Judging by the activity on social networks, the recent snow days for Cary Academy have been full of fun and games.

Luke and Ellie JBehind the scenes, however, our faculty and students will tell you that snow days also were hard work. All students at Cary Academy have laptops, and in those powerful devices they carry around much of what they need for productive learning — at school and at home.

Our faculty easily adjusted to the change in schedule, updated lesson plans, and communicated with students about work and projects. We did not physically need to be together to make this happen. The snow days may have allowed for a little sleeping in, but they were not lost learning days.

The ease at which we relied on digital communication to move our curriculum forward on snow days should give us pause to examine exactly how we are using the days we are in school.

Digital tools have changed nearly every facet of our personal and working lives. We visit stores and then buy from Amazon, pay bills from our smartphones, and maintain relationships with far away friends and family on Facebook or via Skype. We stream music, television, and movies. Doctors do video consultations with patients in rural locations and multinational companies join offices around the world via internet meetings and collaborative tools. Work schedules for many companies in the Triangle are dictated by a global clock.

Schools Look the Same

Schools, however, look just about the same as they have for hundreds of years. “In this model,” writes Glenn Kleiman, executive director of the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University, “students were directed by a fixed bell schedule to move from classroom to classroom, where content-specialist teachers would impart pieces of new knowledge each day, with tests serving as quality control in the education assembly line.”

The expected outcomes for students are very different today. As visiting Harvard professor Pasi Sahlberg notes, today’s students need to be “innovation ready.” They need to be able to know how to direct their own learning. Creativity has replaced compliance as an essential outcome of our educational system.

The tools are present to make this shift. Teachers are doing wonderful things to incorporate many of these new methods into the current structure. Fully online courses are now available that provide access to curriculum that would otherwise not be available to many students (due to low enrollment numbers, lack of qualified teachers, or scheduling conflicts).

But individual teachers can only do so much to transform the system. They have no control over scheduling and confronting all the options for systems can be overwhelming. In addition, the more different approaches taken by teachers the more confusing it can become to students, who must collaborate and pass work through OneNote notebooks, Wikispaces, WordPress, FinalSite, Haiku, Outlook, Sharepoint, and Google Docs — just to name a few.

The path to real change must involve leveraging the expertise of our teachers in a collaborative way. Unleashing the power of these professional learning communities was a common theme at the recent Institute for Emerging Issues Forum. This also is at the core of the Cary Academy mission: To be a learning community committed to discovery, innovation, collaboration and excellence.

Innovation Ready: Blended Learning

Towards that end, we are very excited to announce that Cary Academy has formed a Blended Learning Development Team to explore individual and institutional approaches to using the most up-to-date digital tools to enhance teaching and learning.

“Blended learning” is a very hot topic in educational circles today. It holds the greatest potential for significant and positive disruption of the education system. Research is still new in this field, but early reports hint at the promise of this hybrid approach. A 2010 Department of Education meta-analysis found that students who took blended classes performed better than those taking courses through traditional, face-to-face instruction.

The term “blended learning” can sometimes be confused with the heavy use of digital tools in the classroom or with flipping classrooms by watching lectures at home and doing homework in school. These are worthwhile efforts, but they are not blended learning.

Cary Academy chooses to use the definition of blended provided by the Christensen Institute, founded by Harvard Business School Professor and author of Disruptive Innovation Clayton Christensen:

  • at least part of the instruction provide through online tools, with some element of student control over time, place, and/or pace;
  • at least part of the instruction provided at school;
  • and the modalities along each student’s learning path connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

Team Approach

Individual instructors have developed blended courses at Cary Academy in the past. Our Blended Learning Team will leverage what we learned in those cases with current best practice in both face-to-face and online instruction. Members of the team will be developing new blended courses for Cary Academy and working through the appropriate standards and benchmarks for future course development. We believe this team approach will lead to higher quality courses and the best and most consistent experience for our students.

The team will get started this spring with 11 individuals in the upper school and admin teams. We will will be developing upper school courses in science, English, social studies, and music. These courses will have the same high standards of traditional Cary Academy courses but give students more control over their schedules and collaborative time.

We are excited about the potential for blended learning and delighted to have a new professional learning community help us bring our mission of discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence to life.