The Lawrence school district is gearing up for the next phase of its venture into a new kind of classroom teaching, in which students rely as much on computers and online material as they do on textbooks and teachers to guide instruction.
Starting in the fall, the district will add 40 classrooms — two in each school — to the list of those where teachers organize their lesson plans, learning material, assignments and tests all in an online environment.
It's an environment that gives students, with guidance from the teacher, the option of working independently, in small groups or in a traditional teacher-led classroom setting. It also gives students more flexibility to work at their own pace, and to view classroom materials and lectures any time, night or day.
Results still being measured
Often referred to as “blended classrooms,” it's a movement that has been gaining hold in many districts around the country. It's also a system whose effectiveness in improving student achievement is just starting to be measured by researchers, although Lawrence officials say the early results are promising.
“That's what we are finding, and that's why we had our own action research in this field test,” said Angelique Kobler, the Lawrence schools' director of curriculum and instruction. “Part of the reasoning is that recent research showing a completely virtual environment doesn't provide the gains that we'd like to see.”
As the district's incoming assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, Kobler will be largely in charge of the shift to high-tech classrooms.
The Lawrence district began experimenting with blended learning in January, when it outfitted eight classrooms with the desktop computers, laptops, tablets and “SmartBoards” needed to make the model work.
That was the same time that the Lawrence school board was finalizing its plans to ask voters to approve a $92.5 million bond issue, which included $6.5 million to upgrade technology and expand the district's wireless network so that, eventually, the high-tech program could be expanded districtwide.
Although there hasn't been enough time yet to tell how much of an impact the blended classroom system had on student test results, Kobler said the early indications look positive.
"I think most of the evidence is anecdotal, coming from the teachers, since they know their students best in their environments," she said. "They were noting marked increases in student engagement."
She said the district also surveyed parents of students in those eight classrooms, "and the response was overwhelmingly positive, with some concerns.”
“There were some challenges, particularly those that have limited access to (technology) outside of the school setting, so we were expecting that,” Kobler said. "We have been having some discussions about how we can continue to support our families so that doesn't become a barrier for them."
Kobler will be one of two people in the district primarily responsible for managing the shift to the blended classrooms. That's the result of a reorganization of the district's administration that the Lawrence school board approved shortly after the bond issue passed in April.
The other will be Jerri Kemble, who was officially hired May 28 for the newly-created position of assistant superintendent for educational technology programs.
Starting July 1, Kobler will take over as assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, succeeding Adam Holden, who announced May 3 he was resigning for personal and family reasons.
A former principal at Schwegler School, Kobler moved to the central office in 2007 as director of instructional services and, later, director of curriculum and instruction. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University in 1990, a second bachelor's degree from Fort Hays State University in 1993; a master’s degree from FHSU in 2001, and an Ed.D. from Kansas University in 2010.
The reorganization plan also calls for eliminating six central office administrative positions and creating six new positions called "teachers on special assignment," who will be assigned specific content areas to work directly with teachers to implement the blended learning model in their classrooms and develop a digital curriculum.
Some central office staff will be reassigned to other jobs, resulting in a net reduction of three administrative positions.
Kobler said she envisions the day when most, but probably not all, classrooms in Lawrence will be organized around the blended learning model.
"We also know that some students thrive in a more traditional setting," she said.