I spent time speaking with Sari Factor, Edgenuity CEO, a leading voice in blended learning and educational leadership. Factor discusses the state of education, experiments with technology and new efforts to support schools.
Dr. Rod Berger: It seems districts are more willing to ask for help implementing technology. Has this come from desperation or just experience over time with the good, bad and ugly of district-wide implementations?
Sari Factor: It’s a combination. Implementing new school models using technology to drive improved student outcomes requires significant thought, planning, and change management. Many school leaders recognize that they need assistance from others who have been through it; some have simply been burned in the past as they drove new change initiatives.
We find ourselves in a very interesting time – there’s a lot of experimentation going on in an effort to address the needs of an increasingly diverse student population that needs to be prepared to thrive in an increasingly competitive world.
Many districts have made substantial investments in hardware without thinking through how that hardware will be used to improve instruction.
We see a lot of schools that have been successful implementing technology with a small population or for a very specific purpose, but look for assistance as they try to scale those efforts into district-wide models.
District leaders need to be able to clearly articulate answers to questions like these:
- What are the academic goals that we are trying to address by using technology?
- Which students would benefit the most from technology-enhanced instructional models?
- Which of our school leaders and teachers are most likely to succeed in a new school model?
- What professional development will our educators need to ensure that the change we seek will be realized?
To be successful, school leaders need to engage all stakeholders – teachers, students, parents, administrators, and community members – in order to develop and execute on a vision for using technology to meet more of their students’ academic needs.
Dr. Rod Berger: Edgenuity is now offering consultative services to bridge blended learning implementations. Was this in response to the market’s needs or had you and your team forecasted this bridge-building effort at the onset?
Sari Factor: Blended learning is being increasingly embraced using a wide range of implementation models to address varied instructional goals. We recently launched our Blended Learning Services program officially, but we have been helping schools implement successful blended learning programs for over five years. With the growing demand, we wanted to take what we’ve learned, formalize our methodologies, and make them available to support schools and districts that are establishing or growing their blended learning initiatives. Our staff is comprised of people who have themselves implemented blended learning as part of district teams, as well as those who are knowledgeable and experienced through Edgenuity’s work with our partner schools. Our engagements generally begin with a needs analysis to help districts define desired outcomes and design their programs. We then help educators understand their critical role in the blended learning classroom, with professional development on lesson planning, classroom management, and data analysis.
Throughout, our Blended Learning coaches support school leaders and teachers through a combination of face-to-face and online sessions, focusing on data analysis to help them understand what is working, the areas for improvement, and how to keep students tracking toward success.
Dr. Rod Berger: Are we becoming more sophisticated consumers of blended learning now that the term is more commonplace than buzzword and how have our questions evolved in assessing quality in this area?
Sari Factor: The term “blended learning” has been used to describe a wide variety of classroom technology implementations. We prefer the Christensen Institute definition: “A formal education program in which a student learns in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or place; in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.”
In terms of quality, we must first recognize that the teacher is as essential to the blended learning classroom as in a traditional classroom.
As much as blended learning is transforming the educational experience for students, it is also changing the role of the teacher in material ways. Although some instruction and assessments are delivered online, teachers remain central to the learning process. To create a successful blended learning program, it is imperative to recruit the right teachers and provide professional development to enable them to effectively mentor, motivate, and instruct learners, who are spending a significant portion of their time online.
Rigorous, standards-aligned curriculum with engaging content is another key component of an effective blended learning model. An online learning system must also provide robust student tools to promote learning, as well as teacher tools to assess and monitor student progress and customize instruction for a diverse student population.
Dr. Rod Berger: Am I wrong to think efforts like those Edgenuity is launching would be important for colleges of education to employ for the next crop of teachers?
Sari Factor: As blended learning becomes the norm in U.S. classrooms, it will be important for teacher education programs to provide aspiring teachers with an understanding of blended learning models and how to effectively use technology to engage students, analyze data, and drive learning gains. This way, new teachers will be prepared to begin their careers ready to teach no matter where the school they join is in the continuum of adopting a blended learning approach.
Dr. Rod Berger: Let’s fast-forward 18 months. What questions might I be asking you about blended learning now that districts are actively seeking curriculum and training in earnest?
Sari Factor: Transitioning to a true blended learning program is a major change for students, teachers and administrators. It requires a steadfast commitment and school leaders shouldn’t expect success overnight. There will be bumps along the way; the key is to anticipate challenges and modify plans quickly as those challenges emerge. After more schools implement true blended learning models, I expect that we’ll have a bit more data on the conditions for success and how to best navigate the roadblocks.
Technology has so much potential to augment what works well in education and to help solve for where the system hasn’t worked. We’re excited to be part of that. Over the course of the next 18 months, I think we’ll see school leaders thinking more strategically about how the instructional process has to change with the implementation of digital learning tools, and that’s where our blended learning services offering can be especially helpful.
Hopefully, we’ll be in a place where more stakeholders in the education ecosystem are fully committed to learning how to leverage technology effectively, so that it can reach its true potential of helping all learners succeed.