Blended learning needs to start with teachers

James Leonard, Head of Education UK at Google, speaks to teachers at Basingstoke College of Technology about how they implemented blended learning

For much of the history of education, teachers have held all the knowledge, which they share with students. As technology has become commonplace, this balance has flipped: students who’ve largely grown up in a digital world are much more savvy about technology and how to use it, while teachers often struggle to keep up. 

For Basingstoke College of Technology (BCoT) the pivotal moment of change and embracing digital learning came in 2015, when a report from FELTAG (Further Education Learning Technology Action Group) recommended that digital skills education comprise about 10% of courses. To deliver on the promise of blended learning, which combines technology with traditional teaching methods, teachers needed training in using digital tools. 

However, introducing this new way of training was not going to be straightforward. “Teachers can be reluctant to ask for help,” explained Scott Hayden, the college’s digital innovation specialist. “Along with hesitancy, teachers are also perennially short on time. If professional development takes teachers away from home or the classroom, they are less inclined to seek it out,” Hayden added.

The solution was to build teachers’ confidence with an ongoing training programme that suited their schedules and offered guidance in applying blended learning in their classes. This approach not only improved teacher skills, it also prepared students for careers and higher education after leaving college.

Students teach the teachers

Hayden, a longtime user of Google and G Suite tools, knew that many students were already familiar with Google in their personal lives. Adding G Suite and Chromebooks to classrooms seemed a logical fit for adding blended learning to classrooms.

“We knew that we had to evolve our teaching and learning practice so it aligned with the way young people now forage, curate, and create in the digital age,” Hayden said. “All the while, we wanted to assist them in building skills for the students that prepare them for the digital expectations of their chosen industry.”

To train up teachers to use this new classroom tech, and to overcome the challenges of time and lack of confidence, Hayden asked several students who’d shown demonstrative technology skills to become “digital leader” volunteers. In late 2015, the digital leaders conducted training for staff on tools such as Google Drive and YouTube, and social networks including Twitter. 

Many students are already learning from YouTube and social media. If teachers enhanced lessons with digital learning, they could create greater engagement with students. – Scott Hayden, Digital Innovation Specialist, BCoT

The students asked teachers to create a digital resource that could be shared with students. For example, art teachers learned how Instagram accounts could be used to display student work, while sports teachers used an app called Edpuzzle to build interactive videos based on their lessons.

“One of the biggest challenges for teachers is time,” Hayden said. “Therefore, the digital leaders went out of their way to ensure training was included in staff schedules. Whether it was learning in the staff rooms, holding one-on-one sessions, or using staff meetings as a platform for learning, the digital leaders took every opportunity to ensure the digital upskill process was carried out.” 

Training teachers in the practical applications of technology for the classroom was key, so they could use digital tools that were already part of students’ daily lives when teaching. “Training only works if it ties into the fabric of the curriculum in a meaningful way,” Hayden explained. “Many students are already learning from YouTube and social media. If teachers enhanced lessons with digital learning, they could create greater engagement with students.”

Dedicated space for students to practice digital skills

In early 2016, with teachers having built confidence in digital skills, BCoT rolled out its programme for one hour of blended learning for every course. During this hour, students visit “blended learning zones,” which are classrooms outfitted with computers. They log into Google Classroom, which teachers use to manage assignments, and receive a lesson for the blended learning session. A popular exercise is asking students to create blogs with photos and videos that document their course projects. 

Just as with the skills training assigned to teachers by digital leaders, the students’ blended-learning lessons are tied to the curriculum. Therefore, connecting digital learning to pedagogy was key to generating student engagement, and to ensure this goal was met, Hayden and other school leaders surveyed students on how to improve blended-learning exercises. “If a session is not working as well as it could, we use G Suite tools to collaborate on solutions and ideas that we present to the teachers and work alongside them in order to best use their students’ time,” Hayden said.

To continue building teacher and student digital skills, Hayden brought on two learning technologist apprentices. Sky Caves, one of the apprentices, works with teachers to develop digital lessons and assists students during blended learning sessions. Caves says that, “teachers who are hesitant to adopt digital skills can quickly become enthusiastic converts, if they are given the time and support to recognise the technology’s value in the classroom.”

“Tools such as self-marking quizzes can reduce their workload and also benefit learners,” Caves says. When she suggested sports students create videos showing proper weight-lifting techniques, the sports department became much more open-minded about digital learning; they even introduced Google Drawings to create interactive images of the human anatomy.

“Resistance often comes from teachers thinking, ‘I’m not good at technology,’” Caves says. “But when they try our training exercises, they forget the part of them that says, ‘I can’t do this’ – and they realise that they are doing it.”

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