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Friday, December 2, 2016

PPBBL: Personalized Project-Based Blended Learning

Greetings, readers!  I never meant to take two months off, but we've been a busy county.  Our elementary rollout is complete, and we are now a 1:1 device district (iPads for Kindergarteners, Chromebooks for the rest).    I am spending a goodly amount of embedded time at our elementary schools to support our staff as they continue the transformation into digital classrooms.  Lately, as part of that work, I've been reflecting quite a bit on three educational strands that are strong on the radar of Shelby County and are current hot topics across the world: blended learning, project-based learning, and personalized learning.  This musing has lead to some questions of how and when these models are applied in classrooms.   (Note that these questions are not meant to imply critiques of Shelby classrooms specifically.  Instead, they are "thinkalouds" of how and when blended, PBL and personalized learning are generally utilized.)

BLENDED LEARNING:  As I discussed in a previous post, I'm a fan of Michael B. Horn and Heather Straker's definition as given in their book Blended"Blended learning is any formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace.”  One of the reasons I like this definition is that the end of it dovetails nicely into personalized learning itself (which if done in the absence of technology would be very difficult).  But it's important to not forget what is actually being blended: online digital tools with human interaction and instruction, usually in a brick and mortar school.  Both components, in a good balance, is necessary.  Content may be delivered digitally in an innovative way, but it is the teachers' roles in nurturing, nudging, and knowing where their students academically stand that make them an integral face-to-face resource.

Do we sometimes concentrate too much on the digital tool and not on the analog teacher or desired outcomes?

PERSONALIZED LEARNING:  This school year, one of Shelby's grass-roots and teacher-led efforts of innovation (encouraged and supported by John Leeper) is happening at several of our elementary and both high schools: 3PT classroom cadres.  Pilot groups of students in each building are exerting control over the path, place, pace and/or time of their personalized learning.  Ideally, your passions and your post-school plans should affect your educational journey and give you options.  Digital tools certainly make it easier to access content, assess mastery, and track progress; with a laptop and wifi, you can do your reading in a school's bean bag chair just as easily as your kitchen table at night.  To that end, I have been heavily involved in supporting tool integration to help the program hum along, such as Edgenuity (which contains coursework monitored and customized by teachers to deliver content) and Schoology (a learning management system that contains teacher and district curriculum, folders of links and resources, and assessment tools).  In 3PT, bell schedules and even chronological age differences fade away from the real focus: learning that is flexibly paced and about mastery, not compliance or seat-time.   (To see pictures and follow tweets about our district's 3PT stories, see #3PTSC; there is some awesome work going on out there.)   It should be noted that unlike differentiation or individualization, only personalization is student-centered.   However, we again must be vigilant for balance.  We risk impersonalized learning if this model leads to teenage cubicle drones, pecking in isolation at their laptops. Students should have a chance for discourse with their peers; teacher conferences and whole/small group instruction still needs to be a vital part of student learning.

How often do we concentrate on content delivery over student dialogue and groupwork?  Does technology enable an increase in both the quantity and the quality of teachers conferring face-to-face with students?

PROJECT-BASED LEARNING:  Since participating in PD on PBL in the summer of 2015, I have been excited about the ways it can combine personal student interest with relevant work that seeks to elevate or solve real-world problems, publishing or presenting to authentic audiences.   It is often collaborative and done by groups of students. The danger is that PBL could be seen as "one more thing" instead of a model that can integrate seamlessly with both personalized and blended learning.

How can PBL be brought more systematically into a personalized, blended learning environment?

Why I won't claim to have solutions to all of these questions, a few resources on the internet might point us in the right direction.

This resource and graphic from The Learning Accelerator is perhaps my favorite visual on blended learning.   What I appreciate is how it goes beyond a definition and concentrates on what blended learning can help you enable and accomplish.  Most importantly, blended learning should empower educators to make sure every graduate "attains the skills and mindset needed to succeed in college and life (academics + habits/character)."

Note: this graphic is part of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Lately, educators are buzzing about Summit Learning, who recently has released a free digital learning platform, which includes a core content curriculum for personalized learning.   While the tool itself is fascinating, I am more intrigued by their school philosophy: content delivery should be only as important as the application of cognitive skills in the form of PBL work.  In a recent introductory webinar (visit their site for upcoming events), they shared the following example of a Summit school week:

Screen captured from an archived webinar, linked here.

Look how many slots are appropriated to PBL, in comparison to content acquisition time!  In addition, mentor time is scheduled and guaranteed at least every Friday.   While this may not be the perfect model, it does reveal how important authentic application of knowledge is to the Summit vision of learning, and shows how blended, personalized and PBL can weave together like a well-made rope.

Like any well-woven rope in education (he says with a tongue placed firmly in his cheek), an acronym is necessary for naming.  The significance of calling this balanced system PPBBL is even built into the order of the letters.  Personalization is the first priority and therefore the first letter; leading by student needs and interests quite naturally segues into project-based work; blended is the way to make it all work effectively and engagingly.  And learning should be the last word -- the point, purpose and result of these transformative models of education.

So we will keep pushing ourselves with our questions -- reflecting, refining, reinventing what it means to be in a classroom, or to be a student, or to be a teacher.   

[Note:  part of the inspiration for this entry came from my work with one of our district Instructional Coaches, Melba Bradley.  As we recently planned a PD session on blended learning for a teacher personalized learning day, we discussed how PBL needed to be a stronger component of a blended learning classroom, and the first version of this entry's mashup acronym was born.]

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