24 October 2012

The Best Part of Blended Learning: Interdependence

I've only been doing this blended learning stuff for nearly a week now, and here's what I've learned:

More Preparation!
The hardest part is having all the units set up beforehand. I've got eight different units running at the same time, each one needs its own set of worksheets, vocabulary, assignments, and/or projects to go along with it, with parameters, expectations, rubrics, etc. But, as I learn from troubles this time around, I'll be ready for the next time around.

More Parameters!
Students may complain about strict parameters, but it's best not only for you, but for them as well. I have some students working on movies right now, and I left it open mostly because I didn't have time to create the unit. They were all excited about this prospect, but frozen by the freedom. My cinematography unit, on the other hand, I did set up before and those students are having much more success. In their own minds they would probably think they want more freedom, but if I gave it to them, they'd freeze.

Teacher-Assigned Groups
Rather than let them choose their own groups, I had them write out who they would prefer to be put in a group with, and then I went through and assigned groups. I split up the kids who would have the most trouble working together—even if they wanted to. So far it has worked out well. I've only had a few complaints about groups. One of which I let make a trade and I'm regretting it. The other, I told them to suck it up and work it out. They're suddenly having a lot of success together.

Group Pairs
I'm worried about them being put in groups for a whole term, but it might work out since many groups can actually end up working together. For example, I have one group creating stop-motion videos, and another working on sound design. I told the sound designers to get with the animators and create sound effects and dialogue for their video, and that's working out amazing. (It was a spur-of-the-moment idea since the sound group had finished early and were asking for a new assignment.)

Group Fatigue
Some units have two groups working on them at the same time. If I run into trouble with what I'll call 'group fatigue' I can call an audible and switch up the members of those two groups. I can't split up groups elsewhere since, for the most part, they work on separate units at separate times, so certain students might miss out or double up on units if they switched groups halfway through.

The best part about blended learning, as my title suggests, is the interdependence I'm witnessing. I have two groups per class currently working on Codecademy. I've witnessed several students helping each other through tricky exercises, leaving me free to focus my attention on other groups. Students seem to naturally seek out peer help more in these blended units because they know the teacher probably has his hands full. Occasionally they seek me out, and I do my best to be available, but when another student has the same question, they have a peer who knows the answer.

More Efficient Use of Teacher Time
Ideally, the units would be set up beforehand and students would have plenty to keep them busy and learning. A part of me feels guilty, like I'm trying to save myself the trouble of actually teaching. First of all, I already work a lot more hours than I should, so I could use all the trouble-saving I can get. Secondly, I end up staying pretty busy anyway, with eight simultaneous units happening at the same time. Third, I can use whatever extra free time on feedback. Rather than grading over a weekend and getting so grading-weary that I start just giving out completion credit, I can actually give good feedback because it's on a continuous basis.

Financial Gains
Blended learning is a fantastic way to save money. I have over 30 students per class, and up until now I've been finding ways to buy over 30 licences for software. But if I only have 6-10 students working on any one unit at a time, I can more efficiently spend money to provide maximum experience for my students. For example, I bought seven Flip cameras to enable up to seven groups make movies at any given time. Flip cameras are decent for the money, but really limiting. This year I bought three high-quality Canon HD cameras with image stabilization and a nice optical zoom. Blended learning allows each group to have its chance with the nice equipment, including tripods, dollies, and even booms.

Class-Specific Blending
It's working superbly for Multimedia, but I'm not sure how well it will do with Graphic Design. Having specific groups working on specific units at a given time is fantastic because of the interdependence. It's also necessary for Multimedia because of the equipment limitations. The only motivation for blended learning in Graphic Design would be to allow certain students the opportunity to explore certain units further, which wouldn't necessarily mean entire groups are working on the same unit at the same time.

So it's a work in progress. Right now I only have two periods of Multimedia, and both are actually a huge pain to get through, but I think it has a lot of potential and I'm going to invest more time and effort into it.

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