Advice for Blended Learning Start-Ups

Advice for Blended Learning Start-Ups

Not a week goes by these days when I don’t get a call from someone who is getting ready to run blended learning pilots or starting a blended learning school.  While our blended learning work at Aspire Public Schools is just over a year old and we haven’t figured it all out yet, we’ve learned many lessons about implementing blended learning worth sharing with others just starting this journey.

 

 
First, there are a few things you that you can’t live without:

 

Bandwidth

If you don’t know what your current bandwidth is, that’s your biggest challenge right now.  Stop reading blogs, figure out how much bandwidth you have, and get to work on upgrading it.

 

Headphones

Really?  You were thinking about running blended learning pilots without headphones?  Think again, and while you’re at it, order ziplock bags for each student, as lice is a real possibility at some point, especially with younger students.

 

Blended Learning Teaching Assistant

Mike Kerr at KIPP Empower deserves the credit for this advice.  He told me they couldn’t live without one to troubleshoot all the technical problems that arose, and I took his words as gospel.  He was right and still is.  You need someone to call software support lines, help direct kindergartners onto the programs, pull data, save broken laptops, calm teachers when the wireless goes down, identify bugs, capture big and small learnings, identify ways of doing it better, teach tech lessons when teachers feel unsure, and do about 1000 other things that can make or break this work.

 

 
Second, keep in mind the following lessons as you find your way through this work:

 

Learn the tech.

As a member of the Ed Team, I mistakenly thought that the Tech Ops team would be the ones who would do all the tech stuff while I got to figure out the instructional piece.  Yet, after sitting in many mind-numbing meetings about wireless infrastructure, device specs, bandwidth and plug-ins, I quickly learned that in each of those meetings, critical decisions were made that directly affected the teaching and learning environment.  Understanding the technology (even the really dry, unromantic parts) is critical to your decision-making and your success.  You just can’t outsource it.  That said, make lots of IT friends, as you’ll need them.

 

Start small and smart.

Choose schools, principals and teachers who are ready to do this work and will be invested in its success.  Consider your ideal conditions for implementation:  school leadership, school culture, teacher capacity, and technology infrastructure.  Think about which aspect of student achievement you’re aiming to move, and put forward your best way to move it instructionally combined with the technology.   With all that, keep it simple – run a minimal number of programs, manage the work tightly, but give teachers and principals lots of space to innovate.

 

Learn all the time.

Capture information formally (surveys and interviews) and informally/anecdotally.  We figured that the easiest way we could capture ah-hah moments and concerns was by putting all the piloting teachers in a locked down, non-public blog.  Then we sent gentle reminders to blog every week.

 

Learn from your mistakes.

Remember, the failures may teach you more than the successes.  Some of our pilots worked markedly better than others, and I felt pretty terrible when one didn’t go as planned.  However, I learned some huge, hairy, important lessons that have informed all the work I’ve done moving forward.  (Spoiler alert:  classroom management matters greatly!)

 
Perhaps the most important lesson is to make blended learning friends.   Everything I know now I learned from others doing this work, and I am grateful.  Despite differences in CMOs, school models, geographies, student populations, missions and pilots, the people doing this work offer a wealth of information and are, frankly, really a fun community of people to be a part of.  Every experiment and implementation of blended learning right now, even ones that you’d never have the stomach to do yourself, offer interesting ways to push your thinking around this work.

Written by Liz Arney

Liz Arney

Director of Innovative Learning at Aspire Public Schools, a charter management organization with 34 schools in California.

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