Solutions for 6 Common Blended Learning Challenges
Distance Online Learning Still Feels Different
The second phase of a great national experiment in education is underway. With many schools operating either fully online or in a Hybrid Education model, students and teachers are working in modes they have never experienced before—not even this past spring, which was more like online triage than true blended learning. We have to remember that true blended learning still feels different to most people and that will continue to bring challenges with it. Here are six of the most common blended learning challenges and how you can find solutions to them.
1. Bridging the Digital Divide
Access to the technology itself may be the greatest challenge for some students and their families. Gaps in access are insidious and often remain based on socioeconomic status and geographic location. Although these inequities are almost never the fault of the school, the impacts they have on learning carry an enormous responsibility that schools cannot ignore.
Potential solutions include partnering with local internet service providers (ISPs) to expand district WiFi coverage and/or provide temporary free service to families in need. Policies can help, but they are not a substitute for district-provided 1:1 technology in the form of laptops, netbooks, and tablets. Schools can also partner with local businesses and libraries to provide and expand access for families with school age children. Especially during COVID, we need to get creative on behalf of kids to ensure equity of access to both devices and the internet.
2. Technical Difficulties to Distance Learning
Many students and families report increased anxiety driven by the technology skills required to access classes, engage with teachers and classmates, and complete assignments. Thus, student and educator skill level should be considered at each step of the online learning process. Heck, I grew up with an Apple II+ in the house and consider myself to be pretty tech savvy, but every now and then a new procedure or software package throws me for a loop. If I have to remind myself to slow down and breathe sometimes, just imagine how a K-12 student might feel!
We should strive to help all stakeholders feel as comfortable as possible with technology. You could do things like offer a formal orientation to the district’s learning management system (LMS), make time during online lessons to talk about the technical steps involved in completing tasks, and offer guided support from knowledgeable staff members throughout the year. Some people are intimidated by computers and other forms of technology. Send the message that, while learning technology skills is not optional in today’s world, people will be supported throughout their journey.
3. Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?
Hands down, that’s one of my favorite songs by the group Chicago, but it’s also perhaps the most critical non-technical challenge faced by online learners: time, as in time management. All stakeholders need to understand that the time requirements of attending classes and completing course requirements play out differently in the online format and that there is no substitute for advance planning. To that end, consider providing guidelines for online learning and how to be a successful online learner, sample schedules, and time management tips. Try to model and show examples of successful online learning whenever possible.
Another time-related factor is synchronous versus asynchronous class participation. We have found that, with the majority of our students, requiring attendance at live, synchronous videoconferencing sessions has been the most effective strategy. This is a significant difference from, say, my doctoral program, in which the vast majority of discussions, activities, and formal assignments were completed on our own time in an asynchronous environment. Tailor your mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning to the needs of your student population.
4. Student Motivation and Self-Direction
I have heard it over and over again from students and their families: Taking classes online seems like it’s going to be “easier” than in-person classes, but in reality, it ends up being harder because of the increased level of personal motivation online learning requires. It can be all too easy to procrastinate when there is no set schedule or when friends, work, or just life in general is prioritized over online engagement.
Have honest conversations with families about the time and effort it takes to be successful in an online learning environment. Most colleges and universities are very open about what it takes to be a successful online learner and openly share tips for how to stay motivated and learn to self-direct the online learning process. Use and share those resources to address this challenge. Create opportunities for virtual small-group pullouts with teachers, counselors, and other school support staff to support increased motivation and the building of executive functioning skills specific to online environments.
5. Maintaining Good Communication
Communication is an especially pressing challenge in the online learning environment. Leverage the communication features of your learning management system to stay in contact with students and families and to provide timely, substantive, and meaningful feedback regarding student work and overall course progress. Build a communication strategy in collaboration with students—show them how to develop a routine of logging on and engaging in regular, substantive communication with peers and the course instructor.
6. Class Projects and Group Work
Going along with the theme of maintaining communication in an online environment is the very real issue of completing projects and engaging in collaborative work with peers remotely. This is a challenge that becomes all the more complicated if you’re utilizing best practice and engaging students in true project-based learning, which requires sustained collaboration over long periods of time (e.g. a full unit of instruction).
There are several solutions to this challenge to help your students collaborate effectively in the online learning format. First, use your LMS to structure collaborative groups effectively and provide them with their own personal online workspace that can be monitored just like small group work in the classroom. Second, work with students to schedule synchronous breakout sessions, either during class via videoconferencing features that allow that to happen or during another time in student schedules. Combined with rubrics that emphasize both individual contribution and group product, you can build collaborative experiences that are just as robust as the typical in-person experience.
New Skills for a Brave New World
Online learning still feels like a different world than what we are used to. Even in a Hybrid Education program, the online component can feel daunting for students and their families. You will need to face these challenges head-on, because not learning the 21st century skills required to perform in an online learning environment is simply not an option. Hopefully as a result, we will find that these challenges present an opportunity for learning and growth.