By Heather Greenhalgh-Spencer, Ph.D. Texas Tech University
Texas Tech University’s College of Education has recently developed blended and personalized teacher training programs that focus on providing participants sustained, hands-on support.
For past two years, we at Texas Tech University have been conducting research on the experiences of teachers in Blended Learning/Personalized Learning (BL/PL) classrooms, where teaching is more customized, data-driven, and student-paced.
Two significant findings support the changes TTU is making both to preservice and inservice learning, and in the development of new graduate level offerings to better prepare teachers for BL/PL classrooms and schools.
- While teachers often feel anxious about their practice within the first one to two years of implementing BL/PL, our research shows that sustained and hands-on support can significantly reduce anxiety and worker fatigue, as well as create a more supportive environment for teachers, allowing them to move beyond their comfort zones to more fully implement BL/PL strategies.
- While many of the teachers in our study felt apprehensive over the dramatic changes in their classrooms as they transitioned to BL/PL, they were also sure that they would never go back to more “traditional” methods of teaching.
Teachers often start their experiences in a BL/PL classroom full of enthusiasm and confidence. However, within the first year, many transition from feeling confident in their abilities to feeling overwhelmed or unsure of which “traditional” teacher practices to hold onto and which to let go. The BL/PL classroom is so different from a traditional classroom because the underlying goal is to transition to a truly personal and student-led learning environment. This is sometimes more daunting than teachers originally expect and they often are not prepared for this kind of environment. In response, TTU has developed a range of educational options to extend the capacity of teachers to transition and succeed in BL/PL classrooms.
Working In Partnership with Districts
In the past two years, TTU has developed a graduate certificate specifically designed to offer sustained and hands-on support for BL/PL teachers. The program currently enrolls teachers from 7 school districts around Texas.
We started this work with the personalized learning team in Dallas ISD (DISD), who asked us to develop courses to support their teachers as they implemented BL/PL in the classroom. DISD gave us a unique charge: Develop courses that teach our teachers about BL/PL strategies without teaching our teachers about specific technologies. DISD was very concerned about the tendency for BL/PL to become nothing more than adding new technology to a classroom; they knew that real blended and personalized learning is about a change in pedagogy. Effective BL/PL involves re-thinking the look of our classrooms, the ways that we teach, and even how we create and sustain relationships with our students. It involves so much more than just digital technology.
Shortly after beginning our work with DISD, we also began work with Raise Your Hand Texas. They were launching the Raising Blended Learners initiative to showcase strategies for using blended learning to improve K−12 student achievement across diverse student demographics and geographic regions in Texas, particularly among schools and districts with persistent achievement gaps. In order to ensure the courses met teacher needs as they transitioned to BL/PL classrooms, Raise Your Hand gave us the charge: Make sure your graduate courses are competency-based, rigorous, and include continuous opportunities for teachers to learn, grow, and receive feedback.
At TTU, we define BL/PL as a group of pedagogical strategies that encourage: student agency and teacher use of data and technology as tools to facilitate a personalized, self-paced, and collaborative educational experience. TTU’s partnerships with DISD and Raise Your Hand and our shared commitment to these strategies continued throughout development of the graduate certificate courses. This helped TTU ensure coursework had high relevance to teachers’ experiences at multiple BL/PL schools, campuses, and districts.
Our goal has been to create courses to support teachers in this process. All courses involve online instruction coupled with intensive clinical experiences where participants can practice and hone the skills learned in coursework. In addition, we believe ensuring courses are competency-based and include a coaching element—where students demonstrate a specific BL/PL skill and then receive feedback from peers and instructors—is integral to the success of these programs.
Options for Teachers at Any Level
For preservice teachers, TTU has transitioned our teacher training and certification program toward BL/PL readiness. The goal is to equip preservice teachers with the skills they need to be successful in navigating the challenges of the BL/PL classroom.
For inservice training, TTU has developed a graduate certificate. This program prepares inservice teachers to develop the new mindset, pedagogical strategies, and resources needed for BL/PL to work in their classrooms. The graduate certificate is comprised of five courses that are designed to give practitioners hands-on knowledge around the following topics:
- BL/PL foundations
- Data literacy and data-driven instruction
- Fostering student agency
- Creating community connections and collaborations
- Creating multiple pathways to mastery
- Promoting competency-based learning
Graduates of this competency-based program will have significant experience teaching in BL/PL contexts, using BL/PL pedagogical strategies, critically using technology to enable better BL/PL learning and teaching, and significant practice in “critical friend” strategies that better enable teacher leadership and peer-coaching. Each course in the certificate includes three hours of graduate-level credit.
During each of the courses, participants focus on the BL/PL framework TTU developed after multiple visits and studies of BL/PL classrooms. The BL/PL framework focuses on 3 main areas:
- Students: What should students be doing in a BL/PL classroom? What does it look like?
- Teachers: What should teachers be doing in a BL/PL classroom? What does it look like?
- Classrooms: How can BL/PL classrooms be arranged to foster BL/PL learning?
Each of these areas has strategies for the participants to learn and “implementation activities” for the participants to complete.
By completing the coursework and implementation activities, participants in the graduate certificate have seen real changes in their classrooms. After each course, participants evaluate their own progress, whether or not the course was helpful, and the effectiveness of the professor. We have seen, through participant comments, that these courses are supporting teachers as they make real gains toward effective BL/PL learning for their students. Below are some of the comments we have received from participants.
“I really enjoyed the class and it really helped me focus on the areas I needed to really begin PL in my classes. The kids are doing very well and are feeling empowered through their choices. I’m loving it!”
“I feel my students and I have done a very good job at adapting and implementing many new things in the classroom. Next year I plan to continue to polish the skills and techniques of PL and everything else that I have learned about this year. My goal is to create true student agency, independent leaners, make myself more of a facilitator. I know it will take time and it won’t be easy, but I know I will get there eventually.”
“I have already learned to use data more wisely and efficiently, as well as learning how to train my students to better use their own data.
“Thankfully, the ideas I learned in this class opened my mind to new ideas and opportunities in my classroom that I could leverage and change. These changes can be seen in all three levels of the PL framework. While I would not call of the elements that changed strengths just yet, they are emerging and as one of the principals I once served under told me ‘improvement is incremental.’”
Next Steps: Masters Degree with a Concentration in BL/PL
Recently, TTU has expanded opportunities for teachers in BL/PL classrooms. In addition to the graduate certificate, TTU has created a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in personalized learning. The master’s degree program can include the 5 certificate courses, so students who have completed the certificate and are interested in continuing toward a master’s degree will have completed nearly half of the required coursework (15 of the 36 required credits).
While we would love to have students go directly from our graduate certificate into a TTU master’s program, we realize that this is not an option for all students. In fact, some students will want to complete a master’s degree at a different university, or even a PhD—at either TTU or a different university. The courses in the graduate certificate are recognized by the higher education accrediting board as graduate-level hours. This means, depending on the program of study and the thoughts of the relevant graduate advisor, these courses might be applied to other graduate degrees as well. We have tried to create a pathway where participants can either stop at the graduate certificate or continue forward, depending on their own desires and needs. In this way, we hope to continue offering the needed support for teachers to become ‘rock stars’ at fostering BL/PL environments.