Blending The Ancient World

This year, I am trying something new for my ninth grade Ancient World history class. Instead of teaching it as I always have, I am blending the class. As you are well aware of, blended learning is one of the current hot topics of education, and since I already used a great deal of technology in my class, it seemed natural to take the step to a blended class. Fortunately, I work in a school with a very supportive administration, and they were happy to have me embark on this journey.

We are now almost a semester into the class, and I have been pleasantly surprised at how well things are going. Because this is a ninth grade class, and the students are new to our Upper School, I rolled out the blended components relatively slowly. Before we started blending, I wanted to have a chance to get to know my students well, set guidelines and expectations, and for the students to have time to get to know me.

After a few weeks of introducing the tools that we use for the blended aspects of the class (we use Haiku as our LMS), we started blending in early October. We are on a modified block schedule, which means that I see my students three times per week for 45 minutes and once for 85. Since the beginning of October, we have “Blended Tuesdays” on which the students do not have to come to class, but instead conduct online work. They are free to do their work during their scheduled class time, or any other time, as long as their assignments are turned in before midnight on Tuesday.

In later blogposts, I will return to exactly what I do for the blended days, but I just wanted to share some of my early impressions of how the students are reacting. Overall, they have been extremely positive. They really like the blended aspects of the class for a number of different reasons, most of which actually reinforce some of the research on blended learning.

The number one reason why students like it is that it puts them in charge of their own learning. They can learn when they want, at whichever pace they want, and in whichever manner they choose. I have had many students tell me that they really appreciate the fact that if they do not understand something, they can spend as long as they need in order to grasp the concept, rather than have to feel rushed to keep up with the rest of the class. Similarly, students who move faster through the skills and concepts tell me that they value that they, and not I, set the pace by which they learn.

Students also like the fact that the blended aspects of the class offer them an opportunity to learn in a different way. Blended learning provides a chance to engage with the material in a different way than in the classroom, and many seem to cherish this change. There are many other reasons why my students seem to like this, but in the interest of keeping this blog post at a manageable length, I will come back to those later.

So, what are my impressions? Is blended learning just another over-hyped concept, or does it actually enhance student learning? Almost half-way through the year, I am convinced that it adds value to the learning experience for several reasons.

For one, it has opened a window for the “quiet” students to really shine. I assign a fair amount of online discussions, and it has been very rewarding to see students who hardly ever participate in a classroom discussion take charge and often play leading roles in the online environment. It has also offered me opportunities to be more creative with our face to face time. Since some of the content delivery has been moved online, there is more time for “hands-on” learning, which I think are essential for students to engage with the material on a deep and meaningful level.

It also puts my students in charge of their own learning. They have to take responsibility for how they learn, while at the same time being able to learn on their own terms. Initially, I was afraid that students would struggle to complete the work, or that they would not grasp the concepts as well as they would in a traditional classroom. Instead, what has happened is that the student-centered approach enables them to gain a full and complete understanding of what we are covering. I have had no indications that they do not understand the material, and on major assessments, they perform just as well or better than expected.

Another thing that I really like is that it has provided my students with an opportunity for deeper reflection. In a classroom discussion, they have to think quickly on their feet (which is of course a good skill and one that we still practice), but in an online discussion, they have time to really think about their contributions to a discussion, or their answers to a writing prompt. In a world that seems to move ever faster, I think that it is crucial that we teach our students the value of deeper and more thoughtful reflection.

Have there been problems? Sure. I have a few (but surprisingly few!) students who struggle with the self-paced aspect of the learning, and we have had a few technological issues. But overall, the positive benefits far outweigh the few problems that we have encountered.

These are just some of my initial impressions, and I will return to this topic in future blog posts, but suffice it to say that I really do believe that there is value to the blended learning model. It has been both interesting and stimulating to see some of the research concepts behind blended learning borne out in my classroom, and it has energized both me and my students. I can only hope that we can maintain the momentum for the rest of the year, but so far, I have been very pleased with this little experiment!

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