Can After-School Programs Bring Blended Learning to the Masses?

BL at CSC

McNair Middle School’s 1:1 experience

It is clear that school is not the sole provider in a community’s educational system and after-school programs play an integral role in extending the learning day for many students. Given the flexibility around content and program model, out-of-school time (OST) providers often have the unique ability to innovate more quickly than traditional public schools. These innovative after-school programs can drive better blended learning adoption, bringing effective personalized learning opportunities to students beyond just those in charter schools

I witnessed this first hand during my time at Citizen Schools, a nonprofit founded back in 1995 with the mission to revive the apprenticeship model and bring relevant, project-based learning opportunities to students after school. In California, they have forged strong partnerships with prominent tech companies such as Google and Cisco to introduce students to web development, creating Android apps and the BizWorld entrepreneurship program. 

Tinkering with the Model

Over the past few years Citizen Schools has experimented with various blended learning approaches, drawing on best practices from tech-focused charter schools to bring personalized instruction to more students. In California, pilots began in 2010 using  TenMarks and Khan Academy during homework help sessions. Those early informal trials showed the potential for these online tools to augment math instruction without it feeling like ‘more school.’ This year Citizen Schools is continuing with pilots at two sites, Ronald McNair Academy in East Palo Alto and Bronx Writing Academy in New York, with plans to expand pilots to approximately ten schools this fall.

Leadership, at the school and program level, is integral to running an effective site. In launching the program at McNair this year, Citizen Schools recruited Adrian Breckel who was formerly Academic Dean at Rocketship, a leading blended learning charter network. Breckel has worked tirelessly with Ravenswood School District and McNair’s Principal, Jen Gravem, who have been cautiously optimistic about how the Citizen Schools team can help implement this model.

iReady

Let Me Upgrade You

The shift to blended learning at McNair has been in the works for years. In 2011 the school received a School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the Department of Ed, which they used to fund a major technology upgrade which included going 1:1 and and installing state of the art projection and sound systems in each classroom. This tech overhaul also included an investment in selecting iReady as their core software system. Breckel shares that “the usage of this technology (hardware) is fairly integrated throughout the day in different ways; teachers use projectors and doc cams fairly regularly and also assign homework that includes using the districts portal and tools such as the internet and Google Docs.” However, the usage of online software is inconsistent since there is not official guideline or push on how to integrate iReady into instruction. This is where Citizen Schools stepped in to help integrate iReady and create more consistent personalized learning opportunities.

Early Signs of Success

Though the blended learning pilot just launched back in November there have been some clear signs of effectiveness. The iReady dashboard and other software tools help streamline communication between the school day and after-school educators, making it easier to meet student needs. Another benefit is teachers have more flexibility with flipped classroom approaches, including assigning homework via Google Docs, knowing the kids will have access to laptops and the network after school. (This is such an important piece of this work in communities where most kids do not have access to devices and internet at home.) Beckel is most excited about the ability for her educators to conduct small group instruction, which was a crucial aspect of Rocketship’s model.

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One class’s system for tracking time and success on program

The district recognizes that creating a culture of experimentation during the after-school hours enables them to test other approaches, such as the new computer-based assessment coming from SmarterBalance. The District’s STEM Coordinator, Robert Pronovost, who has extensive knowledge of blended learning has been a strong ally. Pronovost and colleagues from the district, Soloman Hill and Liz Gordon-Stoll, have gone above and beyond to show their support by teaching apprenticeships themselves. Hill, the Director of Technology, combined his own passions to design an apprenticeship entitled “Jedi Consulting” which allows students to learn about many new technologies and become consultants for school districts who are looking to implement technology successfully. This apprenticeship requires that students gain an intimate knowledge of different aspects of tech tools including usage, pricing, success rates, functionality, as well as assessing school needs.

This type of collaboration between the school, district and Citizen Schools is instrumental in making the program successful. This marriage between integral entities in the school system models how after-school providers can bring much-needed energy and talent to help schools create effective blended learning environments for more students.

Beyond Tech in the Classroom to Deeper Blended Learning

This is a follow-up post to Zaya.org: Bringing Blended Learning to the Base of the Pyramid.

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Soma Vajpayee, one of the co-founders from Zaya.org made her way to the Bay Area last September to observe some top-performing blended learning schools in action and is now working to incorporate those methods into their work on the ground in India. Zaya’s approach to blended learning in India is two-fold: 1) implementing blended learning in low-cost private schools and 2) creating new blended learning centers through their Learning Labs model. She optimistically recognizes a shift taking place from simply having technology (mainly tablets) in the classroom to actual blended learning practices that include dramatically different instructional practices with deeper emphasis on improving learning outcomes.

Vajpayee shared more of her insights and what she’s bringing back with her to Mumbai.

What were your expectations for the blended learning school visits?

My goal for this trip was to observe a few blended learning classrooms in the Bay Area, as it has been the fountainhead of innovation in education technology. At Zaya we have been researching various blended learning models, such as Rocketship, KIPP and Alpha Schools and it was inspiring to meet with those school leaders and hear some insider perspectives.

We have incorporated approaches from these models into our initial teacher training sessions to introduce our educators to new instructional practices and set expectations for these new learning environments.

What were some highlights from speaking with these people who are pioneering innovative teaching/learning practices?

I was so grateful to meet with some of the thought leaders in this space, including Greg Klein from the Rogers Family Foundation and Jennie Dougherty from KIPP. Given my focus on teacher training it was great to hear some of the innovative approaches around preparing teachers for effective blended learning instruction. Many people are focusing on developing the software and devices that is fueling this movement, but we believe developing educators to run blended learning environments is the key to successful outcomes for students.

Dougherty shared that KIPP’s seen early success “by creating ‘blended learning champions’ in each school who in turn trains the other teachers in the school.” Similarly, Klein has built a strong teacher feedback loop for his network of Oakland sites, with a few blended learning experts that provide on-going tech support and coaching. While these innovative schools are experimenting with different PD models, I noticed that a scientific and structured way to measuring the teachers performance seems to be missing.

Beyond teacher preparation, John Glover, Principal of Alpha Schools, shared that his key issues are data collection from the various learning programs they are using in the different subjects and also the accurate tagging of skills and competencies to the content.

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What struck you as the biggest differences between blended learning sites in the Bay Area vs. India?

The investment in hardware and infrastructure in the US is astounding. While I’ve read a bit about 1:1 methods it was another thing to walk into a classroom and see each student with their own Chromebook. Beyond the hardware, the investment in the connectivity was significant with one KIPP school sharing that their broadband setup cost ~$1M. These systems are all still very basic in India and it is unlikely to see schools make this type of investment.

With regards to the educators, they were extremely competent and it helps a lot that the typical charter school teacher is young and relatively comfortable using technology. In India, we see a huge variation in the quality of teachers and even fewer teachers who are proficient in using innovative ways of teaching. An interesting revolution that has started for the last 5 years is the influx of young and motivated individuals who join the workforce for two years of focused teaching at the bottom of the pyramid, through Teach for India. They create a change in the way teaching works in their isolated classroom, however, as you can imagine the bigger challenge is to sustain positive change beyond those isolated classrooms.

As for students, charter schools in the US serve a similar population of students as Affordable Private schools in India, so I noticed that there is a similar hunger to learn. The use of technology in the classrooms has instilled a new sense of engagement in their own learning which is really motivating our work.

Lastly, what innovative practices have you observed in India that could be shared to the US?

This is an interesting question since most of my focus has been bringing innovative practices to India. We at Zaya are working on an education solution which is an on and offline delivery model outside of the traditional school system. Our Learning Labs create blended learning environments where there is no internet or even electricity, and even space is a constraint. This innovative “class in a bag” package is definitely a scalable and shareable model.

Blended Learning in the Bay

Last Friday, KQED Forum discussed some of the blended learning programs in the Bay Area and in CA more broadly. While the conversation focused heavily on Rocketship‘s current model and ambitious growth plans, Tina Barseghian, editor of MindShift, also shares some feedback from students, teachers and other districts.  It’s a quick 30min discussion and worth it if you’re curious to hear current sentiment around blended/hybrid learning and some of the arguments for/against the role of teachers in a technology and data rich teaching environment.

“Revolutionary Technologies and the Future of Education”

“Revolutionary Technologies and the Future of Education”- panel from 20th Anniversary TFA Summit (Feb 2011)

It’s a bit long but the panelist share some unique insights on how their schools are integrating technology to create personalized learning environments for students, especially at Rocketship and School of One.

 

Technology and student-centric learning

Between the Philanthropy Roundtable event on Wednesday and the Startup Weekend EDU at Grockit on Sunday I’ve seen first hand the energy and momentum that is building in this space.

The Roundtable event was focused on how technology, and specifically blended learning, can be used to create student-centric learning environments. It was fantastic to see practitioners, politicians and philanthropists all coming together to rethink the purpose of schools and how students actually learn. One of the areas most interesting to me and my current work is thinking about how blended learning environments can create time/space for more project-based learning (PBL) activities. Explicitly giving kids more opportunities to work with their hands and each other.

The breakout sessions highlighted several examples of charter schools successfully applying a blended learning approach: Carpe Diem (Yuma, AZ), Rocketship (San Jose), Kipp LA Empower Academy and Summit Public Schools (Redwood City.) Beyond creative uses of technology it was great to see all of these schools focusing on building a culture of achievement and really engaging students in their own learning and that of their peers. This cultural shift is the real key to improving education outcomes for all kids.

 

During lunch, Jeb Bush shared his perspective on what policy makers and public/district officials can do to foster innovations in the education space. I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of solutions that he supported and his message that the ultimate goal should be “a customized learning system that values student outcomes above all else.” He went on to say that we should not over-regulate the space but rather treat it as other industries where we accept the risk of a few bad actors banking on the larger reward of “explosions in innovation.”

The afternoon sessions continued with conversations around what policy makers can do to create an environment that encourages high quality digital learning and how traditional schools can incorporate some successful blended learning models.

The event culminated with New Schools Venture Fund unveiling their Edtech Market Map. I think it’s a great start and we need more robust tools to be able to identify and follow key trends in the edtech space. They presented it as v1 and I’m looking forward to seeing what functionalities are added over time (tagging? following?) Take some time to play around and let me know what you think!

Blended learning is definitely hot topic in education right now and if you want to learn more, check out these additional resources.

  • The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning – The seminal piece on blended learning school models, this short paper explains how each model operates and outlines several
  • How Khan Academy is Changing the Rules of Education – This Wired Magazine article from July 2011 explains the on-the-ground implications of online and blended learning, including how technology impacts students’ and teachers’ daily schedules.
  • Is there a K-12 Online Learning Bubble? – Written by Michael Horn of the Innosight Institute, this article outlines a number of the issues with low-quality digital learning and the need for policy that rewards student performance outcomes.