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Day 1: Blended Learning and Exploratory Education

Posted on Oct 30, 2012

I grew up in an elementary school that had an annex for Montessori instruction. We ate lunch with those students, sat with them at school assemblies, and, most importantly, played with them at recess. We were more focused on playing four square and kick ball together than comparing and contrasting our educational environments. Until quite recently, I didn’t know much about Montessori learning. To me, it appears extremely similar to blended learning; kind of like blended learning is an online Montessori school, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

So, what is a Montessori school? According to the Montessori Schools of Massachusetts’ (MSM) website: The basic tenet of Montessori education is that a child learns best in an enriched, supportive environment through exploration, discovery and creativity with the guidance and encouragement of a trained and caring staff. It came about as a way to escape the rigidity of tradition education – to let the child learn through action, not lecture.

To reiterate the blended learning definition, yes, I know, again: A formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.

Over the next three posts, we’ll look at specific connections between these two schools. By the end of it, I hope you see blended learning as an evolution of both Montessori and traditional education; a program that embodies the most valuable parts of traditional learning, the most effective parts of Montessori, and combines them online to create the strongest, most individualized learning environment possible.  Here is the first comparison:

Montessori: Uninterrupted blocks of work time.

Blended Learning: Students have a freedom of pacing.

Montessori calls for uninterrupted block of time, blended learning calls for student control of pace. The Montessori School’s website notes that Montessori curriculum follows the child rather than the child fitting into a set curriculum where all children are doing the same work at the same time. The children are encouraged to study and learn whatever they’re interested in. The Montessori method gives students time for different pursuits, the freedom to choose them, and the opportunity to be self-motivated when studying their areas of interest.

Blended learning accomplishes this by allowing students to complete their assigned work at a speed that fits them. In a traditional school, a numerically skilled student might fly through their math lesson and have nothing to do the rest of the hour. This same student’s German might need some extra helfen outside the classroom, but their extra-curricular activities don’t permit them the time. With blended learning, this student could get a head start on their next online German lesson without even having to get up from the computer. That is one of the best features of blended learning – time is never wasted.

Like with any venture, the more efficient the environment, the more productive it will be. What sets blended learning apart from Montessori, it that is still has structure. In Montessori, if a student doesn’t enjoy learning German, they probably won’t spend their time on it. Blended learning challenges students; it makes them explore subjects outside of their comfort zone. Still though, a student can focus on any subject, not just what is most enjoyable or most convenient. They have the ability to access their entire course load from the seat of their chair, not just what’s available in their classroom. In a way, it sounds like blended learning is a response to the rigidity of both traditional and Montessori education.

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.

eTextbook Use

Posted on Oct 25, 2012

In an effort to increase the technological literacy of students and to improve learning outcomes, President Obama recently set a goal to have students using exclusively e-textbooks delivered on tablet computers. Even more recently, Julie Lawrence, writing for Education News, reported that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discussed “what he thinks the classroom of the future will look like – and one thing he doesn’t see is a heavy paper textbook.”

Drawing inspiration from South Korea, a country that outperforms the United States when it comes to student achievement, supporters of the e-textbook movement argue that “a comprehensive shift to immersive, online learning experiences could engage students in a way that a textbook never could,” while also delivering benefits to districts and teachers in the form of cost savings and increased flexibility in curriculum.

As far as the students are concerned, e-textbooks would not be limited by what can be displayed in print. An e-textbook could include interactive features, quizzes, and videos, while also including standard features like highlighting, underlining, and commenting. Additionally, as many students will tell you, print textbooks have a tendency to be bulky and, at times, challenging to transport when you have to carry more than one or two.

It is believed that school districts could see savings by utilizing e-textbooks because, while tablet computers can be somewhat expensive, it follows that the rights to use textbooks should be cheaper, seeing as how publishers would not be obligated to provide physical print resources to schools. Furthermore, Lawrence says that “using e-textbooks allows schools to view curriculum not as a cudgel, but as a list of suggestions that they, for themselves, get to decide how to implement.” Instead of being forced to stand by and utilize the material that exists in whatever textbook a district provides for a class, e-textbooks allow curriculum to become more customizable, potentially allowing districts to even build the textbook that will best suit teachers.

A major question, though, is whether or not students will accept e-textbooks. As of right now, the only students making extensive use of e-textbooks are college students, and according to Brian Browdie, writing for NY Daily News, “Books published electronically may be growing in popularity, but some students say for textbooks they still prefer print.”

A recent study involving five universities and thousands of students, “e-textbooks can be ‘clumsy’ and difficult to use.” The main point of contention seemed to be ease of use, because students liked the idea of not needing to carry heavy textbooks and the potential of saving money. Despite the potential benefits, if e-textbooks are not accessible to students, then the widespread use of e-textbooks may actually prove detrimental to students.

 Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

Implementing a 1-to-1 Program

Posted on Oct 25, 2012

In 2010, when Amanda Allen and David Lopez introduced a 1-to-1 learning environment in their Los Angeles school, they experienced a power shift at Genevieve Elementary; students began teaching themselves. A 1-to-1 learning environment pairs each student with an online, portable, networked tool – in this particular case, the tool was an iPad.

The article, Using iPads With Mixed-Ability Students, details their journey. They divided their seventh and eighth grade classes into two groups, one group continued with traditional education while the other used iPads. After the first year of their pilot, there was an eleven percent increase in test scores with the students who learned using the iPads. So, what changed?

Allen and Lopez found that, “the most important way to use the iPad in the classroom is [with] choice. I didn’t necessarily care which app the students were using. I would tell the students the skill we were practicing, and they knew they had better be practicing that skill.”

This didn’t come without fear, though. Allen provides, “The biggest challenge was giving up some of the control and being OK with the fact that it might not go perfect the first time, but that we were going to figure it out.” When I first read this, I thought that a classroom without teacher control sounded like complete mayhem, but Allen and Lopez quickly supplied that an increase in student freedom actually increased the need for the teacher to monitor content. This, they believed, led to improved teaching methods and the improved scores.

Allen and Lopez provide us with a great in-classroom glimpse at how an iPad 1-to-1 program can change a school’s dynamic. If you’re looking for something that shows more of the big picture, check out the article, Launching an iPad 1-to-1 Program: A Primer. It covers everything from costs and risks, to the “Philosophical Framework” of a 1-to-1 program. It advises schools interested in introducing a 1-to-1 iPad program to consider six critical areas for successful implementation: leadership, cost, network function, security, philosophical frameworks, and pedagogy.

 “…the goal is not simply to deploy the technology, but to harness its power to change or improve the environment in which the technology was launched. Implementing technology for technology’s sake is sure to fail. It is our experience that schools must answer one important question: Why are we doing this?”

I won’t end this saying that you should proceed exactly like Allen and Lopez or that you should wholeheartedly follow the primer. No primer is going to be all encompassing, and no emulation of another school’s program will apply to your own school as well as you think. I picked these two articles because they complement each other well. Allen and Lopez weren’t afraid to experiment and leave the comfort zone of traditional education – and that paid off. The primer is here to keep us grounded in the reality of such a venture. When it comes to implementing an iPad 1-to-1 program, a combination of these two stances might be the most effective approach one can take, but ultimately, it depends on why you’re doing it.

Sidenote: Here are Lopez and Allen’s top nine resources for an iPad initiative: Popplet, iCardSort. Flashcards+, GoodReader, Volume Purchase ProgramEdmodo,, Good Notes, Mathaliens

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.

What’s up with Blackboard?

Posted on Oct 23, 2012

I’m old enough to remember the goose bumps and scratches of a chalkboard, young enough to have witnessed the squeaking transition to whiteboards, and I was still around to have seen how integral projectors would become in the classroom. I’ve also witnessed some serious changes happening in the online side of things. The program that has stuck around for the longest, at least in my experience, and endured the most change, is Blackboard Inc. I first came in contact with it in middle school, where we mainly used it as a place to check our grades at home. By the time I started college, Blackboard had exploded – in all grades.

There are a lot of new Blackboard programs and services to choose from, but my favorites are all combined in a group specifically tailored to high school education – Blackboard K-12. These four online learning tools were designed to plug-in to a traditional learning format and to help promote the most well connected, most collaborative, and most personalized online learning environment possible. When reading this, think of these tools like chalkboards, whiteboards, and projectors. This is the next step.

Here’s a glance at what Blackboard Learn aims to do:

•  Engage every student by creating powerful learning experiences, designing customized learning paths, and influencing performance in real-time. With the ability to add multimedia content, you can breathe life into courses and reach more students.

•  Create collaborative classrooms by using advanced collaboration tools, such as wikis and blogs, help teachers structure personalized learning experiences for their students that help build problem-solving and critical thinking skills. It also encourages peer-to-peer participation through social learning.

•  Increase teacher productivity and effectiveness with automated grading, integrated lesson plans, standards alignment and reporting. Teachers can focus more time on influencing student performance.

•   Make the most of your investments with a central online hub and streamlined systems that help you efficiently manage student achievement, technologies and instructional tools. Make it easy for your teachers to bring technology into their classrooms and fully utilize all of the district resources such as video and content through single-sign on access.

Blackboard Mobile Learn is pretty self-explanatory – it’s the mobile version of Blackboard Learn and works on iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and webOS. You can submit that last minute paper to Dropbox you finished typing on the bus, push notifications to get teacher announcements directly to your pocket or purse, check your grades, your syllabus, your tasks; you’re mobile enough to do everything you could do on a computer or in the classroom – even take a Blackboard test.

Blackboard Collaborate provides a classroom with virtual classes, webinars, professional development, and blended learning. Here, teachers remove the squeaks from the old days, and draw on a virtual whiteboard. Its mobile ready, so maybe you’re sick and have to stay home for a day – you can still listen to the lecture, follow the slides the teacher is posting, participate in group polls and projects, and even chat with the teacher or other students in real time. Teachers can voice-author their feedback to students and students can record their questions for the teacher. I think this is a great shift forward in having a more personal online environment – and not one that gives the same exact lesson every time. The teacher could reference current events or something that happened in class or school. It keeps both the teachers and the students better connected and more involved.

Blackboard Engage/Edline gives teachers the ability to create a “class page.” Instead of just having a district or a school website, individual teachers can create their own page. To keep parents and students updated with what’s going on in the classroom, teachers can create blogs, post daily pictures, and update syllabi and schedules right on the page. I would have hated this, but for parents, they can access their child’s calendars, grades and homework assignments all from the class page. Students, their website provides, “can quickly go online to join discussions, complete assignments or hand-in homework from the same dynamic classroom website where they check their grades. Personalized calendars keep students informed of extracurricular activities and upcoming events and group pages let them interact with peers in a secure online environment.”

I can’t imagine what could possibly replace these tools, but we continue to say that about everything – the steamboat, the iPhone, the muzzle loader, the VHS, the chalkboard. See you soon, nostalgia.

Click here to check out the rest of Blackboard’s platforms.

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.

Minnesota denies Coursera

Posted on Oct 22, 2012

On October 18th, Katherine Mangan, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, reported that it had just been discovered that the state of Minnesota “has informed Coursera that it is unwelcome in the state because it never got permission to operate there.”

Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for the state’s office, “said letters had been sent to all postsecondary institutions known to be offering courses in Minnesota.” In an email, Grimes explained that this was not an effort to push Coursera out of the state, but rather that this requirement has existed for many years in order to “provide consumer protection for students.”

It is clear, then, that the state of Minnesota is attempting to protect its citizens, and not discriminate against Coursera or discourage online learning. However, it makes little sense to expect Coursera to abide by this law when Coursera is effectively offering content that is similar to what could be found on YouTube, Khan Academy, or Wikipedia, the difference being that Coursera’s content is delivered by qualified professors.

Will Oremus, writing for Slate, revealed more about the controversy. Oremus wrote that George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, had attempted to clarify the situation by saying that “the issue isn’t with Coursera per se, but with the universities that offer classes through its website.” It turns out that Minnesota requires degree-granting institutions to register with the state, a process that can cost several thousand dollars in some instance, including a $1,200 annual renewal fee. Echoing Tricia Grimes’ email, Roedler said that “the law’s intent is to protect Minnesota students from wasting their money on degrees from substandard institutions,” and that while Coursera is free, individuals could still be wasting their time.

Oremus pointed out that it makes little sense for any university affiliated with Coursera to pay registration fees, considering each university is offering free courses that are entirely optional. If all states maintained laws similar to those in Minnesota, it is unlikely that online learning programs would ever manage to get off the ground.

Admittedly, it is hard to say how Minnesota could enforce its law, due to the nature of Coursera courses and the relative anonymity offered by the Internet. Luckily, none of that is an issue because approximately a day later, Larry Pogemiller, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education issued a statement that essentially gave Coursera permission to continue operations within the state.

While this issue was short-lived, it reveals something important. It seems unlikely that the state of Minnesota would have reconsidered its position, had there not been a sizeable backlash on the Internet. To that extent, it is important that as many individuals as possible are familiar with online learning and the benefits it brings, as the support of the populace could be key in making online learning not just an educational reality, but a political reality.

 Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.