Picture this classroom: 16 tech-savvy students collaborate online using various teacher selected resources to complete group projects, 16 eager learners engage with the class’s teacher as she leads them in direct instruction, and another 16 pupils use adaptive digital content to self-pace themselves on the content they have yet to master. Adding up the numbers, you get a high school classroom with a whopping 48 students! Judy Burton, President and CEO Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, painted this picture for us this past week on an Education Week webinar on blended learning.
Blended learning takes a lot of forms – in general though, blended learning involves personalized learning through a tech-based medium. The challenge to blended learning is in the implementation. Burton opened Alliance College-Ready Public Schools as a charter in 2004 with Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School in the heart of Los Angeles. Populated by one of Los Angeles’s most underserved communities where 22% of students are ELL and 95% qualify for free/reduced lunch, Burton has made impressive gains; 95% of the students go on to college. It was not until 2010 though that Alliance launched the BLAST (Blended Learning for Alliance School Transformation) Project at two high schools, which has now expanded to seven of the schools system’s campus.
A day in the lift of students in the BLAST model is intense. School runs from a fairly traditional 7:45 AM to 3:30 PM with tutoring as needed until 5:30 PM. The real difference lies in how classes are scheduled and organized. Students arrive to school, check out laptops, and immediately go into two, 120 minute block scheduled classes that end with a dedicated online learning lab where students either do independent, elective studies or credit recovery. If you walked into the classroom, you’d find 48 students rotating, 40 minutes at-a-time between the three groups alluded to in the beginning.
Burton’s system has two principal effects. The first is readily apparent - students enjoy a fast-paced, engaging environment where they learn not only with computers and direct teaching but also in three settings: teacher time, peer-to-peer time, and independent times. This is a perfect mirror for the ubiquitous I do à we do à you do model of teaching but in a fresh, innovative way. The second effect is not as apparent on first glance. Keeping all this technology up to speed and working smoothly is expensive for any district. By leveraging large class sizes that mix independent and teacher-driven instruction, Alliance schools can serve a bigger population while keeping operational costs low.
Burton shared that the BLAST model might have initially met some resistance – parents can get a little upset at the idea of such large classes, especially if they were taught in a more traditional setting. Additionally, as teachers have adjusted to the new setting, significantly more planning and prep time has been required to fluidly integrate all three groups of the class and prevent lessons from feeling compartmentalized. Burton’s wish list includes a full-time, onsite coach to help with program implementation and IT support; she acknowledge that despite the cost it would be much more impactful than sporadic professional development. Despite some challenges, the successes have been immense. Since implementation of the BLAST Project, students are more engaged, data can be mined from multiple resources to give a more holistic picture of student gains and needs, and teachers feel empowered as they develop signature practices for these 21st-century classrooms.
As we move into 2014, Alliance plans to two additional BLAST schools. To learn more about Alliance College-Ready Public Schools and the BLAST project, visit http://www.laalliance.org.