing the quality of the content we’re putting out there.