5 Tools to Ensure Students Have “Voice and Choice” in Blended Learning
The Return of Democratic Education
More than a century ago, the noted educational philosopher John Dewey set forth a vision of education that placed value on constructivism, inquiry-based learning, and preparation for living as full participants in a democratic society. This vision naturally lent itself to the idea that students should have the ability to choose elements of their educational experiences and be allowed to express their opinions on the process. In other words, student voice and choice. The great promise of hybrid education in general, and blended learning in particular, is that we may finally be restructuring the educational experience around deep, discovery-based learning that prepares students for their flexible, hybrid futures as opposed to the rote industrial model of the past. Key elements of Dewey’s philosophy may be back to stay, enhanced by modern educational tools—not the least of which will be to guarantee students’ voice and choice in their own learning and mastery. Here are five tools that you can use to ensure that student voice and choice happen in the blended learning environment.
Intentionality and Time: The Most Important Tools in Your Toolbox?
Dr. Kristin Morrison once described in detail “the promises and challenges of implementing democratic practices in schools.” She realized that creating a more freedom-based, democratic classroom for her graduate students was even more difficult than advertised, not least because creating a democratic classroom for grad students required deconstructing what they had been programmed to think of as “school” in the traditional sense. So, she approached the task with intentionality and allocated the time necessary to restructure her course with full student participation. Give yourself the gift of purposeful implementation and the time necessary to carry out your plan. Game out the steps required to change students’ understanding of what a class should look like ahead of time so that you won’t lose them along the way. For example, plan to state orally and in your syllabus that you intend to develop class rules and a significant amount of content choices in full partnership with the students. Plan a first day activity that reflects that commitment. You could even conduct an “exit ticket” style activity, but have students develop the rubric for a successful response to the exit ticket and assess themselves as to how well they met their own standards. Make these activities purposeful and don’t give up if students blanch at first. It will take time. Intentionality and time are perhaps your most important tools as you work to increase student choice and voice in the blended learning format.
Flexible Space, Flexible Time, and Flexible Collaboration
Flexibility is automatically built into any blended learning setup, as blended learning is first and foremost a mix of in-person learning and computer-mediated instruction. Thus, blended learning naturally creates opportunities for you to have students determine the order in which they will work toward objectives and when, where to work on those objectives (e.g. flexible classrooms, the media center, etc.), and with whom they will collaborate to accomplish tasks. As a facilitator, you hold students accountable by helping them direct their own learning. A friend of mine lamented the end of his bi-weekly trivia night due to COVID—until he decided to do something about it. At a normal in-person trivia night, teams would huddle together to answer questions. He created a videoconference version of trivia night that included “breakout rooms” in place of the in-person huddle. If we can create collaborative digital workarounds for trivia night, surely we can take advantage of flexible online collaboration tools in our classrooms! You’ll be amazed at how engaged your students will be when you empower them to collaborate in blended learning with flexible physical spaces, time, and communication tools.
To get the most out of your flexible task setup, use choice boards. Students choose one or more activities to complete from a structured list and complete the tasks at their own pace, often reporting out or sharing the learning product with the rest of the class. In the linked example, the instructor demonstrated how they create choices aligned with increasing levels of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. In preparing for the transition between distance learning and blended learning, our school district created a “virtual summit” that included an entire day devoted to a professional development (PD) choice board. One highly-respected teacher in the district said it was the most valuable PD experience he had seen in decades. Choice played a huge role in creating and sustaining that enthusiasm.
Choose Your Own Assessment
The days of assigning the same project to all students all the time are (hopefully!) coming to an end. One of the best tools at your disposal is to create a system in which students have more control over how they demonstrate mastery of learning objectives. You can not only provide them with voice and choice when assigning a project by providing different options, or allowing them to create their own, but also collaboratively developing grading criteria with students and even allowing them to engage in their own reflective grading process. As an example, think about your middle school life science class. Did you create an edible version of a cell when learning about basic animal and plant biology? I did, it was a lot of fun, and I never forgot the lesson. But did we all have to create the same product to achieve the same outcomes? In a blended learning environment, perhaps a slick infographic, interactive website, or a screencast tour of the cell would be just as fun, informative, and engaging as the edible cell of yore—and more relevant, to boot! In blended learning, you can confidently move away from one-size-fits-all assessment.
Learning Management Systems: The Hub of Student Voice and Choice
Your learning management system (LMS) is the hub where all the above spokes meet, and is the critical 21st century element that makes increased student voice and choice come to life. Your LMS is where you lay out your learning modules with intention. By its very nature, the LMS is a flexible, asynchronous platform where you can create space and time for discussion, breakout collaboration opportunities, and more. Your choice boards live within your modules, ready to engage and inspire. 21st century assessment choices are easy to create and share, and students can also create, share, and reflect on self-created rubrics within your ecosystem. Think of the learning management system as the platform where voice and choice can not only be offered and encouraged, but coached and monitored, as well.
Blended Learning: The Seismic Shift is Finally Here
Sometimes education can feel like something we are “doing to” students. If there has been a silver lining amidst the chaos unleashed by COVID, it is that it has forced a paradigm shift that has always inspired discussion and speculation, but very little actual change. No more. Blended learning may have started as digital triage, but now it’s here to stay. Even if and when the education world returns to some sense of normalcy, blended learning won’t go away. Rightfully so. Blended learning combines the best of in-person and online instruction; let’s use it to further empower students and help them achieve their goals.