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Drowning Digitally? How Disequilibrium Shapes Practice in a Blended Learning Charter School


by Andrea J. Bingham — 2016

Background/Context: Blended learning—a learning model in which online learning is combined with face-to-face instruction to provide a more personalized learning experience for students—has shown enormous growth in recent years. Though many policymakers and educators are optimistic about the potential of blended learning to provide the type of personalized education encouraged by current policy (Race to the Top, ConnectED, etc.), few studies have investigated blended learning in K–12 contexts beyond questions of effects.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This qualitative case study examines the execution of a blended school model to understand teachers’ roles and practices in that environment. In this article, Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) provides the framework for tracing how instructional practices and teachers’ roles develop throughout the first year of the school and for understanding how contextual factors interact to influence this development.

Research Design: This article reports findings from the first year of an ongoing qualitative case study, designed to examine teachers’ instructional roles and practices in a blended charter high school. The research team collected a variety of data in order to garner a rich, deep understanding of the contextualized experiences of teachers, including more than 60 observations; two rounds of interviews; and a year’s worth of email correspondence, documents, and artifacts.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The original vision for teacher practice broke down to varying levels in each classroom, with all teachers exhibiting a return to the pedagogical roles and practices with which they were most comfortable. The tensions, frustrations, and contradictions experienced by teachers throughout the year demonstrate the need for better planning and professional development prior to the full enactment of a new school model, particularly one in which technology plays a large role. For example, administrators and teachers must address how teachers will know that students are using technology productively. Further, because teachers’ roles may change in a blended school, these roles need to be defined, and teachers need to be provided with support and training around these roles first, before the students show up. In addition, if an online curriculum is expected to bear the responsibility of assessment and data production, it must first be vetted to ensure that the assessments are rigorous and the data is accurate. Finally, there needs to be planning around how the classroom space should be organized to promote learning, how students will be trained to self-direct, and how teachers will facilitate learning.




INTRODUCTION


Recognizing the need for innovative approaches to improve educational outcomes for traditionally underserved students, policymakers and educators alike are turning to technology as a way to provide a more personalized educational experience (Banister, Reinhart, & Ross, 2014; Burch & Good, 2014). Almost 70% of teachers have reported that their students used computers in the classroom “sometimes” or “often” (Gray, Thomas, & Lewis, 2010). Further, enrollment in some form of online learning program is increasing in K–12 education, with some states even requiring that students complete an online learning experience to graduate (Kennedy & Archambault, 2012; Miron & Urschel, 2012). Blended learning in particular—a learning model in which online learning is used in some combination with face-to-face instruction to provide a more personalized learning experience for students (Moeller & Reitzes, 2011; Osguthorpe & Graham, 2003; Staker & Horn, 2012; U.S. Department of Education, 2014)— has shown enormous growth in recent years, particularly in charter schools (Horn & Maas, 2013).


Though many policymakers and educators are optimistic about the potential of blended learning to provide the type of personalized learning encouraged by current policy (Race to the Top, ConnectED, etc.), few studies have investigated blended learning in the K–12 context (Means, Toyama, Murphy, & Bakia, 2013), with even fewer studies examining blended learning beyond questions of effects. Existing research has produced mixed results. Some research has suggested that a blend of online and school-based instruction is more successful in improving student outcomes than an online-only model because it may offer more opportunities for socialization and collaboration, and may provide multiple instructional methods (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2010; Means et al., 2013). Others have found that blended learning models have had a neutral or negative effect on student achievement, though some researchers have attributed this finding to implementation issues or other school contextual factors (Cole, Kemple, & Segeritz, 2012; Margolin, Kieldon, Williams, & Schmidt, 2011). Researchers also cite the wide variation in the design, subject matter, and education level of blended models as one reason for the mixed results (Cole et al., 2012; Margolin et al., 2011; Means et al., 2013). However, in many studies on blended learning, the most significant finding has been the lack of rigorous research, particularly in K–12 environments (Cole et al., 2012; Means et al., 2010).


The presence of online learning and technology in schools has grown significantly; however, what teaching looks like in high-tech school environments is still not understood, particularly in blended learning schools. Rigorous examination of the execution of these models and teachers’ roles and practices in these environments may help researchers further investigate how a blended model impacts student outcomes. Consequently, the present study is guided by the following research questions:


1.

What are the expectations for teachers’ roles and instructional practices in a blended learning school, as described by the founder, administrators, and staff?

2.

In what ways, if any, do these expectations differ from teachers’ roles and instructional practices as executed in the classroom in the school’s inaugural year?

3.

Do these roles and practices change throughout the year? If so, how do they change and what are the contextual factors influencing this change?

4.

What challenges, if any, do teachers face in implementing a blended model in a school’s first year?


I address these research questions by drawing on data from a qualitative case study of Blended Academy,1 a blended charter high school in a large urban area that primarily serves traditionally underserved students—low-income students, students of color, and in particular, students at the intersection of these two often marginalized groups. Blended Academy opened in 2012, with the express purpose of preventing high school dropout among these student populations through a combination of self-paced, individualized online learning; face-to-face teacher supports and supplemental instruction; comprehensive social-emotional supports; and extended school hours. In this study, I focus specifically on the five founding ninth grade teachers and their instructional practices in the school’s first year. Drawing on extensive observation data, document analysis, and in-depth interviews with school staff, including teachers, administrators, and the founder of the school, I trace how instructional practices and teachers’ roles develop throughout the first year of the school. Using Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT)—a theoretical framework emphasizing the contextual factors influencing learning and change—I uncover how teachers’ instructional roles and practices are mediated by contextual factors, such as school norms and the division of labor in the school, as well as teachers’ pedagogical backgrounds and beliefs. Ultimately, I argue that although classroom technology generally, and blended learning specifically, may have the potential for increasing learning outcomes for traditionally underserved students, without careful attention to teachers’ roles and practices in these environments prior to full implementation, the costs to student learning and teacher effectiveness may be too great.


THE PROMISES AND POTENTIAL OF BLENDED LEARNING


Blended learning is seen by many policymakers, administrators, and educators as a way to provide more effective instruction for traditionally underserved students. For example, a blended environment is meant to offer the opportunity for targeted, personalized, flexible online learning, while also providing the benefits of face-to-face instruction and school supports. Further, the objectives of blended learning are closely aligned with strategies that have been shown to improve the educational achievement of traditionally underserved student populations—specifically by increasing flexibility, closing knowledge gaps, and offering a wider range of classes for students who are behind and for those who are progressing more quickly (Edmunds, 2008; Staker & Horn, 2012). However, as I discuss in the next section, little research exists that examines the effects of blended learning, and that which does exist has reported mixed results.


UNCERTAIN EFFECTS


Rigorous research on blended learning in K–12 contexts is limited and reports mixed results. Some studies suggest that blended learning models are effective in improving student outcomes (Means et al., 2010; Means et al., 2013). For example, in a meta-analysis of the current empirical research on distance learning, researchers found that blended learning is more effective in improving student learning outcomes than both traditional classroom instruction and online learning alone (Means et al., 2010; Means et al., 2013). The authors’ analysis showed that blended learning was more effective when students had control over their interaction with the online interface, when the interface prompted learner reflections, and when the online component consisted of curriculum and instructional methods that differed from those in the face-to-face learning component. Blended learning was also more effective when the online component was collaborative, rather than independent. However, the researchers acknowledge that the available research on blended learning, especially in K–12 education, is scant. Further, the researchers admit that components such as collaboration and increased learning time may be the reason for the positive outcomes (Means et al., 2010; Means et al., 2013).


Other researchers have found that blended learning models have had a neutral or negative effect on student outcomes (Cole et al., 2012; Margolin et al., 2011), but the variation among models makes it difficult to make any conclusive claims. For example, blended models vary in the amount of teaching done online and the amount of teaching done face-to-face. There are also variations in the providers of online curricula. The most pertinent finding across studies, however, seems to be that definite conclusions are difficult to make.


Though several articles detail the use of blended learning, there are far fewer rigorous, empirical studies of blended schools (Means et al., 2010). Much of the research is focused on online or virtual education models, rather than on schools that have incorporated blended learning models (Allen et al., 2004; Cavanaugh, Gillan, Kromrey, Hess, & Blomeyer, 2004). Few studies deal with issues of process and implementation, teacher instruction in these contexts, or the role of the teacher in a technology-driven environment. In the few existing studies, instructional issues have arisen as blended learning models are implemented. For example, in one blended learning program, teachers had trouble adjusting to coaching students through individualized learning plans, rather than instructing the whole class (Cole et al., 2012). In another study, teachers reported that classroom structure became a problem in a blended school (Margolin et al., 2011). The content and pacing of the work varied by student, but students still needed clear instructions and expectations for behavior, as students could have trouble working independently (Margolin et al., 2011). These types of difficulties can have implications for the implementation and effectiveness of blended models.


ASSUMPTIONS OF TEACHER PRACTICE


Though much of the literature defines blended learning as simply a combination of online and traditional content delivery, differences exist in how material is delivered and learning is divided between online and face-to-face instruction (Staker, 2011; Staker & Horn, 2012). In a commonly used typology developed by the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation (Staker & Horn, 2012), blended learning models are divided into four categories: rotation, flex, à la carte, and enriched virtual. A rotation model of blended learning has students rotate through different learning modalities, including online learning, group projects, whole-class instruction, and tutoring. Rotation models are further subdivided into station rotation (in-class rotations through different learning modalities), lab rotation (rotations through different locations in the school), flipped classrooms (rotation through on-campus projects during the day and online content delivery at home), and individual rotation (student rotations on an individualized, fixed schedule). In a flex blended learning model, instruction is primarily online and students move on an individualized schedule. An à la carte (formerly “self-blend”) model has students take some courses entirely or partially online, while also taking courses at a brick-and-mortar location. Finally, an enriched-virtual school model divides student time between remote learning and a traditional campus experience.


As evidenced by this typology, blended learning environments, by design, are intended to alter teachers’ roles in the classroom. Thus, the design of blended learning models, and the use of technology in the classroom, may have implications for teaching practice and teachers’ roles in the classroom (Ertmer, 2005; Oliver & Trigwell, 2005; Staker & Horn, 2012; Windschitl & Sahl, 2002). For example, teachers may have to design personalized learning plans or may be expected to act as a coach or tutor rather than as a traditional instructor or lecturer. As a result, teachers’ planning practices may change. Directing all students in a single planned exercise is no longer the norm; as each student progresses through his or her personalized path, teachers may need a repertoire of strategies designed to help individual students or groups work through material. Further, teachers have to conceive of a new kind of structure for their classroom—one where the teacher can keep track of student progress and mastery and manage the use of technology, all while still allowing for the personalized pacing and instruction required in a blended setting. Finally, teachers often have to work with a digital curriculum, meaning teachers may have to review, adjust, or possibly rewrite the curriculum and use generated data to design learning experiences around individual student needs.


FACTORS THAT SHAPE TEACHER PRACTICE


Determining how teachers might respond to new instructional strategies or reforms is a complex issue. Teachers’ backgrounds, pedagogical beliefs, and their collegial relationships, as well as the context of the school in which they teach, influence the success of any school- or classroom-level reform (Spillane, Reiser, & Reimer, 2002). Further, any reform that aims to change teachers’ practice must reckon with established practices and norms around teachers’ work. For example, how a school institution presents messages of reform can have an effect on how teachers translate that reform to their classrooms (Coburn, 2004), as can teachers’ social networks or professional community (Coburn & Stein, 2006; Coburn, Russell, Kaufman, & Stein, 2012; Gallucci, 2003). Further, teachers often rely on their own beliefs about instruction and teaching experience to adjust instructional reform as they implement it (Coburn, 2004). Even teachers who believe they are embracing innovations may filter those innovations through traditional approaches to instruction (Cohen, 1990). The sustainability and success of new policies, curricular changes, and instructional strategies can vary, but ultimately, it is the teachers who translate all of this to the classroom context, respond to the needs of particular students, and create the learning environment for their students (Cohen, 1990; Cohen & Ball, 1990; Weatherly & Lipsky, 1977).


These same factors may also play a role in teachers’ technology use in the classroom (Ertmer, 2005; Windschitl & Sahl, 2002). Scholars have suggested that despite the nearly ubiquitous presence of computer technology, high-level use of technology in the classroom, such as assigning multimedia presentations and data collection and interpretation, is still relatively rare (Cuban, Kirkpatrick, & Peck, 2001; Ertmer, 2005). Rather, teachers, especially those teaching in low-income areas, are using technology in the classroom for activities like email, accessing content materials, and collaborating with other educators (Purcell, Heaps, Buchanan, & Friedrich, 2013). Thus, merely introducing technology into the school environment is not enough to garner widespread, high-level teacher and student use (Cuban et al., 2001). Indeed, most teachers utilize technology in such a way that sustains traditional teaching practice, rather than changing it (Cuban et al., 2001).


Together, the above research suggests that blended learning has the potential to improve student learning; however, instructional reform, particularly that involving the integration of technology into the classroom, is a complex process. How teachers interpret and apply the school’s vision to their practice and the challenges they face in doing so will ultimately have an effect on whether, and how much, students learn. Ultimately, there is a dearth of research around how teachers implement and respond to blended learning. It is not enough, however, to examine teachers’ practices in isolation; rather, it is useful to frame teachers’ work in context and with an eye on possible mediators (school vision and norms, school community, teachers’ backgrounds, etc.), particularly in the unique context of a blended school. Utilizing CHAT as a theoretical framework may help to illuminate some of the contextual factors influencing teachers’ work in a blended learning environment.


CULTURAL HISTORICAL ACTIVITY THEORY: A THEORY FOR PRAXIS


CHAT theorists assume that learning and the development of practice is shaped by cultural, historical, and social contexts, and that within these contexts, practice is mediated by the interacting factors of the activity system in which the actor operates (Roth & Lee, 2007; Sannino, Daniels, & Gutiérrez, 2009). The mediating factors in the activity system, at minimum, include subjects (the participants engaged in the activity), mediating artifacts (tools, signs, and language that facilitate achieving specific goals and are a product of history), rules (conventions or norms), community (others in the system), division of labor (continuously negotiated division of responsibilities), and the object (evolving purpose) of the activity (Engeström & Miettinen, 1999). The interacting factors in the activity system create tension and contradiction, which drive learning and change (Engeström, 1999). CHAT organizes interacting components of a school and its actors and provides a conceptual frame for analyzing teachers’ sense-making around the conflicting nature of these components and how they produce either successful transformation of the system or regression to traditional modes of practice (Sannino et al., 2009). Activity theorists maintain that these tensions and contradictions are normal—in fact, disequilibrium is fundamental in creating change and innovation (Cole & Engeström, 1993).


This study applies CHAT to a new type of activity system—the blended school. Using CHAT allows for the reconceptualization of the relationships among teacher background, institutional context, and school vision by integrating technology use and instructional practice in a blended school environment into the frame of analysis. In so doing, examining what instructional practice looks like in a blended school can be framed by the unique contributing factors that may influence it.


CHAT is a comprehensive, detailed theoretical frame; I intend to focus mainly on school rules and policies, historical background of the actors within the system, and the division of labor as envisioned and as implemented. These elements of CHAT allow for a detailed, bounded examination of how school- and teacher-level factors shape teachers’ practice in a specialized system (a blended school).  Further, throughout my analysis of the data, these three mediating factors were major contributors to the learning and changes that occurred in the system. Figure 1 depicts how researchers commonly conceive of the CHAT heuristic.


Figure 1. Cultural historical activity theory: the activity system

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Note: This figure illustrates the common conception of the interacting factors in an activity system. Adapted from: Engeström, Y., Expansive Learning at Work: Toward an Activity Theoretical Reconceptualization.


RESEARCH DESIGN


In this article, I report findings from the first year of an ongoing qualitative case study, designed to examine teachers’ instructional practices and roles in a blended school. Instrumental case study is utilized to examine a case which the researcher has deemed to be illustrative of a particular phenomenon and which may be used to provide insight into a particular issue (Stake, 1995; 2000). The case is chosen because of its representativeness and then bounded according to the parameters of the issue in the particular case. For this study, teaching in a blended school is the issue of interest. Teachers’ practices in their classrooms and the goings-on in the school itself represent the boundaries of the case.


A case study is a detailed, in-depth, contextual exploration of a given event or issue of interest (Stake, 2000). In keeping with this, the research team collected a variety of data in order to garner a rich, deep understanding of the contextualized experiences of teachers and to report on the nature of instruction in the blended school. By examining the experiential knowledge of the participants and the context in which they operate, and thus providing vicarious experience for readers of the research, case study allows for the co-construction of knowledge both between researchers and participants and researchers and readers. In this case study, the dialectical nature of interviewing, as well as naturalistic observation, is used to illuminate the experiential knowledge of the participants.


RESEARCH SETTING


The setting for this study is Blended Academy (BA)—a charter high school located in a large, urban area. The overarching goals of BA are to prevent dropout and to ensure that each student graduates “college- and career-ready.” To achieve this goal, the founder of BA envisioned a school based on a rotation blended model, in which students move on a personalized schedule through their online courses, with varying degrees of face-to-face support and various supplemental activities, and in which a majority of learning takes place in a brick-and-mortar school location. Specifically, the founder’s design was for a blended school that provides differentiated pacing and content to close gaps in student knowledge and allow for accelerated learning, comprehensive social-emotional supports, and face-to-face supplemental instruction. The founder also wanted to provide extended school hours to accommodate student work schedules and possible extenuating circumstances that may affect students’ opportunities to attend school regularly. The school was eventually expected to be open from 7 am–5 pm, with teachers and teaching assistants available to help students work through the digital curriculum at their own paces.  As demonstrated later in this article, however, the founder’s original vision for a blended school was not able to be operationalized in practice, making nebulous the identification of BA as true rotation blended model.


BA opened in September 2012 with 126 ninth-grade students. As of March 2013, there were 124 students enrolled at BA; 80% of these enrolled students were eligible for free/reduced-price lunch. Ninety-six percent of those enrolled were students of color, with 42% identifying Spanish as their home language. This site was chosen because of its blended learning design, because it serves primarily traditionally underserved students, and because the school was opening its doors for the first time.


The primary participants in the study are BA’s original four content teachers (math, science, humanities, and English), along with the master intervention teacher (literacy), the school counselor, the student services coordinator, the school’s principal, and its founder. Of the teachers, three are female, two are African American, one is white, and two are Latina. Teaching experience ranges from four to 17 years. Two of the teachers have had prior experience teaching online at the post-secondary level. The teachers taught ninth graders, as this was the first year of the school; however, the content taught ranged from third-grade to 12th-grade standards.


DATA COLLECTION


A wide variety of data were collected in order to contextualize the setting. These data included more than 60 observations; two rounds of interviews; and a year’s worth of email correspondence, documents, and artifacts. Throughout the year, the research team was at the school two to three days per week. Formal observations included multiple observations of teachers’ classrooms, board meetings, professional development sessions, staff meetings, recruitment events, and parent meetings. The formal observations were conducted using an observation protocol that focused on direct quotation and paraphrasing of participants’ words, detailed description of practices and interactions among participants, and description of the researcher’s role. Informal data were also collected through frequent conversations with teachers, administrators, and staff, which were noted in an ongoing field log.


The research team conducted two rounds (in early September and mid-March) of semi-structured interviews. These interviews ranged in length from 16 to 93 minutes. In the first round of interviews, the research team interviewed the four content teachers, the master intervention teacher, the student services coordinator, and the school’s counselor. The first-round interview questions focused on the vision for the school model, expectations for the year, instructional philosophy, and the interviewees’ prior experiences and background. The second round of interviews included the teachers, the student services coordinator, the founder, and the principal, and focused on instruction in the classroom as enacted, challenges encountered, strategies used to address challenges, and teachers’ self-identified roles in the classroom. All interviews were recorded and transcribed to ensure accuracy.


The research team collected a variety of useful documents, including emails to and from teachers and administrators. We also collected examples of teacher-created classroom documents, and handouts from various professional development sessions and staff meetings. Finally, the research team was given access to the digital curriculum, enabling a close examination of content, along with its use in the classroom.


DATA ANALYSIS


All transcripts, observational field notes, and memos were entered into NVivo qualitative analysis software. The collected data includes 16 interview transcripts, 62 observational field notes, hundreds of emails, and dozens of documents. In this study, I conducted data collection and analysis simultaneously. Analytic memoing was iterative, and was conducted after data collection, during and between coding sessions, and during the writing process.


I coded the data in cycles, and conducted frequent memoing and code revision. Prior to the first cycle of coding, I conducted an initial read-through of the data and memoed concurrently in order to familiarize myself with the data and form some initial reactions to help shape the coding process. During this reading of the data, I used attribute coding (Miles, Huberman, & Saldaña, 2013) to organize the data and to note basic descriptive information such as the type of data (observation, interview, etc.) and participant characteristics.


After this initial coding, I developed analytic questions to help focus and guide my analysis as I made subsequent passes through the data (Neumann, 2006; A. Neumann, personal communication, June 20, 2013). I developed three levels of analytic questions based on the research questions. The first level was meant to pull data from an individual transcript or observation (e.g., What does this teacher say about his/her role or his/her instructional practice in the classroom? What does this observation tell me about this teacher’s role or practice in the classroom?). The second level was intended to build categories (e.g., What types of teaching roles do these teachers inhabit in the classroom? What school/individual level factors influence these teachers in developing their roles?). The final level allowed for the development of claims or assertions (e.g., What is the role of the teacher in a blended classroom? What factors influence the development of teachers’ roles and practice in a blended learning school? How do these factors influence teachers?). I kept these questions in mind as I read through the data and as I coded, to help focus my analysis.


For the second cycle of coding, I used an iterative approach, beginning with a deductive coding process. I read through the data, utilizing provisional and descriptive coding (Miles et al., 2013) in order to organize the data. This deductive coding allowed me to identify data referencing instructional practice and role, so that I could then code inductively in a subsequent reading. Thus, in the second and third coding cycles, I moved between deductive and inductive coding. By using both deductive and inductive coding, I was able to focus on my research questions, while also allowing for themes and patterns to emerge from the data, without the influence of preformed hypotheses. During this stage of the coding process, I memoed after reading and coding each unit of data. These memos acted as analytic summaries of the data, allowing me to formulate some answers to my first-level analytic questions.


After reading and coding of all of the data, I memoed again, looking to synthesize the themes emerging from the data. Then, in a final cycle of coding, I coded using the conceptual framework, so I could begin to identify explanations for the patterns and themes I was seeing. These codes included the following: teacher background, school rules and norms, school community, division of labor, and mediating artifacts. Here, I focused in on contradictions and tensions, as these are the key sense-making triggers that facilitate change and innovation in an activity system (Engeström, 1999; Sannino et al., 2009). Because change and innovation are primary goals in blended learning models, these discordances are particularly relevant. After this round of coding, I continued to utilize analytic memoing to make sense of the data. In so doing, I was able to begin to examine the underlying factors that may be contributing to the behaviors and patterns evident in the data.


FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION


At BA, the original vision for teacher practice broke down to varying levels in each classroom, with all teachers exhibiting a return to the pedagogical roles and practices with which they were most comfortable. For most teachers, this included more teacher-centric, low-tech practices—whole-class lectures, handwritten notebooks, and non-digital management of student progress. Several salient factors may explain the degree to which the intended blended model was implemented in the classroom. First, teachers spent a great deal of time managing student (mis)use of technology and off-task behavior. Second, teachers had far more roles and responsibilities than anticipated (as outlined by school vision, rules, and norms). Finally, the interplay of school organizational context and teachers’ beliefs and experiences, along with the tensions between the school vision for practice and the day-to-day classroom activities, shaped teachers’ roles and practices in the classroom. In the following sections, I first discuss the school vision and teachers’ backgrounds and expectations, after which I examine how teachers’ roles and practices played out in the classroom. I then explore how the school as an activity system influenced and changed these roles and practices.


SCHOOL VISION, TEACHERS’ BACKGROUNDS, AND EXPECTATIONS FOR PRACTICE


The founder of Blended Academy asserts that BA is meant to be “blended” in three ways: (1) through a blend of academic and social-emotional supports; (2) through a blend of online course delivery and face-to-face instructional supports; and (3) through a blend of instructional support from virtual instructors, onsite teachers, teaching assistants, and counselors. The vision of BA is to provide a differentiated curriculum aimed at skill development and student content mastery. BA’s design calls for a more collective responsibility for student learning through open classrooms, shared data, and cross-curricular projects. The founder’s vision also calls for comprehensive social-emotional supports, including an extensive counseling program and advisory classes, and project-based learning that would provide students with the opportunity to explore real-world problems and situations. In the BA model, teachers were to be instrumental in each of those components—designing projects, creating supplemental resources, and helping students with their online work. Teachers were expected to be experts in “student-centered” and “care-based” instruction; it was anticipated that teachers would use continuously generated, accurate data to help students craft ambitious but realistic personalized learning plans. In this respect, teachers would act more as tutors and guidance counselors than traditional instructors.


In the vision for BA’s rotation blended model, students rotate through a variety of learning modalities, including online learning, small group instruction, whole class instruction, and project-based learning. In the plan for the school, there is an emphasis on online learning and progression through the digital curriculum, Digital X2. The school’s extensive use of the digital curriculum is intended to provide a wide array of courses as well as flexibility in time, place, path, and pace of student learning—key components of any blended learning model (Staker & Horn, 2012). In pursuit of a personalized learning experience, students were to be able to progress through each of their courses in Digital X at their own paces, asking for teachers’ help and guidance as needed. In addition, some Digital X courses are designed to help low-achieving students close gaps and catch up to their peers, while others offer accelerated content for higher-achieving students. For example, as of April 2013, there were students enrolled in twelve different math courses, ranging from third grade arithmetic to Algebra II. Digital X provides a similarly wide range of courses in each core content (English, math, social studies, and science), as well as elective courses, including art, foreign language, sociology, creative writing, and multi-cultural studies. Further, to provide flexibility in where and when students are learning, Digital X can be accessed from any computer, anywhere, and at any time.


The teachers working at BA were initially drawn to the school because of the opportunity to teach in a different way and to teach with technology. At BA, teachers with experience ranging from four to 17 years spoke passionately about the promise of personalizing learning in a way that, from their perspective, was simply not possible in a traditional classroom. In particular, teachers were drawn to the opportunity to provide the kind of differentiation to which many teachers aspire, but cannot always attain because of the structural constraints of a traditional school. One teacher described her expectations for teaching at BA, saying,


I think in terms of [BA’s] intentions, it’s this idea of personalized learning. So, in a typical school, students are taught by one teacher, it’s a class of 30, and you’re just sort of blanketing strategies and I know we talk about differentiation, but it’s not usually done well because you have 30 kids in your classroom and you are trying to manage different groups. And you are sort of just teaching to the middle.


This personalized learning was meant to be accomplished through extensive use of technology, not only through the digital curriculum, but also through students’ unencumbered use of computers to access related content, communicate with their onsite teachers as well as virtual teachers, and deliver a variety of high-tech assignments. Students would also have access to iPods and other devices, so that they could listen to music or access other activities that would allow them to take a break from schoolwork when needed.


Prior to the start of the school year, teachers were brought into the school for a series of professional development days aimed at creating a unified vision for practice and educating teachers about Digital X. During the first week of professional development, teachers participated in team-building activities and were given the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the vision for the school’s blended model. After getting to know each other and the vision, the teachers spent a week with a Digital X trainer, who showed teachers how to navigate the Digital X interface, how to create supplemental assignments, and how to determine student progress through the curriculum. Notably, very little time was spent discussing how students would be held accountable for their progress, how students would be taught to self-pace, or how to manage students’ use of technology in the classroom. Though some teachers expressed concerns about these areas, the founder and the administrators referred teachers to the plan for the blended model, suggesting that if students are able to progress at their own paces, and are able to use technology without boundaries in the classroom, they will be more invested in their own learning.


Each of the teachers had experience teaching with technology in various online programs and in using technology in the classroom. Several teachers had taught for a variety of universities with online programs. Other teachers had used various personalized learning strategies, or had taught using technology or digital curricula. Based on these prior experiences, and on the founder’s vision, teachers expected that they would play the role of the facilitator in differentiating for the students based on their individual levels, using the digital curriculum and other technological resources to enable student learning. Further, teachers expected that the blended model would facilitate more student autonomy, thus requiring a less authoritarian role for the teacher. Teachers also anticipated sharing responsibility for student learning with the digital curriculum, teaching assistants, virtual instructors, and other teachers. In practice, however, teachers experienced a near-constant tension between the day-to-day activities of the classroom and the vision for a blended school. These tensions led to increased roles and responsibilities for teachers, a continuously shifting school vision for blended learning in practice, and ultimately, a return to more traditional, teacher-centric practices in the classroom.


DROWNING DIGITALLY: BLENDED TEACHING IN PRACTICE


Teaching at BA was characterized by a series of unmet expectations, technological issues, and unanticipated roles and responsibilities, to which teachers had to adjust. The blended school model as envisioned (a seamless combination of online learning and face-to-face instruction, the opportunity for students to learn “any place, anytime,” and a variety of learning modalities and instructional supports) did not match up to the school model that was enacted. The flexible open schedule became regular class periods, with one hour of “focus time” (initially termed “flex time”), during which students could work on the digital curriculum. Teaching assistants, virtual instructors, conference periods, and other promised resources and supports that were meant to ease teachers’ workloads and make it easier for them to personalize instruction came late or not at all. What was initially a unified vision for how teaching and learning would occur in the classroom began to fracture. In practice, teachers had to navigate the competing visions of the founder, the board, the administrators, and their fellow staff members. For example, one administrator wanted to emphasize advisory, while most teachers felt that content instruction needed to come first. Additionally, the principal and two of the more experienced teachers advocated for highly-structured classrooms, while other teachers and the founder wanted to continue to emphasize the flexibility upon which the school’s initial mission rested. Teachers also had to work within the limits of the digital curriculum and the available data. The instructional roles and practices that developed out of this environment differed from teacher to teacher; some teachers enacted highly-structured classrooms, while others maintained more loosely-structured practice. However, there were a few common threads: (1) managing students’ use of technology became a primary responsibility for teachers; (2) teachers had far more roles and responsibilities than initially expected; and (3) teachers exhibited a return to instructional practices with which they were most comfortable—for most teachers, this meant a more teacher-centered classroom environment.


TROUBLESHOOTING AND TASK-MANAGING: TECHNOLOGY USE IN THE CLASSROOM


Walking into the large classroom space shared by Mr. J and Ms. L, it is not immediately evident that these are blended learning classrooms. At first, there are no laptops out in either class. Both Mr. J’s and Ms. L’s students are completing warm-up activities that are projected on each teacher’s white board. After a few minutes, Mr. J’s students get up and get their laptops. Mr. J walks around to students and asks them what lesson from Digital X they will be working on today. As Mr. J speaks to a table of students, other students in the room listen to their iPods, sometimes singing loudly. Some students are on YouTube, watching music videos; others are messaging friends on GChat or Facebook. As Mr. J makes his way around, students toggle back to the screen devoted to the digital curriculum. Sometimes, Mr. J notices that students are off-task and he redirects them. Other times, he is too busy unlocking an online quiz for a student, or confiscating another student’s iPod. On the other side of the classroom, Ms. L is in the midst of what she refers to as a “Technology-Free” lecture. She draws attention to this several times throughout the course of the lecture, as students get out their iPods, asking to send emails or check on other work. After a short lecture, she allows students to get out their laptops, and spends the rest of the period visiting students and prodding them to finish the current unit by Friday. Throughout the class period, students call the teachers’ names constantly, with various requests to “Unlock my quiz!” or “Help me! My screen keeps freezing!” or “The printer isn’t working! Fix it!”


Technology in any classroom can be a learning tool or a distraction. Indeed, schools often struggle with how to limit student access to inappropriate or distracting material without decreasing potential learning opportunities. Even in schools that attempt to block websites, students may perform hacks that allow them to bypass restrictions, as administrators in Los Angeles Unified School District recently discovered (Blume, 2013). Further, many websites (e.g., YouTube or Facebook) can be used productively or unproductively, and it can be difficult for teachers to tell which is which, especially with many students on computers. Though this dilemma may emerge to some degree in any classroom where technology is present (and in any classroom where students are working more independently), it is especially problematic in blended classrooms because computers and devices are often central to content delivery and daily activities; the potential for misuse is high. Further, there are far more options for misuse when students are working on computers, using iPods, and are able to surf the internet freely.  Without supports in place, teachers cannot simultaneously monitor the online activities of every student.


In the original vision for instruction at BA, technology was to be an integral part of students’ learning, meant to allow students to find their own answers to their questions, to explore their personal interests, and to provide multiple opportunities for learning. The use of iPods in the classroom was partially intended to serve the social-emotional component of the model, allowing students to enjoy music and to “tune out” from other classroom activities when working on Digital X. Further, the iPods would allow students to listen to podcasts or teacher-created content at any time, in any location. However, prior to the school’s opening, little attention was paid to the management of these devices, and their potential for misuse. As a result, at BA, teachers spent much of their time managing students’ technology use, troubleshooting, and developing classroom procedures to ensure that technology use was relevant to learning. For example, in Ms. L’s classroom, she attempted to ensure some learning was happening by instituting “Technology-Free” periods in the classroom. When students had to be working on their laptops in order to complete lessons or quizzes, the majority of her time was spent walking from student to student, watching for off-task behavior, and calling out students for how long they were “logged in” to the digital curriculum. In one typical interaction, Ms. L admonished one student, saying “It says you only logged in for one minute . . . when are you going to finish your English if you only logged in one minute today?” The difficulties around ensuring students were using technology productively resulted in teachers “hovering” over students, making it difficult to provide targeted instructional help. Teachers often responded to off-task behavior/technology use by confiscating computers and devices or restricting their use, in order to ensure that students were working. However, because the majority of tasks were meant to be delivered online or through technological devices, this was not a productive or effective solution.


In short, teachers at BA spent a considerable amount of time managing students’ use of technology—how to use it, when to use it (i.e., when to have laptops open, when to use iPods, when to use the digital curriculum), and for what (monitoring Facebook/YouTube use, monitoring messaging, managing the volume of iPods, music, and computer activities). Despite their best efforts, teachers reported that students were still off-task much of the time; classroom observations confirmed this. Though BA was built on the vision for a high-tech school, throughout the year, teachers seemed to rely less on technology for teaching.


Increased Roles and Responsibilities for Teachers


Part of the allure of a blended model for teachers is that it is meant to ease teachers’ workloads so that they can provide technology-driven, personalized instruction for students. As evidenced by teachers’ time spent managing technology use, this was not always the case. The assumptions of practice in the original vision for teaching and learning at BA indicated a very specific division of labor in the school. As outlined by the school’s founder and by the expectations outlined at professional development sessions prior to the start of the school year, teachers would act as facilitators, guiding students through the online curriculum, and creating supplementary learning experiences and projects. Teaching assistants would help manage the classroom and work with students on an individual and group basis, as would teachers. Virtual instructors would help teachers by offering responses to students’ questions about Digital X content and acting as tutors, both within and beyond regular school hours. Students would self-direct, and classrooms would be open throughout the day for students to float from class to class getting help in whatever subject they were working on at the time, creating a more collective responsibility for student learning. The digital curriculum would bear the responsibility of measuring progress and mastery, assessing student learning, aligning content to standards, and providing multiple learning experiences per lesson or unit. In reality, the division of labor did not occur as intended—most of the responsibilities fell to the teacher. In practice then, teachers ended up taking on much more than they had anticipated. Indeed, all of the teachers reported working much more than they had in traditional schools.


Many of the problems that teachers had to address were a result of the shortcomings of Digital X. For example, Digital X often ended up creating more, rather than less work for teachers. As one teacher explained,


[Digital X] comes with nothing. Thank God I came with my brain because I expected that [Digital X] would do the trick and I expected the students would maintain their motivation and do it on their own. I expected that the study sheets would work for them, but now I know they’re horrible. And so it only took me two weeks to think ‘ugh this is not working and now I have to change it fast.’ I didn’t expect that I would have to rewrite the curriculum. I mean I knew that it was a possibility but I didn’t realize that I had to sit down and rewrite entire classes.


Teachers had to rewrite the curriculum for several reasons. For example, sometimes the teachers felt that students weren’t ready to access the curriculum. In this case, students could not read or comprehend what the curriculum was asking them to do.  This issue pushed teachers to move away from the digital curriculum until they felt students could access the material. In one teacher’s words,


I feel as though some students don’t have the skill set to really make [the digital curriculum] 100% fully accessible for them and truly independent, particularly that for some of them they are dealing with a whole new content, and a whole new concept area, so you know, just basic vocabulary skills, reading ability and things of that nature may be lacking. So trying to find a good balance of where I am able to target those students and their individual needs to make sure they’re still able to access the curriculum but now at the same time still kind of work within the flexible framework that [BA] calls for.


To help students with issues of access or misunderstandings, one teacher often created individualized learning experiences for her students in the form of “playlists.” For instance, for some students, the teacher created a playlist wiki that offered several options for stories to read for irony, rather than just one. It also allowed students to listen to the story as they read or watch a supplemental video; the playlists also linked the students to other resources that could be helpful in furthering their understanding of the concept. Though these playlists worked on a short-term basis for this particular teacher, the work she put into making them was not sustainable; indeed, this teacher reported working 15 hours a day to keep up with the workload. Further, this type of assignment would be nearly impossible for other teachers to do. For example, the math teacher, Mrs. A, was teaching 12 math courses at the same time. This made it very difficult for her to manage student pacing through the courses, while also ensuring mastery and providing personalized learning experiences.


Though it can be argued that teachers rewrite and supplement curricula in traditional schools as well, the extent to which teachers had to change the digital curriculum at BA was staggering. Student progress and mastery were measured through Digital X, yet teachers could neither rely on the digital curriculum to provide students with opportunities to learn the material nor expect the information provided by the digital curriculum to be accurate. The school’s emphasis on personalization added to teachers’ workloads as well; teachers had to rewrite the curriculum and create learning experiences that were individualized for each student, depending on the class in which the student was enrolled and that particular student’s skill level and learning style. Finally, in a more traditional classroom environment, a teacher would not be responsible for the material taught in more than a few classes. As mentioned above, at BA, teachers were rewriting curricula and providing supplementary materials for upwards of 12 classes.


Drowning Digitally


In summary, the blended model at BA created more, rather than less work for teachers. Indeed, whenever something went wrong the teachers had to bear the burden. When the online curriculum did not deliver, teachers did more. When the technology became a distraction, teachers had to intervene. This led to teachers drowning digitally—being overwhelmed by the daily demands of teaching, and caught in the demands of the model—not to mention the demands of changing everything on an almost weekly basis. As a result, classrooms become more and more traditional as the year progressed. In the words of BA’s principal,


We’re testing all the assumptions that we made when we wrote the plan, and unfortunately, more of them were wrong than we thought would be. You know, you always expect a certain amount of misjudgment, or inappropriate assumptions, but we had way—we had more. And in areas that were impactful. The biggest is the kids’ ability to self-manage. So we’re going to try to figure that out collectively. One of the challenges is always—you go back to what’s easy and you go back to what’s comfortable. So, if we put everybody in a direct instruction model tomorrow . . . we’d see progress. I think that we would. And not because direct instruction is necessarily better, but because the kids know how to act. So we’ll get more compliance. You know, will we get more proficiency?

Those are the questions to ask.


COMING UP FOR AIR: RETURNING TO TRADITIONAL PRACTICE


Over the course of the inaugural year of BA, administrators and teachers made several changes to the blended model, moving away from pervasive technology use and toward more teacher-centered classrooms. According to the principal,


It has settled so much since the beginning, I mean I think that we’re doing a lot better with keeping kids contained and on-track behaviorally. But academically, the kids who are struggling continue to struggle. And I mean, academically, productivity-wise. And I think that we’ve all been able to—the faculty, what I’ve observed, is finally becoming comfortable with their own norms and processes. They’re coming up for air a little bit and saying, “I need to differentiate.” They’re able to be not so much in reactive mode, like going from “Oh my God, everything is new and overwhelming,” to “We’re starting to come up for air.”


Administrators and teachers cited several compelling reasons for the changes. First and foremost, students were having significant difficulties adjusting to the blended model. As reported by the teachers and the principal, students were never trained on how to behave in this new model and neither were teachers. Students were not responding to the model in the expected way—they were struggling with the idea of a classroom that was not teacher-led, they did not know how to act in that environment, and they were not able to self-manage. Initially, there were expectations that the blended model would be flexible enough so as to allow for it to work for everyone. In reality, teachers were essentially enacting a blended model, and creating it at the same time. Further complicating matters, the staff, the administration, the board, and the founder did not seem to be on the same page with what needed to be happening in the school and in classrooms. Everyone seemed to believe that the blended model was not working as planned, but all had different ideas for how to fix it. Eventually, a return to more teacher-centered classrooms won out over the original vision for instruction at BA.


The move to more teacher-centric practices, such as lecturing and whole-class activities, was championed by the principal and a few of the more experienced teachers. These teachers described their instruction at BA as similar to their prior teaching experiences. Each identified challenges early on in the year and utilized strategies from past teaching experiences to address those problems. The teachers remarked that they had taught in “difficult” schools prior to coming to BA and had decided early on to implement a more structured classroom that veered from the intended blended learning model. Though these teachers used certain aspects of the blended model, they resisted those aspects that they felt were not working, and did so quickly. When they perceived that the model as envisioned was failing in some way, they relied on their prior experiences and pedagogical strategies to construct a functioning learning environment. Unfortunately, as the principal noted in her interview, this “coming up for air” came at the end of the year, when students were already so behind academically that any lessons learned from the volatile first year would only benefit future students, not those who had already lost valuable learning opportunities.


One teacher, Mr. F, in his first interview, expressed that he expected he would have to pull back on some of the structure he usually used in his classrooms. Initially, he said that he did not know what the student population would be, so he was willing to implement the blended model as intended. However, halfway through the year, he expressed doubt that his role was different from that in other teaching environments. Mr. F had spent most of his career teaching in what he described as “challenging” schools. By his own admission, he changed the model to fit with his own views on what works best for the student population that he had—traditionally underserved students. In practice, his classroom appeared to be highly structured, and students quite obviously understood their roles and responsibilities. Each day, the class began with a Do Now (a quick opening activity connecting that day’s lesson with previous lessons), after which a predetermined group of students would walk the class through the answers. The class would then proceed with a short lecture from Mr. F, followed by group activities, or a period of time working in the digital curriculum. During the time that he was not in front of the class teaching, Mr. F would circulate, helping individual students and pulling groups out to work with them on a concept.


To Mr. F, the flexibility did not work for his students and the curriculum was merely a textbook. In order to compensate for what he perceived as shortcomings in the model, he created his own processes for monitoring student progress and mastery, and enacted his own vision for an effective classroom for traditionally underserved students. Due to what he perceived as the shortcomings of the digital curriculum and the blended model as a whole, Mr. F embraced a structured, teacher-directed classroom that he felt worked best for his students.


Low-tech or “No-tech”


Paradoxically, in the high-tech environment of BA, teachers often reverted to low-tech strategies to hold students accountable and to measure progress. This included writing notes on Post-Its and putting them on students’ computers to remind them to work on a specific lesson. Teachers’ strategies to cope with overwhelming workloads and technology issues also included verbal, rather than digital management of student work. For example, Ms. P held students accountable during roll call. In a typical class period, she would call each student’s name and the student would tell Ms. P which page they were working on, rather than saying “Here.” Ms. P would then have students sign up for help, and would spend the class circulating, redirecting students who were off-task, and helping students with their work.


Teachers also relied heavily on non-digital strategies for keeping the students organized. One teacher had students create their own notebooks so that they could organize themselves and have a study guide. Though this teacher used Digital X in her classroom consistently, she did not want students to rely on it as their study guide. This teacher confided that she wanted to utilize the digital curriculum and enact the blended model as envisioned; however, she felt that the structure was not in place to allow teachers to cater to individual student needs or to keep students progressing through the curriculum and mastering the content. The tension between wanting to enact the model as intended and not having the necessary experience or resources to do so compelled this teacher to constantly redefine her role and to rely more on traditional strategies than she would have liked.


By the end of the year, the return to teacher-centric, often low-tech practice was complete. As teachers and administrators re-envisioned the blended model, the closing message to students mirrored their commitment to teacher-centered classroom instruction: “We heard you loud and clear and will work to provide you with a traditional high school experience next year. All we ask is that you come back ready to work hard.”


RECONCEPTUALIZING BLENDED LEARNING IN PRACTICE: THE ACTIVITY SYSTEM


Teachers at BA experienced a transformation facilitated by the tensions and contradictions in the activity system. These tensions between what was expected of teachers and the day-to-day happenings facilitated change at BA; however, these changes represented a return to teacher-centered practices, rather than a high-tech instructional revolution. This is not entirely unexpected. As discussed in the review of relevant research presented earlier in this paper, several scholars have discussed myriad factors influencing teachers’ practice and implementation of instructional reform, including pedagogical beliefs, teachers’ social networks, professional development, and institutional context (Coburn, 2004; Cohen & Ball, 1990; Spillane et al., 2002). A few researchers have also examined teachers’ use of technology in the classroom, indicating that teachers’ prior experiences with technology, as well as their own pedagogical beliefs and those of their colleagues can influence how teachers use technology in their classrooms (Cuban et al., 2001; Ertmer, 2005; Windschitl & Sahl, 2002). However, these strands of research, while illuminating some of the factors influencing teacher practice, do not account for the myriad factors that influence practice in the unique context of a blended learning school.


For example, at BA, most teachers had considerable experience teaching with technology and all expressed similar pedagogical beliefs and goals. The school had a clear vision for practice, and teachers and administrators were hand-picked to facilitate the implementation of that vision. However, as indicated by the data, there is more to the story than teachers’ experience with technology, pedagogical beliefs, and a shared vision for practice.  Conceiving of BA as an activity system helps to reveal the myriad forces at work in defining teacher role and determining teacher practice (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Blended Academy as an activity system.


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Note: This figure illustrates the application of the CHAT heuristic to the activity system of Blended Academy. Adapted from Engeström, Y., Expansive Learning at Work: Toward an Activity Theoretical Reconceptualization.


Multiple mediating “artifacts” appear to have influenced teachers’ instructional practices in BA. The “rules” of the school, which are a combination of the school vision for a blended high school, the state and district policies that must be navigated, and the administration’s mandated and prioritized practices, pushed the teachers to prepare students for testing and to use a blend of online and face-to-face instruction tailored to individual student needs. These rules changed throughout the year, first mandating that teachers stick closely to the original blended vision, then encouraging the teachers to implement a highly structured, teacher-centered classroom model. The “division of labor” among teachers, students, and the digital curriculum was also influenced by these rules. Teachers’ primary responsibility is to support student learning, but the “rules” of the school mandated that they share some of that responsibility with the digital curriculum. In addition to this, there existed an almost palpable tension in how teachers, leaders, and other staff interpreted the blended model. For example, leadership privileged some teaching strategies over others. The types of classrooms identified as most successful by leaders were those that implemented the most structure and strayed furthest from the original model. The school leaders consistently used those teachers’ practices as examples of successful teaching, and often asked them to lead professional development sessions and share strategies. In this way, the school leaders were sending the message that those teachers’ instructional practices were preferred over the original vision for the school. This created conflict among staff and leadership and resulted in some teachers relying on their own pedagogical beliefs more than the rules of the school.


SENSE-MAKING TRIGGERS: HOW DISEQUILIBRIUM SHAPES PRACTICE IN A BLENDED SCHOOL


Disequilibrium—tensions and contradictions—are inevitable in an activity system; indeed, this is how the system changes (Engeström, 1999, 2001; Sannino et al., 2009). The goings-on at BA support that assertion. Activity theorists frame tensions and contradictions as sense-making triggers that allow for change to happen and progress to be made (Engeström, 1999, 2001; Sannino et al., 2009).  The primary sense-making triggers for teachers were the tensions they experienced between the assumptions and expectations associated with the original blended vision and the day-to-day happenings in the classroom. As evidenced by the interview and observation data, these tensions had several sources. First and foremost, a prominent source of tension was the digital curriculum. As discussed previously, teachers expected to share some of the responsibility for curricular design, standards alignment, differentiation, and student learning with the digital curriculum. In reality, however, the digital curriculum ended up creating more work for teachers.


Teachers also experienced tensions between what was expected and what was possible in the day-to-day activities in the classroom. Teachers responded differentially to these tensions, employing strategies and teaching roles commensurate with their own backgrounds and experiences. Some teachers responded with highly structured, more extreme modifications to the model; others floundered, attempting to make modifications, but on a smaller scale—only dealing with immediate classroom problems, like missing data and technology management. Only one teacher believed that if the model was given the chance to work, it would. He modified only in relation to his perception that the online curriculum was not rigorous enough by providing students with extra after-school activities and writing assignments.


The interacting factors in the activity system inevitably produced tensions and conflicts between teacher’s expectations and the actual practice of teaching in the school. For some teachers, there also existed a tension between their own pedagogical beliefs and the blended model, or between their commitment to the model and the school’s (or their colleagues’) adjustments to the model. When teachers encountered a conflict between their expectations and the realities of the school, they drew on their backgrounds for teaching strategies they felt would work for their students and better control the environment. Rather than a transformation of teaching practice and role, in the majority of classrooms the vision for practice was adjusted, reflecting a return to the teacher-centric practices previously jettisoned by teachers. The common thread across all classrooms was a dedication to differentiation informed by teachers’ prior experiences and commitment to the overarching goals of the school: student mastery, college-readiness, and personalization.


IMPLICATIONS FOR POLICYMAKERS AND PRACTITIONERS


At BA, teachers expected their roles in the classroom to be different from their roles in a traditional teaching environment; however, their expectations did not match the realities of the school. Teachers still had to adjust their role and their teaching practice, but not in the ways they anticipated. The educators at BA expected student autonomy, flexible class periods, one-on-one and small group work that centered on concepts from the digital curriculum, coupled with class- and school-wide projects that connected classroom learning to the real world. Teachers anticipated that responsibility for student learning would be shared among the digital curriculum, through online learning and content delivery; the students, through projects and self-directed online learning; and the teachers collectively, through open classrooms and a supportive community. In reality, the individual teacher took on almost all aspects of the work—much more work than would be expected in a traditional classroom. This included rewriting curriculum, managing technology, coming up with ways to measure progress and mastery, dealing with inaccurate digital data, managing and teaching the content of up to 12 courses at a time, and trying to facilitate student learning, all while working to redesign the school model in the middle of the school year.


Conceiving of BA as an activity system helps not only to identify contextual factors that influence teachers’ practice in a blended learning school, but also to analyze the discordances in that system that lead to change, or to regression to the norm. The tensions, frustrations, and contradictions experienced by the teachers at BA demonstrate the need for better planning and professional development prior to the full enactment of a new school model, particularly one in which technology plays a large role. This is important not only for teachers, but for students as well, especially traditionally underserved students. For example, developing a system to manage students’ use (and misuse) of technology before widespread classroom technology use is introduced would significantly lessen the burden on individual teachers. Administrators and teachers must address how teachers will know that students are using technology productively; there needs to be discussion of, and planning around, how technology will be managed as well as discussion of which technological devices best facilitate learning and how they should be used. Further, because teachers’ roles may change in a blended school, these roles need to be defined, and teachers need to be provided with support and training around these roles first, before the students show up. If a teacher is expected to become a coach who facilitates students’ progress through an online curriculum, administrators need to have a clear idea of what that looks like in the classroom. In addition, a clear division of labor should be articulated, with a personnel structure in place to facilitate that division of labor. If an online curriculum is expected to bear the responsibility of assessment and data production, the online curriculum must first be vetted to ensure that the assessments are rigorous and the data is accurate. Finally, the mere presence of technology is not enough to create autonomous, self-directed students. There needs to be planning around how the classroom space should be organized to promote learning, how students will be trained to self-direct, and how teachers will facilitate learning. If a large percentage of the students are still struggling with learning how to learn in a blended environment by the end of the year, how much learning might be lost in pursuit of implementing a new model? More research, particularly theoretically informed research, is needed before full implementation of these types of reforms, especially in schools serving traditionally underserved students. Otherwise, the consequences are substantial: students missing out on learning, teachers burning out, and educators concluding that technology in the classroom does not improve student achievement, when under the right conditions, it might.


Notes


1. All names have been changed.

2. Pseudonym


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 1, 2016, p. 1-30
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18219, Date Accessed: 2/21/2018 10:13:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Andrea Bingham
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    ANDREA J. BINGHAM is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. Her research interests include education policy implementation, school change, and innovative K–12 school models. Presently, she is studying teachers’ experiences and instructional practices in high-tech personalized learning environments.
 
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