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.

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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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