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Shawn Rubin
Shawn Rubin, director of blended learning for the nonprofit Highlander Institute, counsels Rhode Island educators on how to achieve success in blended learning. Credit: DevloMedia

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island is fertile ground for experimentation with technology in classrooms as it seeks to become the first fully blended learning state in the nation. As such, Rhode Island’s public schools can offer lessons for other districts that are making the same transition.

Blended learning combines traditional face-to-face teaching with technology in ways that allow students to accelerate their learning at a pace that is right for them. To be successful, experts agree, a blended learning program needs to have a clearly articulated vision from its educational leadership, the right technological tools and an in-depth professional development program for teachers.

Rhode Island’s former state education commissioner, Deborah Gist, was a strong advocate for blended learning, but resigned in February to become Tulsa’s new superintendent. This week, Ken Wagner, senior deputy commissioner in the New York State Department of Education, was named to replace her (pending a vote of the Board of Education).

The nonprofit Highlander Institute has been offering training and support to Rhode Island districts to help them ramp up their blended learning efforts. Shawn Rubin, Highlander’s director of blended learning, is already thinking about what the next iteration of blended learning should look like.

As he brainstorms what the future might hold, Rubin sees a growing need for more and better “curation” of the best ed-tech tools, programs and approaches. That way, teachers wouldn’t have to spend hours experimenting and trying to keep up with the exploding marketplace for blended learning, and could focus more on their students. Without such assistance, Rubin fears their workload will likely become overwhelming.

“There is no technological substitute for the judgment of a good teacher.”

“We need to solve this content logjam for teachers,” Rubin said. “We cannot point to amazing blended learning teachers who are spending hours at night and on weekends finding and building content, and then tell other teachers, ‘Just do what they’re doing.’ ”

The Hechinger Report spoke with Rubin last month about some of the benefits and challenges involved in implementing a successful blended learning program.

Question: What are some of the benefits of blended learning?

Shawn Rubin
Shawn Rubin travels around Rhode Island, leading workshops to help educators refine their blended learning programs. Credit: Highlander Institute

Answer: When it’s done right, the student is at the center of everything and becomes the driver of his or her own learning. The most difficult job for any teacher is how to differentiate instruction. That means understanding how each student learns best, meeting students where they are and helping them grasp a concept or master a skill at just the right moment.

A smart use of technology and ed-tech tools can help teachers figure out how their students are doing day to day, hour to hour, even minute to minute. Blended learning can provide teachers with crucial feedback that enables them to intervene with greater precision and effectiveness and customize learning for their students.

Just as important, students are able to collaborate more easily with their peers, and they can adapt technology to serve their diverse learning styles.

Q: What are the limitations of blended learning?

A: Technology is just a tool for teaching and learning, not an end unto itself. Learning can be messy. Not all learning is linear and students have different needs and ways of communicating what they can do and what they don’t know. There is no technological substitute for the judgment of a good teacher.

Technology also can’t replace an educational vision. What are your goals? Are you trying to close achievement gaps? Are you emphasizing project-based learning? Are you trying to develop entrepreneurs? How are you using technology to help achieve those goals?

Q: What is the next step for blended learning?

A: Right now, any teacher who is running blended learning well is managing a huge workload. Many districts have a curriculum that, hopefully, supplies the scope and sequence of skills and competencies across each subject area. However, many districts don’t have enough robust online web resources to support their curriculum. This puts a heavy burden on teachers to find, create or curate the content they need to run blended learning.

The work is not sustainable for all, and many of our current classroom teachers can’t or won’t put in the hours necessary to run their classroom this way, especially if they don’t see tangible benefits to doing so.

State and district leaders must figure out ways to mobilize and organize collaboratively so that we can source both content and assessments with and for classroom teachers. Ed-tech products can be partners in this work, but ultimately the system must have local buy-in and local ownership if it’s going to stick.

Related: As market surges, schools struggle to find the best tech products

Organizing this system across Rhode Island will be a huge focus of our statewide Fuse RI project next year [a blended learning leadership training program for teachers and principals]. But it won’t happen without buy-in from key players at the classroom, building, district and state levels. It’s not enough to promote the expansion of blended classrooms; we must also equip teachers with the proper tools to make their systems manageable. Once we build the right system, our teachers will be able to more fully focus on what teachers do best: work in small, targeted groups to motivate, challenge and support students.

Q: What are some other challenges facing blended learning?

A: Purchasing technology: I warn districts all the time to be careful about investing too much with one particular ed-tech company. Make sure if you purchase an education learning system that you are a smart customer. If you upload instructional videos and they are hosted from another location, can you get them back when the contract ends? This requires a whole other level of expertise that a lot of districts don’t have yet.

Privacy: We’re seeing a lot of emerging privacy concerns related to technology. Districts need to have policies in place to cope with issues raised by parents, in particular, about how student data is protected.

Leadership: Blended learning requires a different kind of principal. We need our building leaders to be driving blended learning change, which requires that superintendents take time-consuming administrative tasks off their plates so that principals can devote more energy to the shift to blended learning.

Evaluation: We also have to do a better job gathering data on how well these technologies are actually working. It’s one thing to buy laptops or tablets or a curriculum platform. It’s another to accurately assess whether these tools are helping to achieve the goals you have set for your students.

Bandwith: Many districts around the country still have a bandwidth problem. Rhode Island has taken huge steps in this area, but we still don’t have every building humming with enough bandwidth.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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