By Elizabeth Christopher
Technology has always been part of the classroom, from chalk boards to smart boards and calculators to Chrome books. As the technologies students are using become more digital, school districts across the country are looking at how these tools can be incorporated or “blended” into the classroom to improve teaching and learning.
Two Melrose educators, Wendy Arnold and Josh Cristiano, are leading the charge to bring “blended learning” to Melrose. Blended learning thoughtfully integrates digital, online, and other 21st century technologies into coursework in a way that gives students more control and flexibility with what they are learning.
Cristiano, who is an academic facilitator at Melrose High School, and Arnold, who is a Library Media Specialist at Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School (MVMMS), started the blended learning program for grades 6¬12 in Melrose Public Schools (MPS) a couple of years ago. To learn strategies for building on that foundation, the team applied for and received a grant from the Melrose Education Foundation to attend a full-day workshop at the Leading Future Learning Conference last March.
The team has since run a blended learning seminar to help educators launch new programs and embed digital strategies in everyday student learning. For example, a new author-in-residence program will have middle school students collaborating virtually with the writer via Skype.
At the high school, self-motivated students use blended learning to access online classes in subjects that are not offered in the building, such as veterinary science and music theory, meeting one-on-one with Cristiano for guidance on research strategies or for help using new applications and devices.
“This is the world our students live and play in,” said Arnold, who sees her role as helping students prepare for and thrive in an increasingly digital society.
The blended learning model allows educators to customize teaching strategies for different learners, pilot new technology, and give students the flexibility to repeat, augment, explore further, and synthesize what they learn.
“It’s important to understand that blended learning is not just a tool,” said Cristiano. “It doesn’t just substitute a digital tool for a traditional one. Rather, it redefines the ways we teach and learn. It is transformative.”
Cristiano recently helped an English teacher free up classroom time for more valuable work by using video equipment, also purchased with the Foundation’s grant, to record vocabulary lessons that students could then watch at home, at their own pace.
Arnold worked with a middle school art teacher, who asked her students to create a “wiki” database to compile and share information about the work and style of famous artists. The wiki exercise required students to research, write, and collaborate online, changing their focus from consuming information to creating resource material. The project culminated in the students making a piece of art in the style of the artist they researched and sharing it online for analysis and critique. “The hands-on digital aspect of the project reinforces art concepts in a real and meaningful way,” said Arnold.
Access to online resources is always a consideration with the blended model, acknowledged Arnold, who keeps the MVMMS library open until 4pm during the week so that students can use the computers.
Arnold and Cristiano are beginning to see more and more teachers reach out for their guidance in integrating technology into curriculum. Cristiano “floats” between the middle school and high school buildings, collaborating with teachers in all subjects and grades in addition to providing frequent professional development workshops to help teachers become more proficient with technology.
Despite the increased interest, blended learning is not the main stream in Melrose. Cristiano and Arnold acknowledge that the district’s technology limitations are a factor. “It is not inexpensive to keep up with changing devices and infrastructure,” said Arnold, who is hopeful that the City of Melrose’s district-wide technology assessment will identify and quantify the gaps that exist at all schools.
The blended learning program was supported by a grant from the Melrose Education Foundation. Grant applications from Melrose Public Schools educators are being accepted until November 10, 2014.
Elizabeth Christopher is a member of the Melrose Education Foundation’s board of directors. You can learn more about the Foundation at MelroseEdFoundation.org.