Lessons from Intentional (online) Distance Education for Blended Learning

I currently oversee a K-12 Distance Education (DE) school, comprised of 1500 students based locally, remote, interstate and internationally (part of a larger systemic organisation). I thought I’d share some of our experiences and hopefully some key takeaways that might help those working in the new pandemic-driven era of blended or emergency remote learning.

For those wondering: we adhere to ACARA (Australian Curriculum P-10), and in Queensland follow ATAR requirements in senior schooling.

Our DE model is asynchronous and flexible, meaning it isn’t a fixed traditional Monday-Friday 9-3 schedule. We have weekly online lessons accessed on Macs or iPads in our Canvas platform by students at times convenient to their own schedules. Our student body is made up of students with other commitments (e.g. international athletes, performers, farming, etc.), students with special needs (e.g. enrichment, anxiety, etc.), or who just want a flexible schooling option that more closely mirrors a university model. Whilst we have a gamut of social interactions (whether face to face [F2F] or online), very little of these or our academic elements are fixed in the week. This compels us to run our DE model through a framework I’ll break down below, based upon the learning design proposed by Means, Bakia and Murphy (2015): 

Online learning framework

(Shaded blue is our selected framework)

Although we aim for maximum flexibility, it is done within the aforementioned framework so that there are integral points of contact and collaboration between teacher and peers. This could be weekly 30-minute F2F lessons for each subject (more on this later), online clubs or set assessment periods (e.g. exam blocks and other due dates).

What does this mean for those who are in schools where this context doesn’t apply? Here are just two key ways I believe are transferrable into synchronous schooling to help mitigate or build upon the emergency aspect of remote or blended learning:

  • Clear communication and process
  • Ascertain shared goals with your executive leadership and teaching staff, and then develop clear and accessible policies and procedures around this. For example, what do you do when a student is not engaging in their lessons? Who do you follow up with and contact? What strategies and automated/manual processes do you have to track this? Does your on-campus behaviour policy apply exactly or does it need amending to cater for a new blended environment? What if a student misbehaves poorly in a webinar/live lessons? How do you address this in a Zoom or Meet call whilst juggling the live lessons? We have found having very explicit policies and procedures has helped immensely— our students know what the expectations and guidelines are to being good digital citizens within the online space, our teachers feel supported and can focus on their teaching and relationships, and our parents and leadership are able to have clear conversations as needed.
  • Systems and training
  • Don’t underestimate the sheer magnitude online brings. Everybody has and continues to do an incredible job rapidly upskilling in Teams, Meet, Webex, Classrooms, Canvas, Schoology, and all manner of platforms and interfaces. But what about new teachers? What about ongoing training? How do teachers and other staff revisit training they’ve had? Given our DE model, we continually train staff up across a range of platforms and UI spaces. To be more efficient and allow them to learn in their own time, or revisit concepts as it suits, we utilise a couple of training platforms. Apple Teacher has been brilliant for Mac and iPad training as well as the app ecosystem (eg Keynote etc.). Thinkrific is fantastic, so we draw upon that for all kinds of training (from child protection to fire safety to iPad basics). Given our heavy utilisation of Canvas as our LMS, we have built courses that we enrol our staff in, so that they are immersed in the same space their students are for mini training packages (e.g. How do I used advanced analytics to track student engagement and then follow up with students and parents, then log this for wellbeing and other leaders?) that are bite-sized. The other strategy at play here is that course design is very tricky. In the physical classroom, you can see how your students engage at all times and physically read their expressions and body language and garner immediate responses to rapidly adapt your lesson. In an online classroom, this is much more complicated to draw out. Knowing how your lessons are designed and even just how long they take to complete is crucial.

Course workload estimator

  • The Center for Excellence at Rice University has developed an incredibly useful tool (https://cte.rice.edu/workload#howcalculated) backed by research for you to consider lesson durations and activities you assign. These estimations allow you to consider evidence-based reading and writing rates of students, to help fine-tune your course design.
  • In the collective rush to provide emergency remote learning, many schools grabbed what was already being used, what was free, or what was fast and easy. This sometimes meant a mish-mash of often conflicting platforms strung together. As ADEs, we excel in this space, but also in thoughtfully determining the best collection of tools for the job. Now is the perfect time to reconsider where the tools you are using are the best fit. When our organisation shifted from Schoology to Canvas, that change was not easy (I’m sure you’ve all been through many of these large scale changes!). But what we’ve found is that sometimes an off-the-shelf product isn’t enough. For what we do in DE, the ability to hook into 3rd party APIs and LTIs and other add-on offerings is huge. For example, Canvas has limited data analytics around learner achievement and progression, but by utilising a 3rd party, we have built an excellent custom analytics and report card system so that our teachers no longer need to worry about reports (which, let’s be honest, twice a year A-E or equivalent reporting is purely for compliance, and the real impact as Hattie and others describe is through relevant and timely feedback, not twice a year reactive feedback!). We also draw upon Pages, Keynote, Clips, FCPX etc. to build beautiful lesson resources. Our students encounter Swift and more. What are some ways you can streamline with add-ons or by looking at the marketplace now to help reduce workloads and overheads for your team so they can focus on supporting their students’ learning?
  • Intentional reduction. Thinking about the last provocation, this is something we don’t do very well as schools and leaders. We need to look very closely at our teachers’ workloads and find ways to reduce those aforementioned overheads or administrative tasks that are borne out of compliance or “always done it this way” thinking. As an example, we found a way to build how we do academic reporting so that student semester reports are automatically generated, but the important underlying data is utilised by teachers in a proactive and not a reactive way. This data through the aforementioned systems is displayed to teachers in really accessible ways so they can drill down into how students are engaging, performing, and progressing. This growth is visualised wonderfully, and allows our teachers to best connect with students and families, and be informed by the parents. Look for tasks/events that are not entirely necessary and remove them. Look to add value that will have the greatest impact to student learning.

Whilst this was a snapshot, and some of what I’ve spoken to will hopefully be helpful, and some will not be usable in your context, I encourage you to try framing your current model with the online learning design framework seen above, check out the workload estimator for course design, and take some time to think about what you are doing versus what you must be doing, and where you can intentionally remove to give more breathing room for deeper, more meaningful work that will have greater impact

All Comments

Posted on August 30, 2022

Thanks for sharing the Center for Excellence at Rice University link - super useful and could be a great conversation starter.

Posted on September 18, 2022

You share a lot of valuable insight in this post. I think we're all stepping back and reflecting on how we move forward with instruction and find the best balance of online/hybrid/in-person and technology-enhanced instruction for the students with whom we work. Like JJ mentioned in her comment, I found the course workload calculator from Rice University to be an incredibly interesting resource! I shared it with other faculty in my department as well.

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