Monday, April 8, 2013

Blended Learning, Because Teachers Are Not a Content Delivery Device

“You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.” Do you remember this line from Good Will Hunting? The main character, Matt Damon, says it to impress his love interest, Minny Driver, but every viewer who has attended college knows it is a ridiculous thing to say because an education is so much more than just the material you learn from books. It is just as ridiculous as teachers who claim that they can’t put their lessons online because it will make them obsolete. Let me explain.

I recently spoke with a friend who felt that the other teachers at his school resist ideas like blended learning because they are afraid that they will be working their way out of their own job. What they don’t see is that by sticking with 200 year old teaching techniques, they are lecturing and testing their way out of a job. Teachers that fail to take advantage of new, effective, inexpensive, easy-to-use technologies will go the way of Blockbuster video. This was the inspiration for founding Clickademics and building Essay Engine.

Think of it like this: my second favorite cocktail party conversation starter is, “Who was the teacher that made a difference in your life?” (My first favorite is, “If you could have a super power, would it be flight or invisibility?”) It is a great question because everyone always has an interesting answer. Every person I ask had a teacher in their life that helped them grow. And when I ask how, they always have a story about how the teacher pushed them hard but made every class fun, held them to a high standard but cared about them deeply, or acted as a mentor during a trying time. Not one person has ever recounted a story of a teacher that gave really great grammar lectures or an educator that designed especially effective exams. And if you want to play devil’s advocate and refute my argument with a teacher who was a great story teller and gave the most riveting history lectures, I reply - how much better would it be if that teacher filmed her riveting lectures, got them perfect, and added photos and illustrations, posting the lessons online so that countless students could watch them? Because right now, that history teacher is retired, and all of her riveting lectures have evaporated into the ether.

No, teachers matter because they invest in students, not because they repeat information. That is why every good teacher went into teaching in the first place. They want to prepare their students for life ahead, but they only get about 125 hours with those students if they are secondary teachers. Why would they want to spend half of that talking at the tops of the students’ heads who are furiously writing notes?

Putting lectures online does not take the teaching out of teaching; it takes the boring content-delivery part out of teaching. In fact, in a perfect world, an old timey teacher should have told his students to go home and read the textbook chapter for homework, and that would be the content-delivery. Every piece of content that a student could ever need to know is in a textbook. That is why the Matt Damon character claimed you could get a full education for a $1.50 in public library late fees. The problem with that? Students don’t read the textbook, and if they do, they don’t remember them. A teacher filming her lessons and putting them online is the same as creating a fun, easy to consume textbook. It just happens to not be in book form. 

The real learning does not come from consuming tons of content - my apologies to every AP history teacher in the country. The content consumption is just the first step, the introduction. The real learning happens when students use the knowledge, manipulated it, apply it, compare it, question it, argue with it. There just is not enough time in a school week to let real learning happen if the teacher spends half the week lecturing. Let the students consume content on their own time. They need hours with a teacher and with peers to apply the knowledge, and that should happen during class time.

This is the reason I love online learning but am vehemently against a full online education for students before graduate school. Adolescent and young adult students need interaction. Asking them to read a bunch of online content, write responses for everything, and mix in a Skype session or two is selling them short. A pure online education should be a last resort, perhaps for students with medical issues or extreme distance hurdles. 

When I was in the classroom, my students always worked their hardest on the real-life projects. Though I did all I could to make the projects fun, they were also challenging, as challenging as a big exam or an essay. When I held my mock trial or gave the students my grid of literature projects, they would pour themselves into it to make their projects excellent. And when we did our six week research paper, forget about it. Other teachers would complain that the students were neglecting the homework for the other classes because they were working so hard on their research papers. Those kids really learned, and it wasn’t because I was lecturing.

I got some complements from students on my lectures, but it wasn’t because they learned so much. It was because I told corny jokes. However, you can tell just as many corny jokes when helping small groups with projects or leading class discussions. 

Teachers, you do not need to give the same lecture on the Teapot Dome Scandal or Covalent Bonding five times a day every year. That is repetitive grunt work, only half a step above assembly line work. Give your lecture once, really well, on video. Embed your PowerPoint slides and interesting photos and diagrams, and put it online. Spend your class time interacting with students as they interact with the subject matter. Don’t lecture to kids about facts; talk with kids about ideas using the facts. 

What’s that you say? Won’t it be hard to put lessons online? Isn’t it difficult to develop meaningful activities and discussions to fill the class time that used to be taken by lectures? Doesn’t this mean making a whole new curriculum like a first year teacher? Yup. Those are all true. I realize that all good teachers are completely over-worked and don’t have any time for tasks on top of their current duties. Here are some things I would prescribe to ease the transition:
  • Take it one step at a time. You may not have time to change your whole curriculum, so change one unit at a time. Make a goal to convert one unit to a blended learning unit each quarter. 
  • Partner up. Find another teacher in your department or grade level and work together. Share your ideas and share the work load as you develop a blended learning unit that works for both of your classes. You will look ambitious for integrating across the curriculum.
  • Good teaching is good stealing. Until your can develop everything on your own, use other teachers’ stuff. Use online lesson videos that were made by others. Find projects that have worked in other teachers’ classes. I would say this is temporary for the first three years. You know your students better than anyone else, so your own content and your own projects will always be best.
  • Ask for help. There may be a technology coordinator, a curriculum director, or a resource person on campus who is in administration now but would love to work with you to make a blended learning unit. It is possible that they miss the classroom and would jump at the chance to try something new. More and more schools are hiring technology integration specialists who have great ideas and want to relieve some of the load. Perhaps there is a techie parent at the school with time and brain cells to spare. You will never know unless you ask around.

So use the internet for what it is best at: content delivery. And use class time for what it is best at: interactive projects and discussions. Blended learning does not make the teacher replaceable, it makes teachers indispensable. Because if students could get an education from the internet - or a $1.50 in late fees to the public library - I would be all out of good cocktail party conversation.