Blended learning helps students prepare for the real world, educators say

by Mike Lesko | reporter Published:

Streetsboro -- Online learning is here to stay.

So says Maureen Haska, the instructional technology specialist for Streetsboro City Schools.

"If we don't teach our students how to successfully use learning management systems, they will struggle when they go to college and or enter the real world," she said.

A learning management system, in which students can participate in a class from anywhere they have Internet access, took a step forward this school year after the Streetsboro City Schools received an $80,000 blended learning grant last spring from ETech of Ohio, which is part of the Ohio Department of Education. Streetsboro was one of only six high schools in the state to receive the grant.

It allowed the district to acquire, among other things, 30 computers for students and 16 laptop computers for the teachers who are participating in the program along with a wall projector and a "distance learning unit," which is a "real-time video conferencing system in high definition, according to Steve Cain, the district's technology director. "It's remarkable technology," Cain said. "Instead of watching something on the Internet, it allows you to interact."

In addition, Cain said 25 percent of the grant money is required to be used on professional development "so we can make it more interesting for the students."

Kent State University Dr. Cindy Kovalik, who is working with the school district on professional development, said blended learning is "any combination of traditional classroom student-teacher interaction coupled with many or few online components."

"Blended learning can be designed so that students do some activities on their own online and some activities in the classroom," said Kovalik, a KSU assistant professor in lifespan development and educational sciences.

"For example, a teacher may structure a class so that students are in the classroom two or three times a week, and on the other days, students complete what they need to do online," Kovalik said. "If you envision a horizontal line with traditional classroom instruction on one end and a 100 percent online course at the other end, blended learning can be anywhere between those two points."

Starting Jan. 8, the computer technology lab at Streetsboro High School where the new computers are located will be open to the public every day that school is in session. Hours are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2:45 to 4:45 p.m., and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m. A teacher will be there to assist anyone with questions.

"It's going to be a big help to our students who choose to take advantage of it," Streetsboro High School Principal Eric Rauschkolb. "It's a resource they can use after school. Also, some students may have access to the Internet but may not have a printer, which they can have access to at the high school."

A second grant received

Cain said the district received an additional $50,000 grant from ETech of Ohio in October for the second year of the program.

"It is targeted for the 2013-2014 school year," Haska said.

Haska said she expects the money to be used to expand the computer program to Streetsboro Middle School and Henry Defer Intermediate School, adding, "Next spring, we should know exactly how we'll expand the program."

Meanwhile, the new computer program at the high school continues to be an upgrade, officials said.

"Many teachers at Streetsboro High School offered a self-blend learning environment beginning in this school year to provide students with a more personalized education experience and to prepare students for real-life learning opportunities," Haska said.

"The structure of the traditional class room environment will incorporate more online opportunities and resources as the teachers receive training in online teaching and in online educational resources," Haska said.

Haska, who wrote the majority of the grant, said many high school staff members wanted to incorporate online components into their classes long before the grant was available.

"The grant has provided us with tools and professional development to put quality online components into our traditional courses," Haska said. "As we wrote [in the grant application], we focused on our needs as a district for online learning to be a success.

"Two key components came from those needs -- a computer lab open in the evenings and an 'expert' to guide us in creating and in teaching online classes," Haska said. "Dr. Kovalik agreed to work with us as an 'expert.'"

Kovalik said there are many advantages to a blended learning approach. She said they depend on how the blended learning environment is structured.

"For example, in a science class, the teacher may record a lecture and compile resources on a specific topic and post those materials on the Internet," Kovalik said. "Students may be asked to review these materials prior to class. In class, students can engage in an experiment, do collaborative work or be involved in inquiry-based learning rather than listening to a lecture.

"Thus, students read, listen and learn about a topic prior to coming to class," Kovalik said. "In class, students are able to engage in scientific work where they can pose a hypothesis and then design an experiment to test their hypothesis."

Kovalik said in a social studies class, the teacher may compile resources related to a particular historical topic and ask students to use the materials to prepare for a debate.

"So instead of using class time to teach students about the topic, students prepare ahead of time and use class time to discuss the topic in-depth, helping them become knowledgeable and critical thinkers," she said.

Internet access at any time

Another advantage, Kovalik said, is that once the materials are on the Internet, students have access to them at any time, enabling students to listen and read through materials as many times as they need to help them learn.

"Educators also benefit from preparing materials that can be posted on the web," she said. "When an educator prepares quality teaching materials and makes the materials available by posting them online, these materials can be easily shared with students and with other educators.

"For example, an educator may know that many students have trouble with a particular mathematical calculation," she said. "The teacher can record a short narrated video that takes students through the math problem step-by-step, thus providing a resource that students can use over and over to better understand the process."

Kovalik said using course management systems, where access to course materials are secure and available to only those with log-ins and passwords, educators may want to use online assessments, where students can take a test or quiz online.

"These online assessments are automatically scored by the course management system, with grades automatically entered into a grade book," she said. "Online assessments free up class time because students do not need to take a quiz or test in the traditional class room setting. They can take it anytime and anywhere."

Blended learning also helps differentiate the learning experience, Kovalik said.

"Students learn in different ways," she said. "Having different types of materials available online for students allows them to use what is most beneficial to their learning."

"For example, one student may learn best by reading information from a textbook," she said. "Another student may need to hear the information presented as opposed to reading it. A third student may need to watch a process to fully understand it.

"All of these learners can be accommodated by providing multiple resources and making them available 24-7," she said. "Having these materials available also helps students learn about how they learn and make decisions on what to use based on what is most helpful to them."

"In all instances," Haska added, "the goal is to improve student learning through the use of real world experiences and the development of 21st century skills as students become actively involved in the learning process."

Email: mlesko@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9439

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