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Taking your lessons beyond the classroom with blended learning

Going beyond the classroom with blended learning
Even when I was teaching high school in West Africa, without any technological resources, I knew the importance of extending the lesson beyond the classroom. During class, I had my students copy dialogues from the board into their cherished cahiers and rehearse the dialogues at home before the next class – it was a very successful course extension.

However, the growing prevalence of technology inside and outside the classroom makes things a whole lot easier today. And like most teachers, I still believe in the importance of keeping your students engaged with your activities even when they’ve gone home.

With any subject you’re teaching, but particularly with language instruction, we need to have students review, rehearse and reflect outside of class time. Yet, it’s not easy to know when to introduce this type of extension to a class, or how much to ask students to do, and whether or how to monitor it.

I suggest trying to create a blended classroom, where work takes place partly online and partly in the classroom. Everyone will benefit – including the teacher!

Here are the keys to creating a successful blended class and how to deal with some of the challenges you’ll face along the way.

SStart slowly and offer support
I know that extending the classroom can be very frustrating. Requiring students to do extra learning on their own time can be a huge waste of effort when they don’t do what you’ve asked – or even worse – when some do and some don’t! To get over this hurdle, it’s important to start slow and provide ample orientation. This ensures everyone understands what they have to do – and solves any difficulties with the technology they might face at home.

For example, if you’re using supplementary videos for your class, the first assignment could simply be to have the students access the video, watch the first minute, and write down one new vocabulary word they heard.

In the next class, model the exact behavior: display the video if you can, watch the first minute together, and then solicit new vocabulary the students heard. You can gradually increase the out-of-class (extension) demands on the students, but only when you have buy-in from the students – that is, when they agree on the value of the extension activity.

PProvide the students with choices
When possible, provide some choices for students for their extension work, as this improves both engagement and motivation.

For example, if you’re using supplementary videos, provide a choice of two or three videos (or two or three sections of the same video), and have the students select which one (or which part) they want to watch and report on. You may also provide choices of working alone or in a pair or small group.

MMonitor work that takes place out of class
Provide a consistent system of monitoring out of class work. The most straightforward way to do this is to have an immediate follow-up activity in the next class. This could be an activity that involves integrating what the students have done on their own.

If you have online resources with a learning management system (LMS), monitor students’ work automatically, but even with an LMS, I think it’s more important to have student buy-in and commitment than just aiming for compliance with course requirements.

DDealing with mixed levels in blended learning classrooms
It’s not always straightforward. Differentiated instruction – catering instruction to students with different proficiency levels, different levels of interest and commitment, and different communication styles and different learning styles – is one of the most persistent challenges teachers face.

I have taught general English courses in large Japanese university classes in which there were some true beginners alongside students who had lived in the UK, the US or Australia, where they had spent their entire high school years and had become fluent in English. It was a challenge, to say the least, to select the most appropriate course materials, to plan classroom activities that challenged everyone, and to create a class culture where everyone felt welcomed.

Although there is no agreed answer for dealing with differentiated instruction, I was able to discover some operating principles and teaching strategies that seemed to work most of the time:

TThe dos
11. Offer a wide mix of activities
I recommend frequently changing activities. In a 90-minute class, I would typically have six to eight short activities – and frequently changing the groupings, so that students stayed active and got to know all of their classmates.

22. Assign group work and encourage peer support
I’ve also used a lot of group tasks in class, forming groups with students of differing abilities. This meant the weaker students would learn from the stronger students, and the stronger students understood their role of helping the weaker ones.

33. Provide assignments of varying difficulty
Beyond that, I’ve tried creating different assignment choices for out of class work, to allow students to choose an appropriate level of challenge.

I’ve even tried using individual assessments. In the first class, after giving everyone a placement test and score, I announced that if they progressed one ‘level’ in the end of term test (and had good attendance and class participation) they would get an A in the class.

TThe don’ts
How teachers approach differentiated instruction will vary by individual and institution, but I do feel there are some approaches that teachers shouldn’t use:

11. Teach to the lowest proficiency level
One such approach is teaching to the lowest proficiency level, or teaching to the middle proficiency level, or (most tempting) to teach to the advanced level, and essentially ignoring everyone else.

22. Only focus on fun
Another such approach is to simply provide busy work for everyone or to gamify activities so everyone is at least ‘having fun’. Even in large classes and in classes with wildly varying levels of proficiency, I think it is possible to individualize instruction and have high quality instruction for everyone. At least, that is what our standard should be.

CChoosing activities for the blended classroom
In a face-to-face classroom, when you have learners at different levels, or even when all learners are more or less at the same level, it’s important to scaffold activities.

Scaffolding means starting with less challenging activities, and gradually building to more challenging ones. For example, with listening, I’ll generally plan three activities with the same extract:

The first activity will involve listening for main ideas, and might involve filling in a table.
The second activity — with the same input — will be to listen for details, and might involve answering critical thinking type questions.
The third activity – again with the same input, whether it’s audio only or video — will be to listen for specific language contrasts, which is the most challenging.
With a speaking activity, again I’ll plan three cycles using the same target language:

The first step might be taking an individual survey and then practice saying your answers to the survey aloud.
The second step might be working in pairs, asking and answering the survey questions with a partner, and recording your partner’s answers.
The third step might be working in a group of four, asking the same questions, and trying to find the questions on which your group has a consensus.
This type of activity cycle is a clear way to individualize instruction because all students will lock into at least one stage of the activity and benefit from it.

In an online class, such as Pearson English Interactive and other courses that have a teacher-controlled Learning Management System, the teacher can choose the activities that are most appropriate to an individual learner.

The learner will then see only those activities that have been selected by the teacher. For instance, in Pearson English Interactive each unit has about 30 distinct learning activities and the teacher can choose the appropriate level for each student and the 10 or 12 activities in a unit that are most appropriate for a student or group, say focusing on just listening, speaking, and pronunciation.

The choice of activities is an important part of teaching— kind of like the pre-production stage in film-making — and it pays off to spend ample time in this planning stage.

All in all, given the affordances of modern technology, I think successful teaching has to move toward a blended learning model. Blended classes aim to take the best aspects of online learning and combine them with the best aspects of traditional classes for a more comprehensive learning experience.