Blended Learning in Charter Schools

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A personalized and technology assisted strategy of instruction has contributed to the success of blended learning in charter schools.

On a rainbow-colored rug in a predominantly Latino neighborhood six miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, 26 fidgety second graders are reading a phonics passage about helping wildlife. Some detect the main idea quickly, shooting their hands in the air. Others need more time and attention. The teacher, Mark Montero, asks questions trying to keep everyone on track.

After 10 minutes, it’s time to do things a different way. Montero shines a red beam of light on the wall, signaling to students to take their positions.

“Computer captain, please say, ‘All aboard,’” announces Montero, who favors iPads and laser pointers to paper and chalk.

“All aboard!” replies Abigail Bueno, a 7-year-old with long dark braids and a dimpled smile.

Soon, the class has split in two groups based on their particular learning needs. On the rug, Montero leads 13 students in learning about the long vowel “I” sound. At computers along the wall, the others strap on headphones and start reading books from a digital library program.

Here at the charter school Aspire Titan Academy, a principal, 12 teachers, and more than 300 students have signed on to a controversial learning revolution. For nearly three hours a day, they are trading large group instruction for a more personalized approach, one that relies on technology to help with teaching.

Known as blended learning this approach combines traditional instruction with online learning, giving teachers immediate data on their students’ performance. By grouping children by their individual learning needs, it addresses the age-old problem Montero faced when some of his students grasped the phonics lesson and others did not: Move ahead, and part of the class continues to struggle. Review and re-teach, and part of the class gets bored.

Blended Learning in Charter Schools

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With computers as co-teachers, Montero can provide more targeted instruction to his students, while exposing them to modern technology. “Technology is so important in education, especially in low-income communities that don’t have access to it,” he said. “If we as teachers can give them that access and make it purposeful for them … that’s how they’re going to be successful.”

California, which has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for public education, has been among the most aggressive states experimenting in this arena. Charter schools, public schools that operate free from many centralized regulations, have also led the way. This is in part because of anticipated long-term cost savings, though start-up costs can be high and technology maintenance is a substantial ongoing expense/

While there are no firm statistics on how many schools use blended learning, education researchers say more than 4 million elementary through high school students participated in some kind of learning online in 2010, a number that has continued to grow since. Blended learning is rapidly gaining popularity, being adopted by public, private and charter schools in Illinois, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Many educators praise the approach for its personalization in teaching, saying the small groups allow for more focused instruction, while online lessons can be tailored to a student’s distinct needs. There is particular promise for advanced and struggling students, who can work online at their own pace.

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This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.