Designing and Supporting Blended Learning Environments

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An interview with Nichole Pinkard, Denise Nacu, and Caitlin Martin about their NSF-funded project to understand and design for contexts that use a blended approach to organize learning.

What is the big idea of your project work?

The world is excited about blended learning as a solution for the educational system, but we haven’t really opened the black box of what it means to be an effective instructor in a blended learning context. How do we make sense of the learning that’s taking place in an online context and have it connect fluidly to in-school, face-to-face learning opportunities? Our big idea is that the same way that teachers have command over the different type of spaces in the classroom and know how to use them effectively, we want to understand how to help teachers have command over the different type of spaces that are part of online learning environments. How can teachers be more strategic about it? What are the challenges and barriers? How can we design social practices, tools, and widgets to help them? For example, the bulletin board in your classroom has only a certain amount of space, and you know you there are only certain types of things that you can put up there. How can we create useful intuitive features like that in the online space so teachers know how to use them? How can we make the online space more familiar so they can more easily map it to their practices, and help them be strategic about when to organize learning activities online vs. face to face?

There are also very few data sets that allow researchers to understand what is going on in blended learning environments. If anyone wants to work in this area, they often have to go to Facebook or some big company. So, we hope that one of our contributions is to also create a data set and contextual information around the data set that can allow for more shared conversations and collaborative work around what learning and teaching look like in these type of blended spaces.

What is the age target and topic area for learners in your project?

NSF Project Information

Title: DIP: Developing Frameworks, Tools and Social Practices to Support Effective Instructor use of Online Social Learning Networks in Blended Learning Models
Award Details

Investigators: Nichole Pinkard, Denise Nacu

We think of both educators and students as learners. The students we are working with are middle school to high school age. Our work is situated in the context of the Digital Youth Network, a mix of school, after school, and online spaces designed to provide youth with opportunities to develop traditional and digital literacy within a supportive and interactive community in formal and informal spaces and opportunities. In this case, the face-to-face environment includes both afterschool programming and in-school classes on the south and far west sides of Chicago, in predominantly African American and Hispanic communities. We’re working closely with teachers and students in English language arts and social studies middle school and high school classrooms, and with educators and youth from the Digital Divas, an afterschool program for girls focused on engineering and computational thinking. In each context, a focus on digital literacies is combined with specific topic areas. We’re working to understand how mentors and teachers navigate blended learning spaces, and we’re fortunate to have multiple spaces to study here in Chicago. Since we wrote our grant, a larger citywide initiative called Chicago City of Learning was launched, combining online and face-to-face opportunities available to youth throughout the city, which we’re also going to explore in this work.

Are you creating any products?

Yes. One product we are working on is to develop a framework for understanding online educator – learner interactions, and how we can look at these interactions in terms of youth learning and development. To help teachers be effective online, we’re trying to define the types of roles that educators play in networked environments, how those roles might differ for different students and teachers, and how to create tools that can enable generative roles and interactions for learning. For example, one role that teachers play both off and online is to encourage students about their work and learning. That looks different online than it would face to face, but we know that encouraging is an important part of helping students persevere through challenges and are working with teachers to understand what this looks like online and how to make options for encouraging more visible in the online environment. Another important role we have seen teachers enacting online is that of prompting students to question, revise, and further their work. There are ways you can support that by allowing teachers to write comments when students post their artifacts, but are there other ways that we can do that? We think that if we can articulate this framework of online learning support roles, it will help teachers understand how they can interact, and also help us as designers create tools that can enable and enhance teachers’ ability to play those learning support roles.

Quick Facts

Age: Middle school and high school

Subject area: Digital literacy, computational literacy

Setting: Afterschool programs, schools, and blended learning environments

Geographic location: Chicago

Along with the framework, we will also be putting these ideas into practice by creating various online features to promote and make visible the different learning support roles. In collaboration with teachers, will be working to develop the new features and experiment with using them in blended learning contexts. As we develop ways of operationalizing the framework of support roles in the design of online learning environments, we expect to share design principles that we hope will be useful to others.

Another product is visualizations. One concern that teachers have when using the online spaces is: How am I going to know what is going on in there? Are students learning? How are they interacting with each other and with the learning resources? We’re taking advantage of the dataset from the online space and working with teachers to create dashboards that provide snapshots of what they care about in a way that is easily visible, customizable, and that they can act upon both in and out of the online system. The trick is figuring out what types of information to provide and when to provide it. That’s the hard part. We can figure out lots of data to display, but the data needs to be specific, actionable, and changing over time to reflect the ongoing activity. You have to provide layers of visualizations and consider where the teachers and students are in a project cycle to know what to show them. And over different cycles of a project, different visualizations may be more or less relevant to the teacher. Our work is designed to be highly collaborative with participating teachers as they help us to figure out answers to these and other questions.

Can you say more about the youth experience? What do they see?

All of the youth are all using the same online platform, but are involved in different face-to-face learning contexts. In the afterschool program, Digital Divas, youth focus on computational design and programming through interest-based projects such as designing wearable computing. They work with an adult mentor after school, and for the most part, their work is driven by what we’re calling online learning “pathways”. When they begin the online pathway, they are shown the multiple steps that make up the path for that subject area. They typically start with smaller, scaffolded activities that have embedded resources like videos or how-to guides. The activities are often hands-on, so the work transfers back and forth from digital screens and resources to physical sewing and circuitry. It’s a blend of mentorship and kids working at their own pace on a variety of scaffolded activities.

Another part of the student experience is connecting them to each other. In the face-to-face environment, they are sitting next to their friends who are working on their own pathways. They collaborate, encourage, and help each other. They also post their work online and see similar work posted by other youth. So they are building a shared community and shared understanding and experiences. We are working to help build up even more communication around shared ideas both face-to-face and online, but they are definitely looking at each others’ work.

We also want to understand how these learning experiences are connecting youth to other spaces, resources, and programs beyond the Digital Youth Network. Often, those connections arise because an adult helps to make a connection as a result of the mentoring relationships that are formed.

How about the teacher experience?

In this learning environment, youth records of actions and portfolios of work span over time and have the possibility of extending from one program to another, from middle school into high school, from school-program to summer program. This is a new type of intentionally designed learning environment for youth and for teachers. We’re working with teachers to understand how to take this structure in order to build and achieve their learning goals. Depending on what their content area is or the particular unit, we work with them to create learning pathways: What are the different activities that are incorporated? How do they scaffold activities? What resources can be provided? How can we combine work in the face-to-face environment with what is possible online? How can we support collaboration and generative learning interactions, like teaching others? As part of our ongoing overarching vision and project work, we’re working closely with teachers as design partners through collaborative design workshops to help us design online features, professional development sessions to build learning pathways and review use data, and classroom implementation.

And finally, can you say more about your research approach?

Our research is very much design-based. We’re working in real classrooms and real afterschool programs, and working with a real tool that is being implemented in classrooms beyond our Cyberlearning project work. Over the three years of the project, we are focusing on big questions such as, What does learning even look like in these online environments, and how can we show that learning is happening? What online interactions seem to be generative for and around learning, and how does this relate to the face-to-face world? How can we design for the learning outcomes and interactions that we think are important? How can we create visualizations that will help teachers and youth improve learning, design, and practice?

In year one, we followed our educator partners closely, developing case studies through interviews, observation, workshops, and professional development sessions. We also collected more quantitative data including surveys and extensive, detailed logs of student and teacher actions online that tracks things like what they looked at, whose work the teacher commented on, and what kind of assignments and feedback the teacher gave. We are analyzing this data currently using our online learning support roles framework to identify the roles educators played for students online in this first year of study. Social network analysis offers another lens for analysis, helping us understand what relationships the students and teachers have, and how their relationships and viewing habits impact their creation habits and how this pattern changed over the course of the year by viewing snapshots at different time periods.

We are entering year two, where we are working with our same educator partners and their students, but diving into student cases using similar methodologies. In year three, we will focus on the school, classroom, and online community as a unit of study.

One challenge with this kind of data and the learning analytics involved in this kind of work is difficulty around IRB processes. For example, when kids are in the same online system but in different projects that may have different IRB approval chains, it’s hard to manage the complexity. There probably needs to be more voice for bringing together researchers to understand the difficulties of this work from the ground up, to understand how we can share the articulation of this work, and share data sets that are both usable for understanding learning and that also maintain safety and privacy.