If you are looking for the guru of K-12 blended learning, there are few that come close to Heather Staker.

Co-author of the foundational and best-selling text, Blended: Using innovative disruption to improve schools, Heather carries a wealth of research, experience, and success stories from the emerging field of K-12 blended learning. As the founding president of Ready to Blend, Heather has travelled the world to present at conferences, workshops and media appearances. The Barker community was very luck to host Heather for her first trip to Australia. 

Heather spent the day with 50 staff that are part of the blended learning ‘teacher learning community’. Additionally, we were pleased to welcome colleagues from local schools, as well as schools as far as Haileybury in Melbourne. Heather’s approach to these workshops is to immerse staff in different models of blended learning, from the popular flipped classroom approach, to the flex model that allows students to work through personalised content at their own pace, supported by a learning coach. In the afternoon, staff were invited to design their own blended learning lesson and present their ideas.

In the evening, Heather was the guest speaker at the Barker Institute Focus on Learning series. Here, Heather started by presenting her four main reasonswhybehind blended learning there is an important approach for any educator to adopt:

  1. It allows the personalisation of learning. Online learning and digital resources have matured over the past few decades to the point where they are becoming powerful allies in the quest to deliver personalised and differentiated instruction to students.
  2. It allows competency-based learning. Our current model dictates that time is constant, and that learning is variable. This means that teachers and students are slaves to time, and move students forward even if they are not ready. Blended learning flips this around to make time variable, and learning constant. A mastery or competency-based system means that students move only when they understand content.
  3. It develops student agency and entrepreneurial skills. Blended learning supports students in the development of executive functioning skills including time-management, goal setting, and reflective practices. When personalised learning opportunities are offered, students are called upon to take more ownership of their own learning path.
  4. It provides a more supportive learning environment. Done well, blended learning increases teacher and student interaction during the face-to-face lessons. As there is more control of instruction, teachers use their time in class to meet with students individually and in small group settings. Teachers become mentors and coaches, providing students with a more personalised feedback system. Teachers are more attuned to the personal well-being of students under their care.

The definition of blended learning used by Barker College is the definition that was devised by Heather Staker and her co-author, Michael B. Horn. In this definition, blended learning occurs when:

  1. Online learning is used in such a way to provide student and teacher control of the time, place, pace of learning
  2. Learning occurs in a face-to-face environment in a brick-and-mortar institution;
  3. The online and face-to-face element are deeply integrated into one learning experience.
Heather stressed the importance of understanding the difference between blended learning and technology-rich instruction.

Technology is the starting point of blended learning, but unless there is an adoption of the personalisation, competency and agency in learning, then a school can only be characterised as technology-rich. For example, using technology to aid a lecture presentation might provide an enhanced experience to student, however this activity does not fulfil the blended learning criteria. A teacher might load a task onto Canvas for students to complete, and although this might make the learning easier to administrate, these tasks are not blended learning either. However, when students view content at their own pace, then come to class to demonstrate their understanding, the task is transformed into a blended learning activity. When students are provided with tasks that are suited to their particular level of achievement, this again is considered blended learning.

I was fortunate enough to demonstrate a real-world example of blended learning that I used in my own teaching. In this example, I took the results from a Year 11 examination and divided the paper into 8 different skills and concepts. I then collated information of how well each student performed in these areas and noted the students that did not perform well in certain areas. I then provided students with a reflection survey that allowed them the opportunity to also rate their ability in each of these areas. Using my own assessment and student self-reflection, I was able to assign students to certain tasks on Canvas. These tasks provided students with a video that worked through the answer from the examination, followed by a quiz provided another opportunity to show their ability in that particular area. Students were only able to move on once they had demonstrated this understanding. These activities were completed during class so that I had the opportunity to work with students one-on-one and really find out where a misunderstanding developed. This ability to target and refine individual student ability resulted in strong improvements in marks in following examinations.

This is why blended learning should be seen as a concept that places the student at the centre of the learning experience, and not as a focus on using technology in schools.

As Heather summed up, blended learning allows schools to provide world-class individual coaching for students, it makes learning fun, collaborative and engaging, and it allows students to experience progress every day. It is for these reasons this approach needs to be explored into the future.

Dr Andrew Mifsud

Andrew Mifsud, EdD is Head of Digital Learning and a Music teacher at Barker College. His doctoral research was an ethnographic study on student perceptions and experiences of secondary school blended learning environments. This research used cultural-historical activity theory to theorise an expansion of the learning activity based on the resolution of internal and external contradictions. Andrew has also been involved in research projects in the areas of social learning sites, digital learning, and music education and has presented this work at national and international education conferences.

Andrew is the NSW Secretary of the Australian Society for Music Education and is a past recipient of the ASME Music Educating for Life Award and Outstanding Professional Service Award for his work promoting professional learning in the music education community. Andrew is a Teacher Coach in the College of Teachers and Barker. He enjoys working with teachers to discover the art and science of teaching.