Blended Learning paving pathway to personalized education for students

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PROVIDENCE — Educators in the Diocese of Providence are always working to find new ways to engage today’s students and meet their unique needs. Blended Learning, a program that combines small group instruction from the teacher, individualized learning through technology and collaborative learning with peers, lets students learn best at their own pace and in their own way.

“Blended Learning is the pathway to personalization,” explained Stephen Murphy, the coordinator of Teaching and Learning in the Office of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Providence.

“Blended Learning offers more personalized, one-on-one time with the teacher and it gives students the opportunity to collaborate with others,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it. It’s also a way for teachers to target strengths and weaknesses of their students and tailor their lessons. And tracking student performance online allows teachers to better determine what level they are at and how they’re going to get them where they need to be. It is a very exciting opportunity for transforming teaching and learning.”

The real impetus for Blended Learning in the diocese began in March of 2017, following a presentation by Father Nate Wills, C.S.C., at the New England Chief Administrators of Catholic Education Conference for the 11 New England dioceses. Murphy explained that many principals showed a desire to implement the program in their schools. The Catholic School Office partnered with Highlander Institute to offer two Blended Learning Bootcamps for educators in the fall of 2017.

“Since those two workshops, Highlander has been working with principals to assess their needs and develop plans for launching Blended Learning in their schools,” he said. “We have nothing but praise for Highlander Institute.”

This spring, the Highlander Institute, the Christensen Institute and the Learning Accelerator will showcase the best classroom, school and district implementers from across the nation at the 2018 Blended and Personalized Learning Conference, which will be held in Providence.

In Rhode Island, Highlander Institute is currently delivering consulting support for 73 schools, said Kara O’Connell, Director of Implementation at the institute. After being approached by the Catholic Schools Office, Highlander designed a professional development offering that reflects current best practices in education, including modeling station rotation, opportunities for teachers to choose sessions that resonated with them and time to work independently with a facilitator to check in with as needed. These sessions and all of the materials are housed in a website that teachers and school leaders continue to have access to.

O’Connell shared that students who participate in blended and personalized learning often report feeling more engaged in the process vs. a more traditional classroom environment.

“In a blended and personalized classroom, students access technology independently, to collaborate with peers and to create representations of their learning,” she explained. “The strategic use of technology frees teachers to work with students in small group to deliver targeted differentiated instruction.”

She added that teachers also report that students have a variety of creative ways to demonstrate their understanding, which ultimately leads to a greater understanding of the content.

“Because learning is more self-directed, students, over time, become equipped with strategies to solve their own problems and to make choices that intentionally drive their learning.”

In the diocese, a handful of Catholic schools have already seen the benefits of Blended Learning.

At Saint Luke School in Barrington, some of the teachers had already been using a Blended Learning approach, but this year it is a schoolwide initiative.

Principal Patricia Bartel, shared that Blended Learning is effective because it allows teachers to tailor instruction, interventions and pacing for individual students using a variety of strategies, efforts and models.

“The feedback from students has been positive,” she said. “Students enjoy working on the Chromebooks and moving at their own pace. They have more opportunities for collaboration with their classmates and are learning how to solve problems and communicate effectively with each other. The teachers at Saint Luke’s are dedicated to meeting the needs of all of their students. They report that a Blended Learning approach provides more time for differentiated small group instruction and they are seeing positive learning outcomes.”

Andrew Brassard, principal of Saint Augustine School in Providence explained that even though the school is in the early stages of implementing the Blended Learning concept, he has noticed the classes that incorporate the technique allow the teacher to focus on smaller group teaching. The groups rotate in 15- to 20-minute intervals to three or four learning areas.

“The students do enjoy the classes they take part in that have implemented the Blended Learning concept,” said Brassard. “The students display even more excitement in learning the concepts being taught and they feel more of an ownership in the learning process. With anything new, it takes time to get adjusted, but our teachers have been positive about the change and appreciate the assistance they receive from the trainers from Highlander. The small group instruction helps the teachers to hone the skills that need to be reinforced with individual students.”

Seeing the value of Blended Learning, the Catholic School Office continues to support the schools by sharing resources and offering avenues of professional development that will in turn benefit the students of the diocese.

“By initiating Blended Learning at their schools, principals are assisting their teachers in transforming the way they teach and the way students learn,” said Murphy.