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Guide for Educators Pairs Technology With More Learning Time for Students

By guest blogger Michelle R. Davis

Many schools are diving into blended learning using technology to "personalize" instruction, allow students to go at their own pace, and provide digital content. Other schools are taking a different approach, adding hours to their standard school day to give students more time to focus on learning.

A new guide for schools and districts argues that putting the two strategies together is more effective in boosting student achievement and maps out approaches for success. "Supporting Student Success Through Time and Technology," was released today by the National Center on Time & Learning, a research and advocacy organization based in Boston. The guide was unveiled at this year's LearnLaunch conference promoting increased student achievement through the use of digital technologies.

The report highlights six schools—three charter schools and three traditional public school—pairing blended learning and extended learning, defined as 300 extra hours per year of school time. The case studies highlight the technology used in the schools, the instructional models in place, and the software that's been effective.

"We want schools to read this and realize this is something that is manageable, and to see how to avoid some of the pitfalls," said Roy Chan, the director of effective practices for the center, and the author of the guide. "We also want schools to see that to do this well, it's not about how much technology you have or how big your technology budget is."

The guide includes seven design and implementation steps for education leaders interested in blended learning strategies:

  • Set a clear educational purpose for using technology;
  • Determine readiness;
  • Design a model that works for your school;
  • Be discerning when selecting software and technology;
  • Plan and deliver training to staff;
  • Create a troubleshooting plan; and
  • Reflect, adjust, and improve.

Chan acknowledged that adding time to a school day—particularly in a traditional publicschool—can be complicated "and a hard sell." With less time, blended learning can still be successful, but schools need to be strategic and focused with their programs. Prioritizing teacher collaboration and making tradeoffs is important, he said.

"It's about being really narrowly focused on the benefits you really want to bring to kids," he said.

At the 610-student Morton Middle School in Fall River, Mass, educators are in their second year of an extended time, blended learning initiative. The school day is 90 minutes longer than the traditional day, and teachers are paid a stipend for their extra time, said Elizabeth Lewis, the instructional technology facilitator there. The school uses a "station rotation" model in which students work in small groups—with a teacher, independently and using technology, for example—and then rotate. Morton also has limited technology—eight laptops per class plus a school computer lab, Lewis said. Since the initiative launched, discipline referrals are down and more students are meeting district benchmarks, though she said there's still not definitive data that the techniques are having a significant impact on student achievement.

But Lewis cautioned that other factors are playing into the successes of the program, which is highlightedin the guide as a case study. A new building, teachers getting more planning time—due to the extended day—and collaborating more have had an impact. "We're seeing success and blended learning is part of that, but it's not the only factor," she said.

In fact, extended school days don't always have the intended positive effect. Earlier this month, The Boston Globe reported that the implementation of a longer school day in some of its public schools have yielded mixed results.

Julia Freeland, a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a San Mateo, Calif.-based think tank that studies blended learning, said the report does a good job of highlighting schools actually doing the work and the experience for educators. But she hopes its emphasis on extending instructional time for students doesn't get in the way of personalizing the learning experience. She sees a future in which schools will offer extended learning time to all students, but only the ones that need it will use it.

"We think schools are going to look a lot more like learning centers," she said. "Some students won't need as high-touch of an experience as others, but the goal would be to have that center or school staffed for longer so students who need it are provided with that access. I don't want that potential vision to get lost."

The guide notes that a blended-learning model coupled with expanded learning time can boost personalized learning opportunities, raise student engagement, and prepare students better for college and the workplace. It can allow educators to improve the quality of instruction, differentiate more, and increase efficacy and satisfaction by given them the technology tools they need and the time to learn to use them.

 "The technology itself is not going to personalize student learning," Chan said. "It's the people who use it and how they use it that's important."


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