by Matt Doran
I have recently started using the graphic below as a hook activity in my Introduction to Blended Learning workshops. Participants are quick to note that, after 20+ years of online learning, we still have yet to achieve consensus on how to do it well. Sociologists refer this phenomenon as cultural lag--when technological advancements occur faster than the rules and norms of society that go along with those advancements.
Unfortunately, two decades of haphazard technology integration efforts make it difficult to forge new paradigms in the face of long-standing practices. There are, however, a number of models and principles that can guide our shift. I have summarized these principles in four points below, with an overarching emphasis on placing learning first.
1. Emphasize Effectiveness over Efficiency
The primary motivation for technology integration is not doing school more efficiently, but doing education more effectively. To be sure, there are a myriad of technology tools that allow schools and teachers to use their time more efficiently, and produce more actionable data. We should employ these tools to their fullest extent.
There are, however, other ways in which emphasizing efficiency can be counterproductive. Online classes with teacher caseloads of 200+ and credit recovery labs with 30+ students working on different courses/subjects monitored by one teacher may be more efficient ways to do school. But neither practice is supported by the plethora of research on the importance of foundational direct/explicit instruction and meaningful teacher to student discussion and feedback.
By contrast, technology integration through the lens of educational effectiveness places technology as a means to an end. Using the TPACK (Technological, Pedagogical, And Content Knowledge) Framework, we can establish pedagogical content goals, and leverage technology to achieve the ends. We begin by aligning our content goals with standards, then determine best practices to meet them. Layering in the technology, we ask: how can technology help meet these goals?
The ISTE Standards for Students help envision technology’s role in cultivating 21st century learners. These standards call for students to be empowered learners, digital citizens, knowledge constructors, innovative designers, computational thinkers, creative communicators, and global collaborators. Again, technology, effectively leveraged, serves as a means to developing these dispositions.
2. Prioritize Pedagogy over Paperless
Moving lessons from paper to paperless provides little impact without transforming our pedagogy. Paperless is great, but so is paper. When to use either is a contextual decision--neither medium is inherently better.
Technology presents us with ample opportunities to transform pedagogy from teacher-centered to student-centered classrooms. The SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition) Model provides a framework for transformative student-centered pedagogy. In Substitution, technology acts a direction substitution, with no functional change. Augmentation offers tool substitution with some functional improvement. Both of these uses provide lesson enhancement. Modification and Redefinition, by contrast, transform learning. Modification allows for significant task redesign, while Redefinition allows for the creation of previously inconceivable tasks. There are good reasons to assign tasks at any level of SAMR. But our highest aims should be the transformation of learning.
3. Build Better Lessons through Blended Learning
Technology is most effective when it is part of a seamlessly integrated syllabus of face-to-face and online activities, with both types of activities building toward common pedagogical content goals.
Blended Learning provides for increased student agency, with greater student control over time, place, path/and or pace of learning. Blended Learning restructures the classroom, with time for in-classroom collaboration and small group activities. A Blended Learning approach also helps cultivate a community of learners by using online tools to foster cognitive presence (critical thinking), teacher presence (instruction and feedback), and social presence (student-to-student interaction).
Station rotation is a popular model of Blended Learning that works well in non-1:1 classrooms. In an elementary classroom, rotations may occur within the literacy block, or may include multiple subject areas in a day. In a secondary classroom, stations typically last several class periods with 1-2 stations completed in a day.
4. Require Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships
We should have the same expectations of our software that we have of our face-to-face instruction: deep alignment to standards, cultivation of critical thinking, high level engagement, and opportunities for building communities of learners. We should avoid Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) programs that offer little more than textbooks pasted into a browser, accompanied by low-level comprehension questions. Too often, these programs use only keywords to determine standards-alignment, with little regard for the cognitive demands or requisite process standards. Reasons other than high-quality pedagogy are often the decisive factors in CAI adoption decisions. Ease of use, system compatibility, breadth of coverage (it can be used for all courses) and past practices must take a back seat to rigor and relevance.
A better approach is to look for the best digital products (commercial, open-source, and locally-developed) within each content area, and customize them with a robust Learning Management System. An LMS also serves as a hub for building an online community, strengthening the relationships that are created through face-to-face discussions in the classroom.
Technology will continue to rapidly advance and change our schools. Our understanding of best practices in technology must continue to grow as well, along with our abilities to effectively employ these practices. But when we keep a learning first mindset, we recognize that the principles that guide us are more important the gadgets among us.