Archive for Monday, March 11, 2013

Lawrence district testing ‘blended classroom’ model to provide more flexibility, learning opportunities

March 11, 2013


Danira Flores stood in front of her class at Free State High School recently, delivering a lesson in trigonometry. But it took only a moment for outside observers to notice a few things out of the ordinary.

Free State high school sophomores Florian Eichblatt, left, and Zach Batterman work through some precalculus problems using both textbooks and online materials. The blending of online materials and classroom management with traditional teacher-led classroom instruction is a new model for learning that is being tested in several schools in the Lawrence district.

Free State high school sophomores Florian Eichblatt, left, and Zach Batterman work through some precalculus problems using both textbooks and online materials. The blending of online materials and classroom management with traditional teacher-led classroom instruction is a new model for learning that is being tested in several schools in the Lawrence district.

Most notable was the fact that only a handful of the 20 or so students in her room were watching her or paying any attention.

As a stereo was humming rhythmic salsa music in low volume, most other students were off in other areas of the classroom, reading by themselves or huddled in small groups around computers and talking among themselves.

A few textbooks could be seen on desks and tables, but almost none of them were being used.

In other times, and in other classrooms, that kind of situation would have brought a stern command from the teacher for everyone to straighten up and focus.

Not so in Flores' class. For her, and for other teachers working to shape a new model of 21st century learning in Lawrence, that kind of setting is not only normal, it's expected.

"I love coming to work," she said when asked how the new method is working. "It re-energizes you."

Flores is one of several teachers in the Lawrence school district taking part in a field test of a relatively new learning model called a "blended classroom" — so named because it blends traditional teacher-led instruction with individualized online activities that students can work on at their own pace, from anywhere they can get an Internet connection

The idea has been evolving since the advent of the Internet and "distance learning" in some schools, but it is now taking shape as a model that can benefit all students in all kinds of settings.

So far, Flores says, her students are adapting to it well.

"Last semester, I'm teaching classes that feel like it's painful, like I'm subjecting them to painful material," she said. "And now you look at them, they're more relaxed because I've created it more self-paced and I'm allowing kids to reach mastery at their level. I'm not moving forward at warp speed. I'm just there to help support them and answer questions as they come up. I've got some kids wrapping up systems of linear equations, and others just running away with odds and probability."

Digital learning environment

The field test involves classrooms at all grade levels in seven buildings throughout the district. Administration officials provided a tour of some of those classrooms last week to Kansas University School of Education professors, as well as local news media.

Earlier this year, the district spent $10,620 to contract with Instructure, a Utah-based tech firm that produces the "Canvas" software package that lies at the core of the blended learning system.

Students log into Canvas and immediately see a daily calendar that contains all their assignments, reading material, videos, assignments, work sheets and even tests. They can print out their assignments to work on them or, in some cases, complete them directly online.

When students show up to class, depending on their level of independence, they can choose to work directly with the teacher, to work by themselves or with others in small groups.

Teachers use the system to monitor students' progress and grade their work. They can also use the system to send feedback to the students and communicate directly to their parents.

"With the flexibility I now have," Flores said, "I've got kids ahead who might take a test two days ahead from home on a Sunday. I've got kids going on a trip, whether it's a basketball game or what have you - I had a student take her test in Las Vegas."

That kind of individualized pace can be good for students, but it also presents challenges for teachers who have to manage learning activity for students at all different achievement levels.

"It can be daunting," said Michelle Andersen, a social studies teacher at Southwest Middle School who is involved in the field test. "It's something I'm still working on. This is new, so there are still wrinkles to iron out, but I've always tried to teach kids where they're at. This is just a new way of doing it."

Teachers said Canvas also also gives them the opportunity to move beyond traditional textbooks and bring in online learning material from a wide range of sources, many of which they can get for free.

"I don't use textbooks," Andersen said. "Sometimes I put them out, so if kids want to use them they can use them. If they'd rather use the Internet, they can use the Internet. I try to give a lot of choice: How do you want to learn? Who do you want to learn it with? What resources are you going to use?"

Not far away, in Amanda Roenicke's English class at Southwest, students gathered around computers or worked at the smart board, an electronic interactive white board that is the 21st century substitute for a chalk board, studying a William Blake poem. Roenicke said the system has given her more flexibility to bring in a wider range of learning material.

"I felt like before, I still had that option, but I didn't have the ability to get it to kids as quickly," Roenicke said. "Now I'm able to pull something, get it into Canvas, and kids suddenly have access to it 24 hours a day. Before, I could pull something and teach it out front to the whole class, but as soon as they left my classroom, they suddenly didn't have access to it."

Funding and equity issues

For Lawrence to expand the blended classroom model districtwide, officials say they'll have to overcome at least two major hurdles: funding and equity.

Because the system depends on all students having wireless access to the Canvas portal, the district will need to greatly expand its wireless broadband capacity. That's part of the districtwide technology upgrade that is part of the upcoming $92.5 million bond proposal.

If voters approve that bond issue April 2, about $6.5 million would go for technology upgrades, including about $1.2 million to support a digital curriculum.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Rick Doll said the district is currently building plans around a "bring-your-own-device" model, meaning that the district would provide the wireless network in schools and the Canvas online system to manage material, but in most cases students would be responsible for bringing their own devices: laptops, tablets or smartphones.

The bond issue, Doll said, will not be used to buy devices, but it could free up money in other funds so the district can buy devices much like it now buys textbooks.

"It's really a 20-year bond, and so the board didn't feel it was wise to use 20-year money to pay for devices that might last three to five years," Doll said. "But what will happen is that if our bond passes, we'll be able to free up some capital outlay dollars to buy the devices."

Teachers involved in the field test acknowledge that making blended learning accessible to all students could be a challenge.

"It's something we're going to have to address at some point," said Flores, the Free State math teacher. "If I were to guess, I would say about 25 percent of my kids may not have access at home. In Algebra I, I have a few more kids that don't have access than in my precalculus class."


Aiko 5 years, 1 month ago

Someone in the corner is getting the "business" from the teacher.............

Cant_have_it_both_ways 5 years, 1 month ago

How are these kids going to learn anything about discipline if there is no structure or organization to learning. If the kids are not attentive, then some of the blame has to be put on the one giving the instruction. No matter how bland the material is, the instructor has the job of presenting it in a manner that encourages participation. We continue to protect underachieving teachers, their unions and tenure at the expense of our children. Throwing more money at this problem will do nothing.

Deb Engstrom 5 years, 1 month ago

So now discipline is more important than the content? This program does nothing to protect teachers, You obviously read the article with your own bias.

Cant_have_it_both_ways 5 years, 1 month ago

How can you protect the current way things are done in the schools unless you have a dog in the race? It is not working, costs the taxpayers a huge amount of money and much of what we get from the schools are miscreants. If this teacher worked on her presentation skills instead of yelling at the kid (See the back right of the picture) then the class would be interesting and the kids would be more attentive. Yes I have bias. My bias is driven by getting value from my tax dollars. You might consider the same.

meatheadwisdom 5 years, 1 month ago

You are answering your own questions. Contrary to your screen name, you appear to want to "have things both ways".

Thinking_Out_Loud 5 years, 1 month ago

Sorry, CHIBW, but this is an article about finding new and innovative ways to do things. It's not fair to criticize the educational system both for historic failings (perceived or real) and for trying to find better ways to do things. You can't have it both ways--pick one, or the other.

Cant_have_it_both_ways 5 years, 1 month ago

Ok, good, but how are these kids going to hold a job if they refuse to respect authority? It is fine, lets keep down this path that has mostly given us an "Entitlement" mentality in our youth.

Cant_have_it_both_ways 5 years, 1 month ago

I fully agree about the parents. I have yet to see a parent that does not think their kid should be listed first in the gifted program. This is another reason for a loser pay court system. I am almost in line with the way they do it in Japan. Not all our kids can be doctors. Why don't we celebrate this and send some to trade school at an early age? We both know that some will not aspire to much more than flipping hamburgers...and we need this too.

Thinking_Out_Loud 5 years, 1 month ago

At no point does the article say the kids don't respect authority. In fact, as I read the article, it sounds like all of the students were on-task. They simply were at different points in their task, or approaching their task from different perspectives. If they are on-task, and are learning, how is that disrespectful of authority? It's a new day with new approaches. Our ways are out-of-date, and honestly only worked for a handful of us, leaving many of our peers with different learning styles behind. Even Dave Trabert recognizes that, below. Let's at least let them have the experiment and see if it works. If it doesn't work, but the educational system implements it on a large scale in the face of evidence that it doesn't, then you can bust their chops. Deal?

elliottaw 5 years, 1 month ago

what research or findings are you basing your opinions off of? Or is this just your angry world view?

valgrlku 5 years, 1 month ago

"...but in most cases students would be responsible for bringing their own devices: laptops, tablets or smartphones. The bond issue, Doll said, will not be used to buy devices, but it could free up money in other funds so the district can buy devices much like it now buys textbooks."

It seems unclear whether the devices that the district might buy would be in-school use only or otherwise. Therefore, the inherent flaw in this plan of requiring students to provide their own devices is that many families cannot afford those or internet access. Thus, equity is not achieved, unless everyone has equal access. I am not advocating that the district should buy everyone a device, only that they must make concessions for those who cannot afford to do so, which I don't see considered here (other than the last statement regarding "access" which I interpret to mean no internet access at home).

Equity is a constant challenge in education, especially in light of technologically based learning, and should be a top goal of any institution.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 1 month ago

Equity....very important. That's what both the funding lawsuits brought by parents (not schools) were about.

Dave Trabert 5 years, 1 month ago

Blended learning has been successfully used for years across the country. This type of online learning...or any type, for that matter...isn't right for every student but many students respond much better than in a traditional learning environment. We published a review of online learning last year at

USD 497 doesn't have to pass a bond issue to do this, however. They could use some of the large carryover reserves built up in their current operating funds, which have grown from $5 million to $36 million between 2005 and 2012. They also have over $5 million in Capital Outlay available for projects like a wireless buildout.

chootspa 5 years, 1 month ago

Or they could keep those reserve funds against the cruel and inevitable cuts your lobbying efforts will introduce into the educational system before they introduce some new and expensive program into the works.

Personally, I like the idea of a blended option, but I'm not going to go as far as calling it a success without any sort of pilot. That's just irresponsible. Your "research" is a glossed over propaganda piece. The studies you cite are mostly studies done by other branches of the Kochtapus, such as "Florida Tax Watch," or studies that urge caution in making assumptions on the findings. You mainly center around parents liking the idea. I like the idea of chocolate milk. It doesn't mean it's a healthier than plain milk. Without quality data, saying lots of schools have "successfully used" something is nothing but a glittering generality.

ku4me2 5 years, 1 month ago

It's clear that the teacher in this picture is informing the student to, "go call your parents right now and tell them to vote for the no tax increase bond on April 2nd. Dr. Doll wants it to pass and he better get what he wants." Isn't that the message everything from the district these days has on it? Signs in the fronts of schools, emails from the schools, and now they are even on facebook. Is he a superintendent or a used car salesman?

Cant_have_it_both_ways 5 years, 1 month ago

Didnt the school system buy a huge piece of land off the K10 bypass a couple of years ago? I would bet they have numerous hidden assets and their overall goal is to continue to grow the beast.

GMom05 5 years, 1 month ago

"It's really a 20-year bond, and so the board didn't feel it was wise to use 20-year money to pay for devices that might last three to five years," Doll said. While I appreciate Doll and the Board's concern here, what makes them think that the access points, routers, and other infrastructure will be any more effective or useful in 20 years? They should upgrade what they can now with the money they have now, rather than have my child still be paying it off when he's 38. They'll want some new and improved technology in 5-10 years and they'll come to us for more money when we're still paying this off. Just like they'll want more money to build additional classrooms in 5 years, but they refuse to reopen the elementary buildings we already own. Ugg, frustrating.

Cant_have_it_both_ways 5 years, 1 month ago

This whole thing is one of the classic sales pitches. You give them the price up front ($92.5 million bond issue) then you continually justify why you need it until the price does not seem so bad. We have been bombarded with school issues ever since the bond was announced. They again, are asking for a blank check with no accountability. Twenty years to do with it what ever they want, after they have it locked in. Remember when the State Lottery was sold to us as like 80% was going to go towards our schools? It is the old bait and switch alive and well, and the under informed voters in our wonderful city go for it every time.

Jaime Baggett 5 years, 1 month ago

If you people want our children to succeed in college and beyond in the real world, then this district needs to get with the times. We lack technology that all of the surrounding districts currently have - and that all of the colleges and universities have - we must be able to compete to help our children succeed. We also have the lowest debt of all of the surrounding districts. This will be money well spent when the bond goes through. And Doll has no choice but to put the money in the itemized list that has been written and is available for your viewing. There is no where else to put the money except in the OLD OLD OLD elementary buildings and the technology that we do not have. Do you know what year Cordley was built? That building was built in the early 1900s. Crazy old. Old is not always bad, but come on - how about a new HVAC? How about making sure it is handicap accessible?

And all you nay sayers need to go into our OLD OLD OLD elementary buildings that are lacking technology and do some comparisons with the districts around us. And look at you - on a computer - shouldn't our children have the same available to them in order to prepare for the future? Wow people, I wish you were more progressive and saw the good in investing in our children and their future.

GMom05 5 years, 1 month ago

"This will be money well spent when the bond goes through." IF the bond goes through.

pti3 5 years, 1 month ago

I just ran across this -I've not seen anything about it in the ljworld: changes proposed in FERPA regs which weaken privacy and omit consent. links: "The Center on Law and Information Policy of the Fordham University School of Law (“CLIP”) is grateful for the opportunity to comment on the proposed amendments to the regulations of the Department of Education (the “Department”) implementing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as published at 76 Federal Register 19726 (April 8, 2011)."


EPIC v. The U.S. Department of Education Challenging the Department of Education's Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) 2011 Regulations ⁠

Paul R Getto 5 years, 1 month ago

New one room schools....

We need to create new "one room" school houses. They worked for lots of reasons back in the day and they are now being revisited by modern research on pedagogy and brain development. Mixing the ages again is the next step. Grade levels do not exist except in educator's minds. We invented them after WWII to simplify (not improve) the system when new students flooded the schools. Quit buying books and get everyone a small computer. Learning is continuous and should be paced to accommodate the individual. This is a good baby step towards the new age.

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