What Concurrent Classes Can Tell Us About the Future of K-12 Blended Learning
Concurrent Classes: A Popular (and Challenging) Model
The paradigm of K-12 education shifted nearly overnight due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many districts immediately embraced full remote learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. Some have continued in that mode for the first half of the 2020-21 school year. Other districts instituted (or have moved to) a K-12 Blended Learning model, with some combination of in-person and online learning.
Enter concurrent teaching, which, although easier to schedule for administrators due to not having to schedule separate sections for online and in-person learners in a hybrid model, is inherently more difficult than other Hybrid Education models. Concurrent teaching, which NIET defines as either "teaching virtual and in-person learners simultaneously" (most common) or in different class periods but within the same school day, is thus both a popular and challenging delivery system. Since we've lived it for several months now, it is also teaching us things about what the future of K-12 learning may look like after the worst of the pandemic is finally behind us and life begins to return to normal.
The Future is Online
Yes, we've heard for the last 30 years about how the "information superhighway" will revolutionize schools. Yet, our industrial era "cells and bells" setup and uniform rows of desks have proven stubbornly resistant to change, even as technology continues to transform our daily lives. But we've come a long way from the heady days of the dot com startup era, and the revolution is just beginning. The future of K-12 blended learning involves its online component becoming more robust, and concurrent teaching is leading the way.
Although you have probably experienced some of the same concerns as I have regarding the remote component of concurrent teaching, especially for students who are fully-remote learners being taught alongside their hybrid peers. The impact of the digital divide, feelings of disconnectedness and mental health concerns, motivation, and follow-through issues can be overwhelming for remote students. These concerns have led some K-12 thought leaders to claim that, in a support role, online learning will make in-person learning even more valuable.
In Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, author Joseph Aoun described "the new literacies" of the next digital era: technological, data, and human literacies. Fortunately, concurrent teaching on a robust learning management system (LMS) combines the technological with the human—the edtech tools with the human learning coach. Aoun also listed what he termed "the cognitive capacities" necessary for learners to develop: critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship, and cultural agility, and that we will need to engage in "thematic study across disciplines, project-based learning, and real-world connections" to realize these goals. The literacies and capacities Aoun explains aren't just for higher education—they apply to the K-12 world, as well. The concurrent, blended classroom facilitates this in a way that either format by itself does not.
The Future is Flexible
When COVID thrust society and the economy into murky uncertainty, students of all ages were suddenly faced with many new concerns: younger students became reliant on massive take-home packets and netbook-style computers to access their education, accountable to the ability of someone at home to supervise them effectively as they worked. Older students were often forced to balance their schoolwork and work a part-time (or full-time) job to help support the family or care for sick loved ones. However, it was the inherent flexibility of the online environment and learning management systems that made it possible for families, really for the first time in history, to be able to continue some form of education while everything else seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
The Future is Personalized and Project-Based
Early in the fall semester, I worked with a teacher who, like many, was navigating concurrent teaching for the first time. The class had always been a project-based elective, but the concurrent component was new. The projects' nature made them more difficult to complete online, as much of the specialized technology required to film and edit the work was best utilized at school.
To the teacher's credit, he started thinking outside the box and embraced the LMS as the hub of his classroom activity. He began running concurrent projects in his concurrent classes. Students would work online on scriptwriting while in-person students were editing. He floated efficiently between the worlds, coaching students in both settings. Best practices that we have known about for years—incorporating personalized student voice and choice, project-based approaches, and teacher as a coach instead of lecturer—are all naturally more valuable in a concurrent setting, thus setting the pattern for the future of blended learning.
The Future is Focused and Data-Driven
"Data-driven decision making" and "data-driven cultures" have been buzzwords in education for the past few years. In the concurrent classroom, focus, reflection, and quality classroom data are all the more essential. We should seize the opportunity to lock in this approach as things return to a semblance of normalcy.
To that end, the questions that teachers wrestle with when planning becomes even more important in the concurrent classroom. For example, the first question the NIET recommends that teachers ask when thinking about the instructional plan is: "How can I ensure that my instructional plan is measurable and explicit for virtual and in-person learners?" Thinking through that question, NIET encourages teachers to think about the various technology tools that will help students complete activities, such as "sharing documents, virtual polls, LMS tools, etc." These are big questions that require focused answers based on reliable information.
Concurrent teaching requires laser focus and crystal clarity about learning objectives, directions for learning activities, and more. It also requires us to leverage technology to gather as much quality data as possible to drive instruction. For blended learning to be truly successful, we'll need to take advantage of our access to learning data in a way that we were sometimes only paying lip service to before our world was turned upside down.
Concurrent classes have presented a steep learning curve for educators of all stripes. Someday, however, there will come a time when the virus is no longer omnipresent in our lives. When that day comes, what we have gained from experience won't go away. The optimists among us believe that "we will breathe new energy into an ancient profession for students that expects and needs more from us." In other words, we will capitalize on what we have learned in the concurrent classroom about an online, flexible, personalized, project-based approach that will deliver the highest quality education and serve our students long into the future.