iNACOL wrapped their tenth annual Blended and Online Learning Symposium this week in Orlando. With over 200 sessions this year, the 2,500 attendees were able to keep busy and have meaningful learning experiences. Our team enjoyed some interactive sessions and workshops that allowed the thoughtful leaders in the room to share best practices, discuss challenges and make new connections. But it is important to keep pushing the envelope and make sure our events reflect the environments we want students to experience. Its time to kill the lecture format sessions, boring PowerPoints presentations and have people actually interacting in conversations and authentic learning experiences.

Students take charge. One of the group favorite panels was an inspiring student panel moderated by Susan Patrick. A handful of students represented a range of online and blended learning opportunities around the country shared honest thoughts and feedback on their learning experiences. “We have more choice in our learning,” said one student about blended options now offered in Detroit EAA schools. We appreciated hearing the students talk about taking control of their learning. “I don’t have to wait on the teacher or the other students to learn. I just keeping moving up and I know how,” said one student. “It’s a place where you can be who you are,” said a student of the EAA. The students advice for their peers included communicate with teachers, stay on pace, don’t be afraid to ask for help and attend group sessions.

Several of the students attributed their public speaking skills to online leadership and speech classes. The students all seemed to appreciate the immediate feedback they receive from their teachers, which often comes in many forms (online, text, email and calls). When asked for one word to explain their online and blended learning experience the panel replied; outstanding, wonderful, challenging, enjoyment, fun, successful.

Time to get deeper. The next wave of learning in online and blended environments will also need to include deeper learning skills development. An interactive session on deeper learning principles engaged the learners in a conversation with Hewlett’s Marc Chun and our own Tom Vander Ark. The session started with an exploration of the most powerful learning experiences of the participants and moved through big questions around authentic experiences and schools getting it right. We picked up on common themes including; learning experiences that prize ownership, autonomy, authenticity, relevance & agency supported by good teachers that invite students to ask big questions, encourage learner independence and connect meaningfully with students and their interests. (See Leading for Deeper Learning: 10 Proven Strategies.)

Busting online learning myths. Blended and online learning is growing rapidly and its important to also highlight the challenges and myths the sector faces. As mentioned in the DLN Smart Series Online Learning paper, addressing these myths will be critical for the success of good online programs. The panelists for the myths session included John Bailey of Digital Learning Now!, Susan Patrick from iNACOL, Jason Bransford, of Idaho Distance Education Academy and our own Carri Schneider.  The group discussed how policy can create space for innovation or it can restrict it. Unfortunately, many policy makers are not fluent with the world of education technology. But more than 700 bills involving digital learning were considered in 2012, more than 152 signed into law. The panel discussed the need to effectively communicate about online learning options and even the challenges the sector has faced.

The panel had a great discussion around teaching in an online and blended environment as well. Teachers need to be very comfortable addressing student needs- give them as many “tools” as possible. Teachers should have the ability to identify learning gaps and propose strategies and interventions that can help raise achievement. We need to make sure high quality professional development is provided and there isn’t much available for online teachers right now.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetGetting social. One of the true beauties of learning online is the fact that the world is no longer limited by the physical space. Not only using, but mastering social media is an essential skill for succeeding as a learner in our world today because it’s connecting with other people that truly breaks down the walls that used to limit the classroom. The Getting Smart team integrates the use of many social media tools daily and were happy to have a chance to engage in a thoughtful, positive conversation around how social media can be used in all aspects of the education space. Kicking off with Tom’s post 25 #SocialMedia Tips for #Edleaders, the hour turned into a crowd sourcing, connective experience full of great tips for all- hopefully strengthening everyone’s confidence around engaging and telling their story through these powerful tools.

Breaking through. Wednesday morning at #iNACOL13 closed with a Keynote from Rick Hess of AEI and Bror Saxberg of Kaplan, who released a new book this week, Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age: Using Learning Science to Reboot Schooling. Both Hess and Saxberg stated, as we also suggest in Blended Learning Implementation Guide 2.0, schools and districts should start with clear goals. Technology works best when its not layered on top of schools as we know it, but enable new environments that empower learners and leverages teacher talent. As the authors suggested, technology is not the solution but a tool to help teachers do their work better. Hess and Saxberg reiterated the important theme that seemed to be the underlying current of the entire three days- goals come first and devices, that flow from those goals, come last in the implementation process.

Doing the work. With just a few more hours of breakouts and workshops, it was definitely not yet time to rest. In the workshop, Bringing Blended Learning to Life, education stakeholders from every field used the last two hours to take on the challenge of putting all the new things they learned over the past few days and actually work in a team to create a new blended school model. In just that small amount of time, 4 teams designed three new flex high schools and a new student centered, smartly staffed elementary school–all bravely thinking outside the box and encouraging each other to problem solve and overcome obstacles that have blocked innovation in the past. The two hours we spent together flew by so fast, we can’t wait to try it again in the spring at SXSWedu at Cook up a Batch of Blended Learning!

This year’s iNACOL conference brought to life the true meaning of online and blended learning- it has to be a give and take and the more you contribute, the more knowledge you take away. As always our team is blown away by the passion and dedication of education leaders around the country and feel privileged to cover and participate in these amazing events. We were humbled by how much was given and the amount of knowledge we received.

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