Blended Learning Challenges, Successes, and Possible Solutions for Kindergarten-Grade 3
This case study focused on an elementary school with a small student population ranging from Kindergarten to grade 5. The school follows the Primary Years Program and thus the IB philosophy in education. Homeroom teachers are supporting student learning with specialist subject teachers for Arabic and Islamic studies.
The student population in KG-Grade 3 is higher than in Grades 4 and 5. Therefore, school leadership is trying a hybrid model to accommodate the Ministry of Education guidelines of no more than 30% of students in face-to-face settings and to cater to special medical cases coupled with parents’ requests. The school uses blended learning for KG to Grade 3 to accommodate the larger number of students while grade 4 and 5 students attend school full-time every day as their numbers are small. Some students with special medical cases are on virtual learning only. Students in KG-Grade 3 are divided into bubbles (A and B) attending schools on alternate days. School leadership tried to accommodate families' requests by having siblings be in the same bubble to attend school on the same day. The homeroom teacher is responsible for teaching Bubble A students in class while also attending to the Bubble B students who are online simultaneously. To support the KG-Grade 3 teachers, leadership delegated posting literacy tasks for students to the learning support team. The school has a dedicated IT integration specialist who supports technology integration within the curriculum. The main online platform used for learning is Seesaw.
Some successes of this newly launched hybrid model at the school highlight the following:
- Small group instruction (5-6 students) is allowing for stronger social connections between students and teachers.
- Students in small groups are more social. This setting has allowed the very shy students to interact and communicate more effectively with their peers.
- Small group settings allow for more personalized learning and differentiation. Meeting students' needs is now easier and more effective.
- Teachers are using the challenge of blended learning as an opportunity for professional development. They are inquiring into new technology tools and are learning more about constructing authentic learning experiences as they aspire to increase student active engagement.
Dual Duty with Blended Learning:
Teachers are faced with some challenges in this new journey of blended learning. One of the challenges is that homeroom teachers are leading the learning of Bubble A (in class) while also orchestrating learning of Bubble B (online) in the same time frame. Grade 3 teachers feel that they are not giving their full capacity to online students as timely feedback, small group conversation, listening in to their thinking is not always possible which may negatively impact student engagement and learning.
Quality of Learning Experiences for Full Online Students:
Another challenge of conducting full online virtual learning for a group of students whose parents made the ‘fully online’ choice is the quality of work posted which may not be aligned with the unit of inquiry. In addition, literacy work, posted by learning support as they try to support homeroom teachers, is not differentiated or scaffolded. Math work is also not differentiated nor is it rigorous enough to challenge students. The level of learning experiences chosen is not challenging enough and therefore, student engagement and motivation are noticeably lower in the fully online model.
Further, online students show less social behavior toward their online peers. It is noticeable that although teachers encourage online discussions, students do not appear to want to engage and interact with one another or even with the teacher. In addition, fully online students do not receive personalized feedback as much as they would if they were in class.
There are two models of learning for KG-Grade 3 at the school - blended learning and virtual online. Knowing that the focus is on KG-Grade 3, there are two fundamentals to be considered to guide work across this grade continuum: child development and equity (National P-3 Center, 2020).
Fundamental 1: Child Development
- Focus on relationship building and social and emotional development of students. Technology needs to be used to foster healthy interactions.
- Encourage parents to adopt active use of technology wherein parents discuss online content with their children and make connections. Send a list of possible open questions to parents to scaffold this approach.
- Schedule individual check-ins and chats with 3-4 students every day to stay socially connected with students and provide personalized feedback on work/reflections submitted.
- Expand the ways students provide evidence of learning. Students can draw what they understand, take pictures, and upload onto the platform used. They may also take videos of their activities at home.
- Allow for synchronous online group meetings, collaborative work in groups, discussions, and check-ins in pairs. Students can video chat, speak on the phone or even write letters to one another if not online.
- Leverage technology to guide students in how to express their emotions. You may suggest movies, books, or arrange for discussions around this topic.
- Leverage the learning support team. Perhaps determine office hours for student online support in the morning, mid-day and afternoon.
Limit the amount of passive screen time and focus on experiential learning designs. Provide a grid of suggested active learning experiences and key questions that go with each one.
- Plan for integrated learning experiences that activate making connections in different subject areas. Real-life problems and project-based learning allow for this.
- Leverage children’s curiosity and plan activities that spark their interest. Examples may include documenting what happens in a grocery shopping trip or a virtual meeting with the grandparents. Documentation of learning can be through drawing, taking pictures, videos, writing in a journal.
- Encourage imaginative construction of culminating projects like making a play or writing a song or building with cardboard or blocks.
- Emphasize active learning experiences more than adherence to rigid daily schedules. A child’s day at home is not as structured as in school.
- Collect data on active engagement of students online and task completion instead of taking attendance for blocks on a rigid schedule.
- Utilize online discussion groups. Plan for synchronous online learning to allow for small group student interaction and discussions. Learning support team members may lead an activity/discussion.
Fundamental 2: Equity
Considering all stakeholder challenges (teachers and parents) and knowing that some parents work from home, yet they must support their children in learning online and tackle technological problems, the chosen learning models may consider:
- Keeping schedules flexible and providing students with the option to complete assignments across a week’s time rather than daily. Morning and afternoon check-ins are a good practice to start the day and keep it on track.
- Choosing hands-on learning experiences wherein which all resources can be easily found at home. The instructions for these experiences need to be at the student linguistic level, scaffolded, and simple to follow.
- Keeping lessons/activities for students to 25-30-minute chunks of time. Be mindful that some families may need to coordinate accessibility to one device.
Suggested Blended Learning Model for KG-Grade 3
There are a few blended learning models (Horn, M., 2014) but the one closest to the hybrid model that the school has is listed below.
A flipped classroom model is suggested.
Grade-level team, learning support, IT support.
In this model, students learn the content away from school online while using in-class time for application of at home-acquired learning giving students a chance to receive support from the teacher (M. Horn, 2014). A flipped classroom model allows for a more balanced blended learning for teachers and students (M. Horn, 2014):
- Students are given ownership of their learning, but teachers’ careful planning is purposefully designed to build online learning routines which helps students become life-long learners.
- The model also increases teacher efficiency as it allows teachers to focus on facilitating the active learning of the in-class bubble with instant feedback and personalized support.
Below are the recommended steps to follow:
- Planning - Team expertise and time are leveraged with a focus on meeting students' needs. Grade level teachers and learning support plan for learning together. One grade-level teacher is responsible for pre-recorded videos for the unit while the other teachers build and upload the aligned differentiated work.
- Material - Support material is organized weekly with a focus on active learning and less screen time in which students access the schedule that suggests a structure for each day (Demski, J., 2013).
- Pre-recorded videos - Focus on scaffolding concepts, making connections to real-life, or demonstration of expected performance and keep them short and interesting (M. Horn, 2014).
- Online Discussion Groups - Plan for synchronous online learning to allow for small group student interaction and discussions. Learning support team members may lead the activity/discussions.
- Group-based assessments - offer this within the scheduled synchronous online learning time is set for students to meet and discuss the activity (Demski, J., 2013).
- Technology tools - choose tools that are age-appropriate, allow for scaffolding of conceptual understanding, ease visualization, illicit inquiry, allow for annotation, and reflection (National P-3 Center, 2020).
- Consider fundamentals 1 and 2 listed in the section above in all learning designs for students in KG-Grade 3.
Knowing the school’s parameters of having nearly half of the parents choosing online as the preferred learning model for their children brings up the need to think about a practical model. Suggestions include:
- Create online cohorts of students separate from the blended learning cohorts. This nudges teachers to think of their cohort as one class in which they get to know each learner deeply and assist them accordingly.
- If possible, chooses at least one virtual/online teacher from the team for the grade level online cohort.
- Create the online teacher and learning support plan with the blended learning teachers in grade-level meetings. This practice increases efficiency and creativity and lifts off the pressure that a homeroom teacher has to try to cater to two classes.
- Ensure the online cohort's academic, social, and emotional needs are planned for using the fundamentals of child development and equity listed above.
Demski, J., 2013. 6 Expert Tips in Flipping the Classroom. Campus Technology, 23 January.
Horn, M. & Staker, H.; 2014. Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
National P-3 Center. “At-Home” Teaching and Learning in PreK-3rd Grade; Updated March 24, 2020.
Education Development Institute