As blended learning continues to gain momentum and show increased success, you may be considering making the switch. If you are looking to incorporate technology into your classrooms by augmenting teacher lectures, replacing textbooks, transforming traditional homework, or even trying out a new classroom environment (i.e., flipped or station rotation) you are probably filled with questions. Here we address the top five things to ask potential providers when shopping for blended learning solutions.
Before you even begin researching providers, it’s best to identify the role you want technology to play in your district, schools, and classrooms. Take some time before beginning conversations with providers to talk to key players in your school or district and identify what exactly you want. What do you see as the role of digital content and the role of the teacher? If you’re looking to solve a teacher shortage (i.e., needing someone to teach biology), there are different options to consider than if you were simply hoping to add some technology into your curriculum. It’s also important to identify the needs of your students. Do you have a large English language learner population? Do many of your students need remediation? The answers to these questions will affect the types of conversations you have with potential edtech providers, and help improve the level of conversation from day one as you shop for blended learning solutions.
1. Do you offer a rigorous curriculum with all of the courses I need?
One of most schools’ first concerns when shopping for blended learning solutions is the quality of the curriculum. Are your students actually going to learn, or will they just browse a few passages and check a few boxes to receive course credit? Good providers are accredited by iNACOL, partner with assessment providers such as NWEA™ and Scantron®, and meet requirements set by Common Core. Make sure the curriculum aligns with your state standards and is proven to be effective through published efficacy studies and the like. Also, consider asking for a sample lesson in a few courses such as math and ELA so you can see and interact with the software. Be sure to look for any specific classes you need for your students. If you have students in foreign language courses or need a state history course, make sure the provider offers those courses.
2. How engaging is the course content?
You’ve established the curriculum meets your state requirements and has been proven effective, but is it engaging? Some psychologists believe that a student’s attention span is just 10–15 minutes long, so make sure the course is not just a textbook on a screen. Research also suggests that the amount of time a student spends in an online course is directly related to their success. So, a likeable platform and curriculum is more likely to engage students, and keep them logging in for an entire semester. Technology-enhanced items such as drag and drop or selective lists keep students actively involved in the class as do videos and open-ended questions. Direct-instruction videos that provide explicit instruction and allow students to pause and rewind are much more engaging than a textbook on a screen. Interactive activities that are grounded in real-world concepts will help students make connections and drive deeper understanding. Ask for examples of the student experience, view a lesson and lecture, and judge for yourself if you think your students would find the content engaging.
3. What kind of student supports does the platform have?
Some courseware and intervention tools have multiple student supports while others have few to none. Highlighters, notes, and calculators built into the product make it convenient for students to work without navigating away from the learning management system. Other tools such as translation can have a huge impact on the English language learners in your school, and features that allow students to hear a passage of text read aloud can be a game-changer for struggling readers. Lastly, if you choose a provider that uses videos, do students have access to transcripts of those videos? Again, this can be helpful for English language learners, students with learning disabilities, and those who like to highlight or read along to help take notes.
If remediation is a major concern for your school or district, then make sure the provider has strong remediation products that use customizable and adaptive individualized learning paths. Some products even include diagnostic testing that creates an individualized learning plan for each student. By following these paths, teachers can partner with the curriculum to provide students exactly what they need. If advancement is your goal, look for self-paced products that allow students to move at their own speed and gain credits without waiting for their classmates.
4. What support do they offer for teachers and administrators?
With technology comes data, and data can be a very powerful thing. It can also be illegible and unusable if it is not presented in a meaningful way, so check out the educator views of the system. Can you quickly and easily identify a student’s progress? What about an entire class’? How easy is it to see if a student has fallen behind, or to simply see their current grade? Reports that show time in class can also be important if you need to comply with seat-time regulations in your district or state.
Additionally, does the provider offer any professional development? If teachers don’t know how to use the product, it will be difficult to get them on-board with the change to a blended classroom. So be sure the courses are intuitive and offer plenty of training to get teachers up and running while still supporting them throughout the year.
5. Is the product scalable and flexible?
Many schools will start small with blended learning, then build the program over time. Will the product you choose be able to grow with you? Is there only one way to implement the program, or can it be customized to fit your school or district’s needs? These questions may not have much effect on the first few students, but make sure you won’t need to switch products in order to expand. If you’re constantly changing programs, it can lead to lost time and frustration for the faculty as they learn new programs. Will you be able to add more content, remove content, or otherwise customize courses to fit teacher and student needs? Consider these issues up front and ensure the product can grow with you and your school or district.
The conversation and negotiation process will take some time, so it’s best to start early. If you’re considering a summer school implementation, it’s best to start evaluating providers now, so you have time to discuss their options and how their products can best fit the needs of your school or district. If you have questions about blended learning in general or how to get parents involved be sure to check out our other pieces in this 5 Questions series. Have fun shopping for blended learning and other goodies this holiday season!
Lynch, M. (2017). 9 questions you should ask before buying an ed-tech product. Education Week. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/education_futures/2017/04/9_questions_you_should_ask_before_buying_an_edtech_product.html?qs=how+to+buy+software
Strutner Buder, M. (2013). Essential questions for selecting the right digital content providers. Education Elements. Retrieved from https://www.edelements.com/essential-questions-for-selecting-the-right-digital-content-providers
Torres, L. (2017). Virtual learning and school choice. Where Learning Clicks. Retrieved from https://www.wherelearningclicks.com/virtual-learning-and-school-choice/