What students will tell you (if you ask)

Among the most rewarding tasks that we are fortunate to take on from time to time is interviewing students about their experience in blended courses or schools. We find that students are remarkably open with us, likely more so than they would be with their teachers or school administrators. As with the annual Project Tomorrow Speak Up reports, what we hear from students in surveys and focus groups is sometimes surprising, often invigorating, and occasionally amusing. An Evergreen colleague and I were reminded of all this when we spent a recent day conducting focus groups with high school students who have been taking the first blended courses being offered by their school. I had also sat in on a focus group being conducted by another school about a month prior, and the two experiences reminded me that the move to blended learning can be highly rewarding and often successful for students, but it’s not usually easy.

Educators often talk about how online course content allows students to move at their own pace and to make sure they understand a concept before they move on. It’s such a basic tenet of online instruction that we may sometimes forget just how critical this can be for students. While I was listening to a focus group a student said that in the previous year, when her courses were not online, she had missed a concept in math early in the year. If I remember correctly, the topic was factoring binomials. The frustration was clearly evident in her voice as she said “I never got it, all year.” Then she said that one of the reasons that she likes her new blended courses is that she keeps watching the instructional presentations until she gets it, or she asks her teacher in small group sessions, in ways that she didn’t feel comfortable doing in front of the whole class.

Other students recounted how the switch to blended learning in that school was a bit rough. At first they were working online in a very large room with dozens of students, and it was loud enough that they had trouble concentrating. The school is in the process of changing the configuration, and the students are seeing the improvement. Administrators realized that the room wasn’t ideal, but to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, sometimes you move to blended learning with the school you have, not the school you want.

In the more recent student focus groups, we asked students what they liked and disliked the most about their blended courses. The most common “likes” volunteered by the students were not having to carry textbooks, the ability to be more “organized” and the access to constantly updated grades and course information. Surveys revealed that the students are accessing instructional materials outside of the school building and outside of school hours in ways that appear to go beyond what they could do with traditional homework assignments.

One of the focus groups surprised us by volunteering information about how easy it is to cheat in their blended courses. None of the students in the focus group were cheating, of course, but they all knew lots of students who were. When I suggested that if I was their teacher I would know how to stop it by walking around during tests, or randomly asking them to stop what they were doing and stand up and away from their computers, they seemed to take it as a challenge and explained all the keystrokes that they knew to close windows and tabs, minimize them, hide them, etc. They also discussed how to use Skype or other chat programs to share test answers. Apparently their cheating friends were very open to sharing such information.

Aside from the cheating—which students seemed to recognize would likely be addressed—and despite some issues with Internet access, the students were highly supportive of the expansion of blended courses beyond the initial pilot. In fact, it appears that the school has created such an expectation among these students that it would be difficult to not follow through with expanding the pilot to more courses and more students. Unlike many school and district programs, these blended courses are not just for honors or Advanced Placement students, nor just for at-risk students or credit recovery. The district has made a commitment to providing blended courses to the full range of students. It is an ambitious effort, sometimes daunting, and school leaders are seeing the challenges and successes along the way.