When Computers Are Co-Teachers

A school in California is experimenting with "blended learning"—and seeing promising results.
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Michael Kooren/Reuters

HUNTINGTON PARK, CALIF. — 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.

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.

But others fear the model could be used as a cost-cutting measure to replace teachers with computers. What’s more, students don’t always have the discipline and focus required to work independently, and many worry about the erosion of relationships between students and teachers when they are spending less time together.

It’s too soon for much research to gauge the effectiveness of blended learning programs, and preliminary results are mixed. Last June, the nonprofit RAND Corporation released one of the first large-scale assessments of a blended learning approach, evaluating an algebra program used in multiple states. Researchers found that participating high school students improved more than peers in a control group after two years, but at significantly higher monetary cost: $97 per student compared with $28 for the group using an existing curriculum. The gains for middle school students were less certain.

A report released in November on a blended learning math program called Teach to One found positive but uneven gains during the first year at seven urban middle schools. The researchers, from the Center for Technology and School Change at Teachers College, Columbia University, called for further study.

Just as program design for blended learning varies greatly, so does the cost. Programs such as Teach to One that provide ongoing staffing support and require major space reconfigurations cost more than those that simply involve purchasing computers and software programs. But most programs are too new to gauge how costs will even out over time.

***

Titan is one of 37 schools in the Aspire charter network, which serves more than 13,000 low-income students in California and recently opened two schools in Memphis.

In 2011, Aspire received a $240,000 grant to start a blended learning pilot program at one of its schools in Oakland. There, teachers combined small group teacher instruction with computer-based learning throughout the school day, producing within one school year a 47-point increase on the state’s 1,000-point measure of academic performance.

By 2012, Aspire had secured an additional $400,000 from the Charter School Growth Fund to bring blended learning to another school: Titan.

Located in a gritty industrial area and flanked by a steel factory and an “El Super” Mexican grocery store, Titan occupies an abandoned sock factory that was converted into a sun-drenched, technology-driven school.

Since the school’s founding in 2009, its focus has been technology. All teachers use iPads and Apple televisions to engage students in lessons, as well as iPhones for attendance and emails. Classrooms are equipped with smart boards (think digital chalk boards) and video projectors. But the process of planning and rolling out the new blended learning model came with several challenges beyond purchasing computers.

To prepare for the conversion, Titan’s principal and three teachers visited the Oakland program. After reviewing several educational software options, the teachers made three purchases—a digital library and reading comprehension and math programs—for an initial cost of $25,000, plus a recurring subscription fee of $75 to $100 per student per year.

They created new class schedules, traded strategies on how to handle possible disciplinary issues and held dress rehearsals with mock computers so students understood how to behave during online learning.

To emphasize structure and consistency, computer stations were arranged in the same place in each classroom, against a wall on the far end of the room. Transitions from group time to computer time were carefully planned to minimize socializing, with students directed to line up and move in silence, similar to a fire drill.

“One thing we discussed was how would teachers help support the morale around blended learning,” Principal Kimberly Chai Benaraw said. “How do you get the kids to understand that this is not just playing games, but this is actually going to help us learn?”

Though most of Titan’s teachers were eager to try blended learning, fifth-grade teacher Meredith Abel hesitated, worried about the impact on her classroom environment.

“The image of my classroom is kids talking a lot and having conversations with each other,” said Abel, a 10-year teaching veteran. “So, part of me was nervous thinking that my students were going to be on the computer, by themselves…. I was afraid of taking away from that atmosphere, that community, that collaboration.”

One year ago, the experiment began in eight kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. Initial challenges included preparing students for the independence of online instruction and helping teachers who struggled to understand the software data.

“There’s a lot of data,” said Montero, the second-grade teacher, “almost too much. The tricky part is finding out how best to use it.”

To tackle that issue, Titan hired a blended learning instructor, Jhonn Hernandez, who monitors online data and holds “data talks” with teachers to discuss online student performance and recently began publishing a newsletter called “The Weekly Blend.” Hernandez also assists teachers in understanding the dozens of features on the software programs. And he circulates from class to class, helping students troubleshoot technical glitches or online lessons.

“He’s like an ambulance,” added Freddy Esparza, who also teaches second grade. “Whenever somebody is in trouble at the computer, Jhonn is there.”

Hernandez, who grew up in the tough East L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights, can relate to Titan students, many with few educational resources in their homes or communities. Although there has been much discussion on the academic benefits of blended learning, Hernandez said the psychological benefit for low-income Latinos is even more significant.

“Some of these students have never even been on a computer before,” Hernandez said. “So the fact that we’re giving individual students the opportunity to use these computers, all by themselves, that empowers them. It makes them feel a sense of greatness because they are able to do something they’ve never done before.”

***

Titan’s approach to blended learning is low-key in comparison with some other places nationwide. At Carpe Diem schools in Arizona, for example, the classroom has glass-enclosed cubicles surrounding the perimeter of a large central learning space for its 280 students. 

Michael Horn, co-founder of the nonprofit think tank Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, has studied more than 100 schools in the United States that have converted to blended learning and said Aspire has been more cautious and less innovative than other organizations.

“The big positive in this approach is that by being deliberate, Aspire is likely not to make mistakes and harm their positive student outcomes as they implement blended learning,” Horn said. “The negative is that other organizations that are more aggressive with their innovative designs may leapfrog them in their results by producing big gains in educational productivity.”

So far, blended learning seems to have produced early success in reading at Titan, and it is now in place schoolwide, through fifth grade. Based on internal assessments, school officials calculate that the percentage of Titan students reading at or near grade level rose from 66 percent in October 2012 to 80 percent in October 2013. (A similar analysis for math is not yet available. The school’s results on the state’s standardized test declined last year, consistent with national trends as schools adapt to more stringent assessments based on the new Common Core education standards.)

Titan’s experience holds lessons on some crucial factors needed to ensure success: providing additional support for teachers to monitor student online data and establishing clear goals for online progress with rewards and repercussions.

Benaraw, the principal, said she remains confident that the benefits outweigh the challenges, particularly for the many Titan students who don’t have access to computers at home. (More than 95 percent of the school’s students receive free and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.)

Meredith Abel was surprised to find most of her students were more engaged by online learning. Moreover, the data the computer programs provided gave a better sense of students’ academic needs.

“What I found is that kids are different in so many ways, and this doesn’t necessarily take away from the conversation that’s happening,” Abel said. “They still get to have that conversation, but they also get to have some time by themselves. And I think some of them need that.” 

One of Abel’s students is Kevin Noriega, 10. He doesn’t have a computer at home, but he does have an iPod Touch. He said he’s started reading more books at home since discovering he could download the app for myON, the school’s digital library program.

“I like reading on the computer because sometimes I don’t know some words and when I go on myON, it reads to me,” Kevin said. “It helps me understand it better.”

Another fifth grader, Jetzairi Magallanes, believes that blended learning has improved her test-taking skills, but she said the computer time has made her appreciate her teacher more than before.

Still, several problems remain. During myON sessions, students are expected to complete a book quiz at the end of each period, the results of which determine whether more advanced books will become available to them. However, some children spend their 30 minutes skimming through different books and never complete the quiz. Failure to complete a lesson is a problem students have with multiple computer programs.

On a recent Monday morning inside Freddy Esparza’s second-grade classroom, a jazz song playing from the teacher’s laptop –– Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” –– prompts the students to hang up their backpacks and prepare for their individualized sections. Soon, a small group has gathered on the rug to hear Esparza read “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse.”

The remaining students log into their computers. One student reads a non-fiction book about beluga whales. Another takes a quiz on synonyms and antonyms, posting a perfect score. “Yessss!” he whispers, pumping up his little fist.

Titan teachers have begun experimenting with different ways to motivate students. Esparza shares his online data with his second graders every Friday and shows them the number of math lessons completed and high scores on online book quizzes. He recognizes individual excellence with certificates students can take home. When the class reaches collective goals, Esparza offers prizes like a popcorn party or movie screening in class.

Montero, who began replicating his colleague’s practice, asked his students what they wanted at the end of one recent productive week.

The choice was unanimous: The students all asked for more time with him, the teacher.

“There’s definitely some pros and cons to blended learning,” Montero said. “I can see how some kids might feel they are getting less time with the teacher. But they are also getting more quality time in a smaller setting where they get really individualized attention. And I think that’s even more powerful.”


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

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Margaret Ramirez, a contributing writer for The Hechinger Report, has previously written for the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. She lives in New York City with her twin daughters. 

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