Building Relationships with Students in a Blended Learning Environment
Many Models, One Constant
A blended learning environment is more than the occasional use of technology to supplement a lesson. Blended learning involves some combination of in-person, face-to-face learning and “computer-mediated instruction.” Thus, there is no one absolute model for blended learning, but a full spectrum of ways in which it can work for you. But no matter your blended learning model, the single greatest factor in effective instruction is the relationship that you build with and among your students.
Set the Tone, Cast the Anchor
Just like a full-time in-person classroom setting, students’ first experience with your blended learning environment will set their expectations for the rest of the year. Does your blended learning classroom—both in-person and virtual—feel like a “regular” classroom, with student work prominently displayed and celebrated, classroom management and organization evident, and routines and procedures developed in collaboration with students? In building your blended learning culture, have you taken time to get to know the students and to have them get to know each other? Have you provided an interactive syllabus, provided access to course materials, communicated learning targets, and met with your students to set personal learning goals? These may seem like normal housekeeping items, but they are crucial to building student relationships and success, particularly in an environment that is more self-paced by design.
Since blended learning takes place both online and in-person, it is important to create time and space for so-called anchor relationships. These relationships, that “anchor” a student to multiple supports at school, at home, and in the community, may look different at each school and for each student. For example, your school might create a period in the blended learning master schedule that allows for check-ins with core teachers, staff and peer advisory sessions, or even off-site mentorships. Thus, by casting (not dropping!) the anchor, students find themselves part of a network of support, critical for caring for the whole child in a blended learning environment.
Student Voice and Choice
One of the best ways to build relationships with students in the blended learning environment is to empower their voice and choice. Even when “covering the standards” feels like a crushing weight, you can still build in time and space for students to drive their own learning: Ask students what they want to learn, give students team missions to explore and report out on topics on their own, provide assessment options based on student interests and needs, and create opportunities for students to assess their own strengths and needs and adjust their learning process accordingly.
One highly decorated teacher had been using blended learning rotation models for a long time but discovered new ways to empower her students through inquiry-based lessons that provided more opportunities for student choice. For example, she began to provide several activities with which students could engage during independent work time. You could even go one step further and align these activities with, say, Gardner’s multiple intelligences.
Feedback Opportunities that Value Students and Their Learning
Continuing with the theme of student voice, it is imperative to build in plenty of opportunities to solicit and act upon student feedback to make the blended learning environment effective. Feedback and opportunities for constructive criticism in the blended learning environment have proven successful in higher education, and there is no reason you shouldn’t provide students the same opportunities in the K-12 world.
Ask students about their strengths and needs at the beginning of the course and each unit. Ask students how they want to learn. Ask students which of your blended learning practices should be continued and which could be improved. They will respect your openness and they will absolutely tell you the truth. How do you build the best blended learning environment? By using student feedback to make it the best, solidifying your relationship with your young charges in the process.
Blended Learning and Social Emotional Learning (SEL)
In addition to building the aforementioned anchor relationships, blended learning environments represent fertile ground to provide time for social and emotional learning as well. For example, part of a home base check-in or advisory period could be devoted to some of the key components of self-management and executive functioning needs: stress management, organization skills, individual goal setting, and more. If educators can ensure that the increased screen time that comes with blended learning doesn’t place the focus on technology over relationships, edtech can support SEL instead of detracting from it.
Additionally, what better venue is there to teach the principles of digital citizenship than the blended learning environment? If students are going to be working in some form of self-directed sense online, shouldn’t they know and practice the basics of how to speak to one another? How to safeguard information and privacy online? How to use technology to better themselves and society? When the teacher leads this discussion and visibly holds everyone to appropriate digital citizenship standards, the teacher is not only solidifying relationships with students, but building a lasting blended learning culture where everyone feels welcomed, accepted, supported, and safe.
The Platform Where it Happens: Blended Learning and Your Learning Management System
No matter what your balance of in-person contact and “computer-mediated instruction”, a good learning management system (LMS) is where the two worlds meet and where teacher-student relationships should thrive. For example, as a prelude to an anchor relationship activity, students may fill out a quick survey on their perceived strengths and needs prior to arriving for the in-person conversation, with the data already broken down for analysis within the school’s LMS. Teams engaged in inquiry-based learning projects will also likely be simultaneously engaged in asynchronous discussion boards via the LMS. And, of course, contacting a course instructor should always be as easy as a mouse click. Good learning management systems should facilitate, not detract from, relationships.
Constant, Consistent, and Genuine
Kids can smell a fake a mile away, no matter what the learning setting. Show them that you recognize that the one constant in education is the sole mission and purpose of professionals in the field: students. Be consistent in your pursuit of a student-centered blended learning environment. Always be genuine in your interactions with students. Operating in a blended learning environment usually means less traditional in-person time, but that doesn’t mean students should ever feel disconnected from you or their education. Thinking through your vision of what connectedness will continue to look like and how you can leverage your learning management system to make it happen will help ensure that your blended learning environment thrives.