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Do you Blend? Huntley High School Does

By Amy Garrett Dikkers, Aimee L. Whiteside, Somer Lewis / December 2014

TYPE: K-12 BLENDED AND ONLINE LEARNING
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Picture this: A high school in a large suburban area simultaneously grapples with an exponential increase in student population, meeting the needs of learners in the 21st century, and an increased need for preparing students for college and career. Building a new school is not an option to manage growth; however, there are multiple options for infusing technology into the school's curriculum and teachers' instructional practices. Which option(s) do you choose? Huntley High School in Huntley, Illinois, chose a unique mix of traditional and blended learning to help meet all three challenges.

Evergreen Education's annual report, "Keeping Pace with K12 Online and Blended Learning,"shows, in recent years, K-12 education has grown more in blended learning options for students as the growth of online virtual schools has plateaued [1]. Blended school options are available in 24 states and the District of Columbia and blended learning district-level activity has increased. The report discusses blended schools as those that are stand-alone; however, when you include blended learning options within existing brick and mortar schools, there may be hundreds of examples across the country.

At Huntley High School, blended learning options are offered alongside traditional face-to-face classes, and students can choose to participate in both options or remain solely in the traditional classroom. Blended learning at Huntley follows the Christensen Institute definition [2], where participating students have some element of control over time, place, path and/or pace of their learning and spend part of their time in the face-to-face school.

Huntley's Blended Learning Initiative

Huntley High School is a large, suburban high school, 45 minutes from Chicago, IL. The area is growing; Consolidated School District 158 serves 9,300 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12. The high school has grown in population from about 400 students in the mid-1990s to 2,509 students, with the most significant growth occurring in the last few years [3].

The Huntley Blended Learning Initiative features a strong, innovative leadership core, who work as a team with the three Deans of Students and approximately 20 blended teachers to provide a support structure and innovative teaching strategies that serve their students well. In 2010, Superintendent John D. Burkey started incorporating a growing focus and vision on technology integration in the schools, hiring an educational technology director, Marisa Burkhart, to help him carry out that vision. As he considered options to deal with the growth in student population, he started exploring blended learning. Superintendent Burkey explains his reason for choosing blended learning over online learning. "I did not want to turn our high school into an online high school because I think that the student-teacher relationship is still so important…. A lot of what kids learn in high school is not just the curriculum; it's their learned development as a person. And that's where teachers and coaches and everybody is [sic] critical to that. …[If] they can do all their courses online, well they may learn the content, but they are not going to learn those other things. And they also need to learn interaction and teamwork with peers, and that's a 21st century skill that is absolutely critical. So, I was thinking, a blended environment really is the way to do it."

Huntley High School started with three blended classes in the 2011-2012 school year and currently has blended learning options for 17 classes with 21 teachers and a total of 835 seats in the 2013-2014 school year, as indicated on the school's website [4]. Some of these classes are yearlong; others are either fall or spring semester courses. There also is a mix of required courses, like English, Biology, or U.S. History; advanced courses, like AP Psychology or AP Music Theory; and general electives, such as Intro to News Media, History of Sports, Personal Fitness, and Recent Reads. In March 2014, we surveyed and interviewed school and district administrators, teachers, students, and parents at Huntley High School, attended face-to-face class sessions of 10 different blended learning classes, and reviewed course sites and district information about their blended learning initiative. We share what we learned about Huntley's unique model of blended learning here, focusing on four lessons learned:

  • Transform instruction;
  • Build productive relationships among students, their peers, and their teachers;
  • Support 21st century students and educators; and
  • Capitalize on the affordances of flex time.

Transforming Instruction

Teachers at Huntley High School develop their own blended learning content. Huntley does not use content developed by a third party. Burkhart explains the importance of having Huntley's teachers continue to create content: "We made a decision at the beginning that we didn't want to buy online courses to facilitate, that we kind of wanted to build them [in a] more collaborative type experience…purchasing something that was designed solely to be a, you know, self-study course, really didn't meet the needs or make sense for what we were doing." Superintendent Burkey reinforces the idea that blended learning is an instructional transformation, not a change in curriculum, stating, "We're not really teaching different things. We're teaching things differently."

Many teachers teach the same content in a blended class section alongside a traditional class section. For example, a U.S. history teacher may teach three to four sections of traditional courses and one t two sections of blended courses. However, their instructional approaches change depending on the instructional environment and needs of the Huntley students. According to the school's principal, Scott Rowe, the teachers have to really pick and choose what they are going to focus on when they have the students in class in order to enhance their learning. Teachers are encouraged to use the face-to-face time for enrichment activities that build on what the students have worked on individually outside of class, similar to a flipped learning approach.

Blended courses at Huntley vary in online activities and content, although many use discussion boards and wikis to facilitate student learning. Blended learning classes also vary in the amount the instructor refers to, or utilizes, the learning management system Haiku in face-to-face class time. Some examples of teachers and students utilizing Haiku in their face-to-face meeting times are: taking online quizzes, accessing resources to complete in-class assignments, and adding content to a course wiki. Other technologies are used in the blended learning classes, including iPads (a new initiative for the school) and Google Chromebooks.

One growing pain for Huntley associated with the quick growth of their blended learning program is that teachers, students, and parents all mention the need for more consistency in blended learning instructional practices. This consistency would aid students who sometimes feel they have to learn the course content "by themselves," and, instead, allow them to see the benefit of learning independently through an individualized, personal-learning approach that helps them reach mastery of the content.

Building Productive Relationships

The Blended Learning Initiative at Huntley High School is still in its infancy. However, administrators, teachers, parents, and students are already seeing a positive shift in relationships between and among students and their teachers. Teachers and administrators are seeing an increase of students reaching out for one-on-one contact with their teachers. As Principal Rowe explains, "[Students reach out] via e-mail or chats on Haiku. Or, when they're not meeting, the kids pop by. [Teachers] have a deeper connection with the kids. And all teachers want that."

When asked about the impact of blended learning on the student-teacher connection, he explains, "What's happening is, blended teachers are saying that it's making them a better educator, and the students are echoing this. They feel a closer more productive relationship with the students in a blended class, because they actually communicate with them one-on-one more, because they don't see them every single day." This effect is a surprise to some who expect the students to be less connected to their teachers since they do not see them daily. Some students also mention appreciating the opportunity to become closer with their classmates on the "off days," when they are not meeting face-to-face for their blended class.

Teachers also recognize a depth of learning in some of their blended students that connects more with growth toward independence and becoming accountable for their own learning than with specific content knowledge. One teacher explains: "They are learning how to know when they don't know something. I think that's been really helpful for them. To figure out to come back what questions you know and what questions they need to ask."

Superintendent Burkey reinforces the importance of relationships and productive support systems in the Huntley Blended Learning Initiative. "The blended learning environment really allows kids to go faster, to go slower, to spend more time on things they need to get, [and] to get more individual help from the teacher because the teacher's caseload is exactly the same as before…. On the days when they're not meeting, the teacher has office hours, just like you'd do at the college level. So kids can come in to need help in a smaller group;… kids that need help are getting more attention."

There is also recognition that the blended learning environment may not be suitable for every student. "Isn't that education in its own right? Because one size doesn't always fit all," says Dan Farlik, one of the Deans of Students.

Supporting 21st Century Students and Educators

All stakeholders at Huntley High School discuss an increase of technology skills as a benefit of the blended learning experiences. However, blended learning at Huntley focuses more on learning and innovation skills that prepare students for the "complex life and work environments in the 21st century." Skills such as creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration, as reported by the Partnership of 21st Century Skills [5]. Superintendent Burkey emphasizes the importance of ensuring students are ready for college and career, explaining this is a necessary, fundamental change in U.S. education and future employers want professionals with critical thinking skills and the ability to work independently as well as with diverse groups. The leadership core within the Huntley Blended Learning Initiative believe this program prepares students to be future professionals by encouraging critical thinking, independent learning, and project management skills.

This shift in perspective also creates a shift for teachers, as they have to move from being the keeper of all knowledge for their high-school students to the facilitator who aids the students in gaining that knowledge through less traditional means. Some teachers struggled at first to let go of these traditional roles. Other teachers found this shift began impacting their traditional classes, causing them to bring technology into those classes and change their instructional practices. Superintendent Burkey explains this shift and the impact of blended learning on teachers. "It's as much about the teacher learning how to be a 21st century educator…Blended is really serving two purposes for us. It's getting the kids to take ownership of their learning and branch out from the traditional classroom setting, in the 1890s schoolhouse that we all still function in. But it's also creating an avenue for [the administration] to push 21st century teaching and facilitating the classroom instead of being standing in front, 'I know all"'teacher."

To support teachers as 21st century educators, the Blended Learning Department Chair at Huntley High School, Anne Pasco, guides students and teachers in this transition. She mentors instructors one-on-one as needed and convenes regular workshop session where they discuss pathways to meeting student learning needs, share instructional strategies, and explore software options and professional development opportunities to enhance their instruction.

Capitalizing on the Affordances of Flex Time

One unique aspect of Huntley High School's blended learning model is the built-in flex time for students. Blended classes meet face-to-face two or three times a week, and on the non-meeting days, students have flex time. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators at Huntley see this flexibility as a significant benefit. Over time, Huntley has built in protocols for students detailing where they can be on campus during flex time, as well as whether they can leave campus, come later, or leave early. These protocols have helped the Deans of Students and other supervising teachers to minimize disruptions in the building.

When they are not teaching face-to-face for their blended learning courses, teachers are preparing their work for the online environment, conducting small group lessons with students, tutoring students one-on-one, and available for drop-in assistance. As a foreign language teacher explains, "I ha[ve] kids that come in almost every day…because they ask questions or they [say], 'Hey can you look at this?' and I feel like I've kind of built a better rapport with my blended kids than I have with my other students." An elective teacher supports this idea, stating, "We actually are working with smaller groups of students and we get to know those students … on a more personal level."

Students use the flex time for their blended learning coursework, to get one-on-one time with their blended learning teacher, to set up tutoring sessions, and to engage deeper in course content for other classes. They can work in the library, work from home, meet in small peer groups to work on projects, or even visit their face-to-face teachers who are available during planning periods.

Students also discuss the benefits of their flexible blended learning time as helping them learn to properly manage their time, forcing them to take responsibility for their own learning, allowing them to identify how they learn best, and gaining study habits they will need to be successful in college. One student commented, "That's actually why I took this class ... [be]cause I wanted to prepare myself for the future where I'd be on my own and having to manage my time properly…[to] feel a little more confident going into college." Students also agree that blended learning might not work for every student or every subject, with one student adding, "I think it depends on the student and the classes that they're better at and the classes that they struggle in. Because for me, I struggle in math, so there's no way I could ever take a blended math class. I need a teacher to be there every day explaining the lesson to me."

Many parents also see these benefits and believe that the blended learning experiences for their children have been valuable. One parent explains how her son's blended learning will help him in college and that she is glad he is hitting those "bumps in the road" of managing his time and being responsible for his own learning in high school, where he still has support from his teachers and his family. Another parent shares how seeing her son succeed in blended learning at Huntley has given her more confidence in his ability to succeed when he is "out there," at college, on his own.

Teachers and administrators agree that the blended learning experience is beneficial for students' futures. "We know kids are going to do this in college. They're going to have to be able to work in a blended or online environment. I don't think it's right for our kids when we're doing college preparation to have them be exposed to that for the first time when they're away at college and don't have any support networks and their parents aren't there," explains Superintendent Burkey.

When you have blended learning opportunities that provide students some control over time, place, path, and/or pace of their learning, Huntley stakeholders feel that you are truly preparing them for independent learning at the college level.

The flexibility comes into play when students are struggling, as well. If teachers notice any individual student or group of students who need extra help, they can require that the students come into their office hours for extra help and tutoring. Principal Rowe explains the school's policies and procedures are in place to monitor the blended learning initiative from all sides. "That's what's special about it…we can slowly take those scaffolds away and put them back if we have too." Upper administration also keeps close track of student progress. For every class that has a blended section, there is also a traditional section. So, if students are not ready for blended or are struggling to keep up with the independent nature of the course, they can be placed back into a traditional section.

Conclusion

There has been a lot of change at Huntley High School. Associate Principal Kish talked about how 11 years ago when she first started at the school, "Kids were literally driving their tractors from the farms to school…it is amazing the change we've had." This change has included the shift to blended learning.

Students at Huntley are overwhelmingly positive regarding their blended learning courses. Ninety-two percent of students surveyed stated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their blended learning experiences. The majority of blended teachers surveyed had a positive impression of blended learning (64 percent) and the remainder were neutral in their assessment of blended learning (36 percent). This neutrality supports what some teachers discussed as the need to "try blended" for a little while before determining its true effects and impact. Not one of the teachers reported a negative experience.

Transforming change into success at Huntley High School depends on a variety of factors. Dr. Burkey is the first to say a large initiative that will require shifts in perspectives and attitudes, and practices must closely align with the school or district's philosophy. In Huntley's case, there were a large number of teachers interested in pursuing blended learning, but at first they had a challenge getting students to choose blended learning as an option. In other contexts, teacher buy-in may be a challenge. Regardless, it may be difficult for some stakeholders to commit at first without seeing others be successful. Associate Principal Kish discusses the importance of purposeful planning and starting small, carefully choosing which courses and grade levels to start with, and putting protocols into place for steps to take if students are not being successful.

Superintendents also must think of their audience far in advance and help them embrace the philosophy, and feel like it's their own, which of course takes time. Principal Rowe suggests other schools and districts go into an initiative like this with an open mind. "Accept the need to allow your teachers to take risks. And just plan on being there to help them… you have to take it slow and ensure that the program is being built with care and you don't jump in too fast. Just simply because it is a complete mindset change. And it's from the teachers because you want to support the teachers the most. We don't want them to get in too deep and feel as though… no one's going to be there to catch [them]. And that can't happen or it won't work."

Led by a true interest in and passion for helping their students, the Huntley Blended Learning Initiative leaders see this program not as a technology initiative as much as it is an instructional and transformational one. Blended learning fits with their district mission to "Inspire, Challenge, and Empower everyone every day," [6] and it guides their students toward self-sufficiency, responsibility, and accountability. Blended Learning Department Chair Anne Pasco explains, "[We are] differentiating the time for the teacher. We're also differentiating the time for the student, and we're differentiating the purpose." The emphasis at Huntley is student self-advocacy and encouraging students to take ownership of their own learning.

In closing, by integrating meaningful technology and overcoming traditional notions of time and school, the Huntley Blended Learning Initiative created an innovative, student-driven solution. Superintendent Burkey provides a concluding message for educators about the changing perceptions of time (both seat time and time of day) and the ultimate importance of a student-driven, 21st century educational philosophy. "We can break down the walls of time by doing things like [blended learning] that will eventually make [the concept of] when kids are here and when they're not here less relevant than it was in the past. And that's really one of the big goals of this program: to break those walls of time down to have learning happening in more of a 24-hour environment when it's best for the student."

References

[1]Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw, L., Gemin,B., and Rapp, C. Keeping pace with K-12 online and blended learning: An annual review of policy and practice. Evergreen Education, Evergreen, CO, 2013.

[2] Clayton Christensen Institute. Blended learning.

[3] Illinois Report Card. (2014). Huntley High School.

[4] District 158. Huntley High School Blended Program - History at HHS.

[5] Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Framework for 21st Century Learning.

[6] District 158. Strategic Plan 2011-2016.

About the Authors

Amy Garrett Dikkers, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Professional interests include the preparation of educational leaders and blended and online learning in K-12 and higher education. Current research centers on social presence and incorporating community professionals into courses through technology.

Aimee L. Whiteside, Ph.D., serves as a reviewer for the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (JALN) and serves as an Assessment Coordinator for the University of Tampa where she teaches. Her research interests include social presence, learning environments, blended and online learning, professional writing, academic writing, and service learning.

Somer Lewis, M.A. is a national board certified teacher currently serving as the Director of the Professional Development System in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington where she coordinates the First Years of Teaching Support program and the National Board Certification Support program.

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