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student empowerment
Kristen Vogt

Blended learning can lead to student agency — the enabling of informed, empowered learning — when it gives students choices about what, where, when, and how they learn.

A group of experts* recently shared blended learning strategies in Next Generation Learning Challenge’s #NGLCchat on student agency. (NGLC’s founding partners include The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is also a funder of The Hechinger Report). Their ideas follow.

Blended learning leads to student agency when it is about the learner, not the technology, the test, or even the school, but when it reaches ALL students.

Education consultant Chris Watkins has identified performance-focused practices he calls “space invaders” because they take up space in the classroom that should be devoted to learning practices. Blended learning is not a space invader. It is learning on which students reflect and converse.

Classrooms that engage in blended learning practices free up time and space for students to be true agents of their learning. As guest expert Andrew Miller rhetorically asked during the chat: “Why can’t (students) learn everywhere?”

Blended learning facilitates active, authentic student roles. It provides freedom to self-direct so students can be heard in the classroom and enables more voice, choice, and motivation. Blended learning encourages free play. It builds student and teacher empowerment, collaboration, and trust (, scroll down to watch the video), like a holacracy.

Teachers design blended learning practices. By doing so, they allow students to individualize learning and master content at their own pace.

Blended learning opens up an entire world of online content to students, not just what teachers can teach. It uses a tech platform that allows students to set their own goals and work backwards to assess how their daily, weekly, and yearly work impacts their future goals. It also uses a tech platform that allows teachers to choose whether their playlists are going to match what they are teaching in the classroom or whether students can move through a whole playlist at their own pace through self-directed learning.

Blended learning allows students to practice and collaborate digitally — through wikis, Google Drive, and screencasts — take more control of the collaboration process, and produce an end product.

Blended learning incorporates the three aspects of agency: thinking about the dynamics of an environment, forecasting alternate options for acting within those dynamics, and formulating flexible strategies to act.

These practices prepare students to be lifelong learners, requiring social-emotional development, by cultivating strong relationships between teachers and students, developing students into self-motivated learners, and integrates together academic learning, lifelong skills, and student dispositions.

Blended learning infuses student reflection—and educator reflection — to create a culture of ownership.

It’s important to remember that blended learning is not a silver bullet solution for student agency. Not all blended learning is equal, and the use of blended learning does not guarantee that student agency is promoted.

Participants in our chat cautioned educators to avoid adopting blended learning in ways that “strangle the curiosity of inquiry” and to “eliminate the outdated idea that compliance equals learning.”

“Compliance means students can follow. We want them to lead,” guest expert Casey Montigney reminded the panel.

When determining if one’s approach to blended learning is on the side of agency, it is important to ask oneself if students have sufficient voice. We must ask how to shift from personalization for students to personalization by students. We must ask whether the learner is in the driver’s seat and to what end personalization efforts will result.

That’s how to promote student agency.

Kristen Vogt is the knowledge management officer for Next Generation Learning Challenges, a non-profit partnership devoted to accelerating educational innovation through applied technology to improve U.S. college readiness and completion. A version of this article first appeared on NGLC’s blog.

*  NLCG thanks their panel of guest experts: Grace Belfiore, Researcher, author, lead developer of MyWays project; Dave Lash, researcher, author, lead developer of MyWays project; Andrew Miller, consultant with Buck Institute and ASCD; Casey Montigney, teacher at Medill-Shue Middle School and member, Student Agency Improvement Community, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; and Michele Savage, Principal of Medill-Shue Middle School member, Student Agency Improvement Community, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

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