Blended Learning in the Traditional Classroom

By Jack West
It's not about the hardware. No laptop, tablet, lapdock, or webtop is going to change education by virtue of its screen resolution, haptic capabilities or processor speed. However, a proliferation of free, cloud-based, high quality, curated curricular materials (videos in particular) just might.

Sal Khan is not the harbinger of a revolution in education because he is a great lecturer. Khan is a revolutionary because he has boldly stood up in the cloud to tell us that there is nothing holding us back from making educational materials free and ubiquitous. Dozens of others have risen to Khan’s challenge; many of whom are making high quality video that can replace traditional classroom lectures.

In my own classroom, nested inside a 2,000-student traditional high school, I piloted a blended learning model last Spring that allowed students Montessori-school-like freedom to pursue learning at their own pace with lots of choice on how to budget their own time. For me, this was a taste of Ambrosia, and I would be hard pressed to turn back.

Landing in my classroom in 1998, the year after my district received one of California’s Digital High School grants, technology was always there when I wanted it. I had one of the first iBook (first version of the current Macbook) rolling laptop cart labs back in 1999. This was blended learning of a different sort. I was still the sage on the stage, but iMovie, and podcasting made a part of every class feel more project-oriented.

Times have changed. Fast-forward 13 years. To run my Spring pilot, I borrowed laptops from four different departments and had to create an additional Google calendar just to manage which machines would be with me on which days. Before the pilot had concluded, my colleague and I had already written two of the five grants we would submit before the school year ended to foundations I discovered on Grant Wrangler, whose RFP’s seemed to match my interest in taking a traditional physics classroom digital. I was declined on all five of those grants.

Fortunately, I have an incredibly supportive — dare I say enabling — principal who encouraged me to ask for some of what I wanted from our Site Council that manages MAA funds (state money without strings attached that we receive for performing Medical outreach during the school day). This took us half way to where we need to be. Laptop donations from friends in edtech, and from a couple of campaigns on DonorsChoose brought us to about 60% of our laptop goal.

Then a miracle happened. The Level Playing Field Institute, organizers of the SMASH Academy, stepped in with their summer program Macbooks and offered to loan them to us for a couple of months until we can find our own. Woohoo! Thank you, Rob and Jed, and of course, Mitch!

My physics-teaching colleagues and I started the school year last week. While student data was being uploaded into Google Apps and the Hapara Teacher Dashboard, we ran hands-on labs and a diagnostic concept test on the students.

Tomorrow is day one of the blend. Students will experience cloud-based formative assessment; they will watch video lectures from a host of different sources, including yours truly, in playlists, and they will document their learning in Google Docs that will be embedded in Google Portfolio sites; all of which we will manage with Hapara’s Teacher Dashboard. I have a feeling like I am in the driver’s seat of Tom Cruise's car in Minority Report, about to make the vertical turn out the edge of a skyscraper. Hopefully, my wheels will stick to the vertical surface like his did.

> Read more of Jack's posts on his personal blog, chronicling edtech in high school.


Photos by caswell_tom and Toban Black via Flickr; Yuri_Arcurs via BigPhotoStock

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