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States Must Change, Too For Blended Learning

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Rhode Island's Highlander Institute hosted their 4th Blended Learning Conference on Saturday. Commissioner Gist outlined the progress of the last few years and championed continued progress in the blended and competency-based future. Following Gist, I encouraged Rhode Island teacher leaders to create blended environments that support student agency, project-based and deeper learning ( see a recap of five site visits and #HIBLC15).

In the following post, Lisa Duty of The Learning Accelerator, a RIDE and Highlander funding partner, outlines the state's commitment to a blended future.

Lisa Duty

Schools around the country are taking steps to organize around students and engage in more personalized and blended learning strategies and approaches to learning. The creation of these new models is endowed with a spirit of discovery, collaboration, trying, testing, pushing, and, ultimately, transforming the student's learning experience. As a state committed to becoming the first fully 'blended learning state' in the nation , Rhode Island is translating what that spirit means in terms of how the state develops its new five-year strategic plan for education.

Today, hundreds of stakeholders across Rhode Island continue to build momentum in making student-centered learning available to every child. At the heart of this work is a collaborative, design-thinking approach to strategic planning that is garnering national attention. They are practicing and modeling some of the very mindsets and behaviors we as educators seek to foster and support in the field.

So how, exactly, is the Rhode Island approach different?

Traditionally, the strategic plan for education is a document articulating an understanding of the state's priorities, created and owned largely by the State Education Agency, its board, or council, with "input" from community-based meetings along the way. But the Rhode Island Department of Education has entrusted the Ambassador Design Team (ADT), a team of Rhode Islander educators, parents, students, and community members from diverse backgrounds with the responsibility of developing and writing the next strategic plan.

Bucking the often insular, traditional planning approaches, which can be slow or inhibit innovate ideas from taking root for many reasons, the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education provided unprecedented discretion and decision-making power to the ADT that is leading the strategic planning process. RIDE counsels and supports the ADT, not the other way around. Approximately 300 citizens submitted competitive applications to the Council to join ADT. Although only 26 were selected to serve on the team, most who applied are continuing to provide on-going feedback to the team during the design and development process. Team members are trained, supported, and authorized to write the plan. These team members have explicit permission to design and try new approaches to education. While success or a five-year plan that pleases everyone in Rhode Island is far from guaranteed, RIDE has introduced a process that is well aligned with the goal of developing more personalized learning systems.

Not unlike teams in the many blended schools in development, the ADT benefits as it is provided trust, autonomy, the necessary resources, and the political cover to try new approaches to education. By going outside the State Education Agency to recruit members of the ADT and other support teams, the design process has be freed up from more typical or bureaucratic resources and processes - and the funnel for new ideas may be widened.

Additionally, creating personalized, blended models of learning is an iterative and collaborative process. As these approaches are still quite new, many schools are still in build-the-plane-as-we-fly-it stage, and the most successful schools change their design and practices to constantly adjust to students' needs. Given this dynamic, many successful initiatives embrace LEAN startup and discovery-driven frameworks, and so has the ADT.

While more traditional strategic planning work may go on for months before unveiling a complete or nearly complete plan, the ADT releases prototypes in action long before they are "complete." This enables the members of the team to collect and act upon volumes of important feedback throughout the thinking/ideation/writing process. By the end of June 2015, the planning team will have published and collected feedback on four prototypes.

Five years is a long time in a world where some claim all of human knowledge is doubling about every 13 months. The Rhode Island approach allows many voices and ideas to be folded in over time, and the plan (while serving as a north star) will be flexible, adaptable, and responsive to changing needs and circumstances.

Building personalized learning systems means states need to reconsider their own ways of working and how they operate in the ecosystem they say they want to create. As we learn more about how best to build personalized systems of learning, adults need to take the ongoing opportunity to effectively design the education system that meets the needs of kids. The shift to blended learning portends that states need to become more collaborative, more iterative, and more student-centered in their own work. As we plan for the future, we need to keep up with - and inspire - what's happening in our schools today.

Learn more about creating a Culture of Innovation and RIDE's Strategic Planning Process.

For more information on blended learning in Rhode Island, check out:

Lisa Duty, Partner at The Learning Accelerator. Follow Lisa on Twitter with @LisaDuty1. The Learning Accelerator is a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming education by accelerating the implementation of high-quality blended learning in school districts and states across America.

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