Blended Learning in High School
Barb Brown and Ed Kosloski, Calgary Catholic School District

The Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) is the largest Catholic School District in Alberta situated in a dynamic multicultural city. CCSD has been operating for 125 years, with 106 schools serving 45,000 students from kindergarten through grade 12 living in the city of Calgary as well as the surrounding communities of Airdrie, Cochrane, Chestermere, and Rocky View. Calgary has the highest Internet usage in any Canadian city with 89% of Calgarians surfing the Internet. Calgarians have high expectations for integrating information and communication technologies (ICT) in education and demand a world-class learning environment with programmes that prepare students for the unknown occupations of the future.

Alberta Education is a provincial government ministry that provides funding and system-wide supports for K-12 learning throughout the Province of Alberta. The Ministry is responsible for setting curriculum, policies and standards; including technology in schools. Leading in the use of technology in teaching and learning and innovative practices, Alberta has established ICT learning outcomes integrated across curriculum areas (Alberta Education, 2000). Furthermore, jurisdictions in the province actively research technology implementation and teaching practices, through projects, such as the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI), as well as grant funded projects through the Ministry.

At the turn of the century, differentiated instruction was a central focus for professional learning and growth in CCSD. At that time, the district initiated an AISI funding distributed learning research project using the Desire2Learn (D2L) learning environment to complement the district’s focus on differentiated instruction and integrating digital technologies. The primary focus of the distributed learning research project was to explore blended learning and student engagement. The term “distributed learning” was selected to describe the project and capture the idea of making provisions for learning in an integrated, efficient and individualised manner in order to meet the diverse needs of today’s students. The project proved to be a catalyst for change in teaching and learning practices in eleven high schools across the district (Brown, 2006; Fijal & Brown, 2006), and has continued to evolve over the last decade beyond the original grant funded research initiative. Even though a variety of learning options are now available to students, including online courses, self-directed and self-paced courses, blended courses remain the most prevalent.

Blended learning in CCSD refer to courses that combine synchronous in-person classroom instruction with asynchronous knowledge building utilising digital technologies outside of the classroom. For example, a student may attend a high school class at a scheduled time during the day with a common group of students. The class may be comprised of 30 students at one grade level scheduled for a class with one teacher assigned to the class. The teacher may provide the students with the learning plan, including the objectives, assignments and assessments. The class time may include a variety of learning activities designed to engage students in learning through collaboration, co-creation and dialogic exchanges. The digital learning environment enhances the traditional in-person classroom experience by providing the teacher and students access readings, contemplate questions, and participate in any pre-learning or preparation related activities prior to the class. During class time the digital learning environment may be used to access learning resources, collaborate with peers, the teacher or other outside experts for inquiry based problems. In addition, the digital learning environment can be a powerful knowledge-building tool after the class has concluded when used to extend the classroom learning experience through continued collaboration, reflection, feedback and the opportunity for learning outside of scheduled classroom hours.

Another example of blended learning that occurs in the CCSD might involve a group of 90 students attending a scheduled class with three teachers assigned to the cohort. The students in the cohort may be at different grade levels or have different levels of ability. The students choose from learning activities during class time to meet their individual needs. In this case, the teachers may work together to design the digital learning environment to provide differentiated learning resources, scaffolded learning activities and leveled assessments based on the diverse needs of students in the cohort. The digital learning environment provides opportunities for students to choose from various learning opportunities and experiences. For example, students may participate in online discussions or chats even when feeling uncomfortable or insecure about contributing to in-person discussions and would rather utilise technology for expression and communications on their own time and at their own pace. One teacher noticed that students were posting discussion questions and homework issues at all hours of night and throughout the weekend. Teachers commented that some students who would never raise their hands and respond to questions in class would commonly share their opinions and thoughts in the online discussion forum. It was observed that students, particularly those with language difficulties, appreciate having time to formulate responses before sharing with the whole class. Learning resources, such as large print texts for visually impaired students can be customised and discreetly released to students on an individualised basis. Other multimedia learning resources, such as digital texts using text-to-speech software, podcasts, and webcasts, can be repeatedly accessed by all students as needed. There was a case where a teacher reported that a student was in the hospital and used the digital learning environment to keep in touch with classmates, keep up with class work, and continue engaging in learning.

Even though teachers agree that using D2L supports differentiated instruction (Brown, 2006), it has been common throughout the project for teachers to express frustration with the misuse of the digital learning environment. The pager tool in D2L is an example of a tool considered disruptive by teachers. Some teachers noted students would utilise the pager to continuously communicate and send messages to each other and disrupt class time. However, following the initial novelty of using the pager tool, the teachers and students started to recognise the benefits in being able to send pager messages either synchronously or asynchronously in order to discuss learning. Throughout the research project, teachers have increasingly observed students utilising the digital spaces for communications with their peers and teachers about learning.

In many larger institutions it is common to have course developers or designers build the digital learning environment for the teachers and students. In CCSD the teachers are all considered digital learning designers. From the onset of the research project, each school was allocated a 0.5 FTE teacher to support the project and provide on-site and embedded professional learning at each school. These school-based distributed learning teachers were trained on how to use the D2L platform and how to build digital learning environments with a focus on differentiated instruction. During their half-time of unassigned teaching, the distributed learning teachers provided mentorship and immediate support to teachers in small groups and on a one-to-one basis in supporting the integration of information and communication technologies and to meet the needs of individual students and adapting to student’s diverse needs. The site-based support for teacher professional learning through a mentorship model has proven a successful model for continued professional learning and growth in schools. Administrators observed what was termed as a “ripple effect” of collaboration and sharing best practice among teachers. Teachers that were initially reluctant to embrace the digital learning environment started to recognise the benefits of using physical and digital spaces as a means to foster relationships with students.

Student and teacher surveys were conducted annually throughout the project and consistently showed high levels of satisfaction in the access to online resources (Fijal & Brown, 2006). The distributed learning research project has yielded improved learning environments, especially for students with exceptional needs. The following profile is an excerpt from a teacher’s anecdotal records using a pseudonym to describe a student deemed at-risk of not completing high school that benefited from the blended learning environment.

Student Profile: Chris was diagnosed with a developmental delay at an early age. He experiences language difficulties and requires self-management aides. He needs help in promoting independence. He continues to use assistive technology and has been using D2L to access, organise, complete, and submit his work. He requires teacher assistant support and extra time to complete assignments. Chris has been submitting more homework on a regular basis and his grades have been improving since he started accessing the digital learning environment to complement the classroom instruction.

During initial surveys conducted with students there was limited opportunity for students to provide input or suggestions regarding their opinions or feedback about blended learning and the digital learning environment. Once the student surveys were revised to allow for student input through comment fields, it was recognised that an important voice was missing from the research. An unintended finding from the survey data collected was the significance of student voice. Consequently, students have advised educators to focus on building relationships and personal networks, both in the physical and digital learning environments. Students want to be active participants in meaningful knowledge building and in collaboration with others. Students want to be engaged in purposeful inquiries and would like educators to embrace digital technologies for learning.

The CCSD distributed learning project started as a research initiative focused on differentiated instruction and technology integration at the high school level. The initiative has progressed over the last decade and blended learning, consisting of in-person and online learning, is now part of the common learning landscape for both high school students and junior high students in the jurisdiction. The D2L learning environment provides a rich tool kit for teachers in supporting blended learning through the use of digital technologies for pre-class, in-class and post-class learning.