2011 Lesson #4 Mixed Mode learning – the way ahead

The title for this particular blog had its origin as I listened to a number of presentations on ‘blended learning’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blended_learning) at the Virtual School Symposium. I have for some years liked the notion of blended learning and it seemed a generally suitable term describing a learning environment where students could transition from the offline to online worlds and back, whenever applicable, during any given task or lesson. At the VSS 2009 I especially liked the fact that it was being promoted as the ‘goal’ for many institutions. Jump forward two years and it has suddenly become a term that I would now choose not to use.

The cause of my angst? It would seem that a number of educational commentators have started to try and lock down a sequence of definitions for blended learning. In doing that, the notion that it now predominantly describes a course delivery option is rapidly becoming synonymous with the term (http://www.innosightinstitute.org/media-room/publications/education-publications/the-rise-of-k-12-blended-learning/). I am completely for the use of diverse media in learning – however, I do not feel comfortable with anything that starts to look at blended learning, especially in the so-called ‘rotational’ variations, as something that is linked to cost savings (staffing), space savings and “improved results” in associated dialogue.

Why be ‘picky’ on this topic?
Read this: “Blended Learning Model description: fifty-five-minute periods, rotating from online for concept introduction and instruction to face-to-face for reinforcement and application. Two to three rotations per day, four days of school per week, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.” “This rotational model occurs in an environment of multiple cubicles, housed in a central learning center, which is similar in layout to a call center. Students attend class four days a week, although the days are longer (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Students attend 145 school days per year and receive a total of 1,007 hours of instruction. Typically there is little or no outside homework. Students rotate throughout the day between online activities in the learning center and face-to-face classroom instruction, where a “coach,” or teacher, re-teaches, enhances, or applies the material introduced online.” Therein lies my concern. Blended learning should not be reduced to an efficiency drive to deliver education via rotated methods, even if it allows for teachers to move to a preferred coach or mentor mode. It could be so much more. I have decided that I am not about to waste energy challenging the writers of multiple ‘blended learning’ articles – rather, I think it would be far more effective to create a new definition for what I think should be the descriptor of a learning environment that uses the ‘best practice’ or ‘next practice’ as the general framework.

Reclaiming the turf: Mixed Mode Learning
So what do I mean when I talk of ‘mixed mode’ learning? Learning that occurs within an environment where technology is a pervasive tool for student or teacher use, but not the specific driver of any course structure. What it is not, is a title for a course delivery mode. At its optimum definition, it would include the capacity for kinesthetic, auditory, visual and technological modes to be interwoven and for learners to have the ability, tools and capacity to drift from mode to mode as suitable.

We have tried to establish the capacity for this in all our recent learning space designs – whether new buildings or renovated spaces. Learning environments are supported by diverse technologies, within a Wi-Fi environment. It is also a goal for learners to experience consistency in mixed mode learning environments, regardless of which teacher may be responsible for or have oversight their learning.

What have we observed in 2011?
NBCS/SCIL (www.nbcs.nsw.edu.au; www.scil.com.au) introduced a BYOD (bring your own device) program for target grades – Years 5, 8 & 11 (optional). This replaced the previous model where we had multiple fixed PCs in different locations, supplemented by banks of laptops in a few areas. We gave no specific recommendation for a model of mobile device, rather provided the Wi-Fi and internet connectivity throughout the campus – indoors and outdoors. We have introduced a concurrent strategy to reduce family costs for textbooks and other savings to help offset the costs of the family-funded BYOD program. It was our original intention to introduce this over three years. The program has been so widely accepted and adopted that we have accelerated and broadened it for 2012. Our goal is to move rapidly to a Grades 4 – 12 BYOD environment. We can then also concentrate the use of existing PCs and laptops to K – 3.

Some observations
We have observed a far higher level of individual ‘ownership’ of, care for and consistent use of personally owned mobile devices – and the use in far more flexible environments has enabled an acceleration of more global pedagogic transformation. We have also experienced relatively few issues to do with perceived ‘risks’ of such an open environment. Students are introduced early to being responsible when it comes to using the internet, as well as continually growing student understanding of cyber safety and plagiarism. It’s all a growth process! A number of students choose to continue working on their mobile devices over lunch breaks – and there is total consensus that it is so much better enabling students to organize their own folders and documents on a device that is for their use alone. Far less issues related to finding files or programs.

ADHD Asperger’s Case Study
Some other casual observations – many students who were previously more high maintenance ‘ADHD’ students, have in 2011 very effectively used a combination of technology-enabled focus, mobile devices, together with more flexible furniture arrangements, to in many cases entirely self-manage their distractibility issues. That has to be an enormous win/win!

Interestingly, a few senior students are bringing 3 devices to school – typically a laptop, mobile phone and iPad, in order to optimize their learning and attendant self-organization: laptop for recurrent work, iPad for quick reference to the internet (Google, Wikipedia etc) and iPhone for social media connectivity, camera (to capture collaboratively created mind maps) and quick reference to routine information. In one specific instance this is a deliberate and planned strategy to help overcome a crossover of Asperger’s and ADHD challenges and enables the lad involved to set up multiple documents ready for the different learning sessions of the day. It has been extremely successful in enabling self-management of these challenges. I might also add that this boy also works outside of school in order to self-fund and chooses sports with high levels of physical activity before and after school. Quite inspirational! He is also an extremely good host for visiting educators and very confidently talks about the impact on his learning working within a mixed mode environment.

My best mixed mode experiences?
For me the optimal learning environment would mix the capacity to access information from anywhere via an iPad. I’d have my laptop handy for those times when I prefer to use it. I’d work within Wi-Fi environments with seamless free access. I’d have learning spaces that looked more like cafés, hotel foyers or airport lounges. I would undertake some of my learning via intense collaboration and shared experiences. I’d do some online. I’d be able to drive at my own pace. I’d elect to do some assessments, where and when it suited – for my advantage. I’d be free to take a break and walk around. I’d have access to good fresh water and cross ventilation. I’d be able to mind map, read, write, share ideas, create ideas, listen and learn in multiple ways – and with the choice of multiple mentors. I’d probably include using lots of improvised drama because for me, the combination of kinesthetic, intellectual and interpersonal rigour that comes from drama experiences really appeals to my learning style. I’d focus my learning around deep passionate engagement with the context and content, fun, challenge with the capacity to grow, create, apply and serve.

What’s your optimum learning environment?

I’d love to hear! Describe it for others …