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Going Blended in the Classroom

Live from the ASCD annual conference in Chicago

Howdy from Chicago, where about 10,400 educators have gathered for ASCD's annual conference. This year's attendees are navigating the city amid throngs of green-clad and rowdy St. Patrick's Day celebrants. While the partiers are enjoying the emerald-dyed river and beers, we'll be buckling down at the conference center in sessions on teaching, learning, and leading. (I swear I'm not complaining... .)

At a substantive session this morning entitled "Blended Learning Spaces: Teaching and Leading in a 'Facebook Meets Face-to-Face' Environment," two educators who use a mix of online platforms and live instruction discussed the whys and hows of doing this in brick-and-mortar schools.

(Ironically, the building's wifi was down during the session, so the presenters couldn't bring up the many websites they mentioned. But, well-practiced in improvising, as most teachers are, these two gave an engaging presentation without it.)

"Blended learning is definitely divisive right now," said panelist Tiffany Della Vedova, head of the preparatory division at The Mandell School, an independent school in New York. "It's pitched as blended learning equals Khan academy or flipped classrooms. But it's balance that's important."

Della Vedova said students at her school use digital tools for two main reasons: to produce work and to communicate. "Google Apps for Education is where students are producing majority of their work. They don't have binders where they carry them from class to class. They have folders on Google Apps." Through this tool, they can collaborate on projects and teachers can provide live feedback on their work. The tool is also useful for intra-school communication and scheduling.

The other panelist, Jacqueline Westerfield, head of Grandview Preparatory School in Boca Raton, Fla., jumped in with high praise for the same tool. Her school's technology infrastructure was built in 1997, she said. "We were facing spending a quarter million dollars on upgrading or using Google Apps for Education for free. ... [People were asking], 'How do we live without outlook? Without [Microsoft] Word? How can we possibly live without that?" The school went with the free option and "in three days we were up and functioning and everything was perfect," she said. Gmail replaced Outlook, but the teachers were able to keep their school email addresses. "It was seamless from the outside."

"There are very few things [that] have little to no risk in trying them. ... I should be working for Google," Westerfield joked.

Della Vedova, a proponent of teaching digital citizenship, said she also periodically holds "mock virtual classes," in which students sit in the classroom together but are silent, only communicating in the digital space. "You can amazingly see learning styles and communication styles and collaboration styles emerge in a very authentic way online. Sometime you're able to connect with students better in a virtual space." Students also use age-appropriate social media tools—for instance, Schoology instead of Facebook until they turn 13—to promote their service-learning projects (such as this one on environmental awareness) or communicate with outside experts or mentors.

When asked how schools lacking technological resources could get involved, the panelists recommended practicing social-media tools offline, for instance pretending to write and respond to tweets. They also suggested pairing up with independent schools and businesses that could help provide some resources.

In wrapping things up, Della Vedova said, "The major thing we'd love you to leave with is the sense that this doesn't have to be overwhelming. You don't have to use 50 tools. Pick one thing and start with that thing. Google Apps is a great place to start. Schoology is a great place to start."

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