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Key Questions for Design of a Blended Learning Tapestry

by Michelle Schira Hagerman
 | Oct 24, 2014

The most recent Keeping Pace report of online and blended learning published by the Evergreen Education Group indicates that blended and fully online modes of learning have moved to the mainstream for K-12 students in the U.S. More than 740,000 students nationwide are enrolled in publicly-funded virtual schools. Blended schools that provide a mix of online and face-to-face instruction exist in 24 states and almost every state offers supplemental online learning options for their students. Four states—Alabama, Florida, Virginia and Michigan—even require an online learning experience for high school graduation.

Importantly, however, these “official” numbers do not reflect the number of teachers who, like Jeff Gerlach, self-publish websites to support their face-to-face instruction, or use free, subscription-based content management platforms such as Edmodo, Google Classroom or Haiku to support their face-to-face students’ learning. Fueling some of this classroom-based blending is the popular flipped classroom model that moves content learning to the online space and reserves class time for problem solving, inquiry and discussion. For Gerlach, who taught for eight years in public school classrooms before transitioning to an instructional design role, a flexible blended model that weaves a learning tapestry of online and face-to-face experiences is the most powerful instructional approach.

“I really always wanted to understand how my students interacted with the online learning objects that I created for them,” Gerlach said. “And I think that informed my designs because learning how a student interacts with a thing naturally helps you to come alongside their natural tendencies. That’s something that I was always cognizant of. I found that I just, I was more thoughtful and reflective as an educator when I utilized online spaces appropriately. And, really, my guiding principle was always to make learning better. I was always thinking, ‘what can I do to make this authentic, and engaging’ and just – that’s why you get into education in the first place, to reach students. I mean, that was the intention.”

Reflecting on his growth as a "blended teacher," Gerlach said he knew he was becoming more effective when he moved beyond forcing students to engage in a certain way. Eventually, he stopped telling students to “post two thoughtful comments in an online discussion” and he just started getting students to create, organically.

But how does one do that? To successfully design and then weave a tapestry of blended learning experiences that make the most of face-to-face and online affordances, teachers must tie together a complex array of thread. The technical, logistical, pedagogical, curricular, disciplinary, developmental, cultural, and contextual threads shape what’s possible for their students’ learning. Jeff noted his best choices for blended learning empowered his students to be in control of their own learning choices. Often, this meant thinking about the most seamless and accessible way for his students to get into the learning—and being willing to abandon a great idea when it became clear it wouldn’t work.

“There were several times where I would be trying out a submission process or a new skill that I wanted students to use around the social studies content,” Gerlach said. “I had the pedagogy that I wanted to go with it, and the tool was cool, and then I’d be making a tutorial showing them how to use it, and I’d realize there were 25 steps and I abandoned making the tutorial and tried to find a different solution because, it just wasn’t within the zone of proximal development for them.”

Based on my conversation with Gerlach, and other exemplary online and blended instructors, I’ve put together a list of key questions that seem to guide their design processes. Which of these are new to you? Which of them could help you weave a richer tapestry of learning across online and blended teaching contexts?

  • What skills do my students need to have mastered to benefit from this learning experience? How can I teach them?
  • What literacies will enable my students to construct meaning and participate fully in this work? How can I scaffold these?
  • How does the sequence of learning need to change in a blended or fully online course? What parts of this activity will work best online? Which parts would work best in class? Why?
  • To what extent does the digital context limit participation? To what extent can it expand participation? For whom? Why?
  • Online, how can I approximate or even extend the levels of scaffolding and collaboration that would occur for students in my face-to-face classroom?
  • What does this digital tool or set of tools offer my students in terms of supports for learning? To what extent can the technologies I’ve chosen enable learning that could not otherwise happen?
  • By crafting an online version of this learning experience, what are the risks to learning outcomes? Is it likely for students to get lost? Overwhelmed? How can these risks be mitigated?
  • How does this design empower students to regulate their own learning?

Michelle Schira Hagerman, teaches and designs online learning experiences for students in the Master’s of Educational Technology program at Michigan State University. She also coordinates MSU’s Graduate Certificate in Online Teaching and Learning.


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