Elements of success in digital learning: teachers and mentors

Last week we released Proof Points: Blended Learning Success in School Districts. This is the second of a series of blog posts reviewing findings across the districts that we researched, and other schools and districts that we have not yet profiled. All of the programs that we have profiled—and others that we have researched—believe that teachers are central to their success.

This finding is 1) probably not a surprise to most people involved in digital learning, and 2) perhaps beginning to sound a bit redundant on this blog.

But as long as publications such as The Atlantic are suggesting that teachers are becoming less important, it’s worth repeating and giving examples of how important teachers are in digital learning. In fact, the lack of recognition of the importance of teachers in all digital learning programs may be the biggest misconception in digital learning generally. Writers and policymakers sometimes talk about online and blended learning without much focus on teachers. Educators who are implementing digital learning almost always focus on the importance of teachers.

The role of teachers varies based on the program. Blended programs similar to Spring City and Randolph often use existing teachers, providing extensive professional development so that the teachers become comfortable with the use of digital content and data in the physical classroom. Programs similar to Spokane, Putnam, and Poudre use some teachers that spend at least part of their time online, including using tools within the learning management system to consistently communicate with students during their time online.

A previous blog post explored how successful blended courses used by physical schools need to have someone serving as a mentor, not merely as a monitor, in cases where the teacher is online.  I’ve recently had the opportunity to visit blended programs in California, Chicago, Oregon, and Missouri. All of these had someone—a teacher or staff member—who was serving as a mentor to the students who were working extensively with online content. This mentoring role was fairly consistent even as the academic, subject-matter role of the teacher differed. In a military academy in Chicago I watched a librarian engaging in highly personal ways with students, alternatively encouraging and cajoling them. In a town in California, the high school principal explained how the best teachers in the blended credit recovery program use a mix of “pom poms and boxing gloves.”

The role of teachers and mentors varies in these programs. What doesn’t vary is that all successful programs are relying on teachers and mentors as a key building block that enables student success.