By: Parker Hudnut
Much has been written about L.A. Unified’s $1 billion iPad initiative, which has generated a heated national debate about what a school or district needs to consider before starting a blended learning program of its own. While the intention was good – making sure that all students, especially those from low-income families, have access to technology – the execution of the program was less than ideal.
Rather than getting technology meaningfully into the hands of all its 700,000 students, L.A. Unified has become a cautionary tale with seemingly no end to the lessons that can be learned. Teachers and principals, for example, should be included from the very beginning to help with technology training, testing and purchasing decisions. Answers to practical questions like the initial investment, ongoing costs, maintenance and privacy should be considered either from the start or through a small pilot.
When we teach our children about problem solving, we start with research and planning. Similarly, when we decided to add technology into the instructional model at ICEF Public Schools, it was done slowly and with lots of review along the way. Most importantly, we knew we needed to take advantage of what we could learn from others, especially teachers.
We began rolling out our own blended learning program three years ago by soliciting teacher volunteers to design and develop our approach, knowing that teachers needed to have ownership in the process from the start if we were going to be successful.
In 2012-13, we created a small pilot program of 25 teachers, who were chosen from 50 applicants. That first group worked with our director of blended learning Peter Watts, a former principal, to visit other schools to see what was and wasn’t working elsewhere, and decided how to use and share what they learned in monthly training and professional development sessions. We wanted teachers to be empowered to choose the best tools for their specific classroom challenges. Teachers were then given the autonomy to decide how and when to incorporate blended learning approaches into our curriculum within their own classrooms.
Aziza Pavageau, a second grade teacher at ICEF Vista, saw great success in the pilot. In her first year of teaching, Aziza had discovered how challenging it was to differentiate instruction for each student in her class. As a second year teacher using blended learning, she was able to do differentiate more effectively. By using online adaptive programs and the data they provided, Aziza was able to identify and offer extra support to students struggling with a particular concept. On the other end of the spectrum, those students who had mastered a topic could continue to learn and move at their own pace, providing challenging material so that they wouldn’t get bored. In this way, Aziza was able to work with both students like Elizabeth, who was stuck on learning to count by fives, while Dylan had already moved to third grade math multiplication problems.
By the end of the 2012-13 school year, 100 percent of Aziza’s students scored proficient or advanced in math and 88 percent scored proficient or advanced in English Language Arts on the California state exam – the highest scoring class across our organization, which serves over 4,000 predominantly low-income African American and Latino students in South Los Angeles.
Nikki Peters, a third grade teacher at ICEF Inglewood, had previously tried using blended learning while working for a school in the L.A. Unified School District. At ICEF, Nikki found the freedom, coupled with support from her school director, to develop a system that worked for her class. She structures her day by constantly moving from class-wide mini lessons to workshops in small groups, bringing together some students for individualized instruction directly with her while others work independently on computers. She’s found that by breaking things up, kids are able to stay focused, keep moving and get the help they need.
Our work wasn’t just done in the classroom, however. Parents and teachers also worked together to understand how the new technology would be used at school and could support learning at home. For example, parents were able to see how much time their children were spending online, how many assignments had been completed, areas in which they were exceling or struggling, and have access to instructional videos as well as the teacher’s online gradebook. As a result, ICEF teachers reported an increase in the number of parents involved in their child’s learning.
Over the course of the last year, our teachers have learned how to incorporate technology into their classrooms as an instructional tool, and combine it with direct instruction, small group work and independent practice, and have begun to see their students take ownership of their learning. Now, we’re working to incorporate technology into the classrooms at all 12 ICEF schools.
Expanding what has been a successful program thus far will now depend on our ability to upgrade our IT infrastructure – which we are working on thanks to $1.25 million we recently received from a combination of grants. Improving connectivity and adding more wireless access points is enabling us to more consistently offer online testing, blended learning and advanced instructional methods for all our teachers and students. This work will continue and accelerate this year and is part of all our facilities plans.
Technology allows for innovation in education, but only when applied in a thoughtful, practical and supportive way…which can sometimes mean that moving slowly with deliberate urgency is the most effective way to actually move ahead.
Parker Hudnut is the CEO of ICEF Public Schools in Los Angeles. He previously served as the Executive Director of Innovation and Charter Schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as COO/CFO of Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools. He is currently a Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow.