With a New Kind of Learning, Schools are Seeking The Right Blend

A new computer-driven concept in learning gets a workout in Morristown.

Teacher Lei Han Hong, left, leads a small group of Normandy Park Elementary School students in traditional learning, while others work individually on their laptops.
Teacher Lei Han Hong, left, leads a small group of Normandy Park Elementary School students in traditional learning, while others work individually on their laptops.
Photo by Sandra Nissen.

In mid-June, just before school let out for the summer, Erica Hartman and Mackey Pendergrast slipped into the back of Lei Han Hong’s second- and third-grade class at Normandy Park Elementary School in Morristown, doing their best to be invisible.

Hartman, the supervisor of technology integration in the Morris School District, and Pendergrast, the district superintendent, watched appreciatively as a group of students sitting in a circle around Hong used pencil and paper to demonstrate, with varying degrees of success, the break-apart strategy for solving multiplication problems.

Later that day, in Bernadette Mehrten’s ninth-grade physics class at Morristown High School, they stayed mum again as students prepared for the final exam, navigating equations together or quizzing themselves independently on laptops.

In both classrooms, Pendergrast and Hartman successfully came across as flies on the wall, but they were hardly disinterested observers. Rather, they  are leading proponents of blended learning, a modern system of teaching in which students learn at least in part on their own, through digital and online media, as well as the traditional way, with a teacher leading a full class in a single lesson. In pioneering the system in their district, Pendergrast, Hartman and assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction Kelley Harte are still seeking the optimal balance of tech and non-tech learning.

Pendergrast, who became district superintendent in June 2015, illustrates the concept with a favorite metaphor: “When you go to a doctor, you have a personal relationship with him, and he can give you human knowledge, insight and guidance. But if you’re also wearing a Fitbit, it can tell you how well you’re sleeping at night, how active you are at that moment, etc.” What’s more, the Fitbit-like feedback is instantaneous.

That doesn’t sound so radical. But as Pendergrast promised before the recent school visits, blended learning, implemented in the Morris School District last September and making its way in various permutations into other districts around the state, makes for “a much different classroom vibe.”

Rarely will you see a teacher with his or her back turned to rows of desks as students copy down what’s being written on the blackboard. Never will you see the teacher addressing a roomful of kids with textbooks turned to the same page.

Joshua Koen, special assistant for technology in the office of curriculum at Newark Public Schools, says that’s the way it should be. “We’re one of the most traditional occupations around,” he says of teaching. “If you were to time travel back 100 years and then come back a year ago, what you’d see in a classroom is almost unchanged. But if you look at the business world, pretty much any business, they’re using computers in transformative ways.” Transformation—a newer, better way of teaching and learning—is the hope he holds for the majority of the 68 schools in his district, where Koen has helped implement blended learning in several classrooms.

Larry Cocco, director of the office of educational technology at the New Jersey Department of Education in Trenton, says blended learning is the new normal, and that districts throughout the state have been working to implement the technique for at least 15 years in their efforts to ready students for an increasingly digitized and device-driven future.

“We don’t have hard numbers on how many districts are using it, but I’d be surprised to find any significant number that aren’t,” he says. But while Cocco uses the term “blended” broadly and somewhat interchangeably with digital learning, Pendergrast’s definition of blended learning adheres to a strict set of pedagogical tenets.

A recent scenario in Crystal Toye’s fourth- and fifth-grade classroom at Normandy Park Elementary illustrates Pendergrast’s model. “Let’s talk about what’s going on in Flint with the water,” Toye says to five kids whose desks are arranged in a semicircle around hers; across the room, the rest of Toye’s 11 students are hunched over laptops at their desks. While Benjamin, a boy in the semicircle, expounds on the importance of clean water to human survival, Toye engages him and also monitors the work of the rest of the class as they finish math or reading exercises online, using a program called iReady. She does so by glancing at the laptop on her desk, which displays real-time data about her students’ progress on work in their Chromebooks, the laptop computers on which they work daily. Minutes later, Benjamin’s group will rotate to the independent work, while a different group of classmates will take its turn interacting around Toye’s desk.

Toye has been teaching for 15 years and has two children of her own in Morris County schools. She sees  blended learning  as a boon to her profession.

“This gives me so many strategies to work with,” she says. “I just looked at my computer and caught that Eric hit the minimum requirement for his reading assignment, for example. I can go into each student’s account and get real-time results of their progress. That means I can be so much more efficient—the kids that need more help get it, and the kids that need more challenging work can move forward. I can meet everyone where they are.”

The actual face time with teachers is crucial, says Pendergrast.

“If the technology doesn’t enhance the human relationship between the teacher and student, and if it doesn’t contribute to students achieving at higher levels, then it’s a failure,” he declares. “Those are the two measures for us.”

Robert Pellechio, a history and special education teacher at Morristown High, says he sees the relationship enhancement happening already. “Blended learning lets us remove ourselves from lecture-style situations—not to say that that doesn’t ever occur,” he says. “But when students are receiving instruction through a number of modalities, it frees us up to get to know their weaknesses and strengths.”

The teachers, who take classes and workshops to train for blended learning, also see signs that their new methods are helping  students achieve at higher levels.
While Toye can pinpoint at exactly which step of a math equation a young student stumbles by monitoring her work in iReady, Pellechio can modify tests for special-needs learners and tailor lessons they complete on individualized “playlists.”

The playlists—built on a platform called the Canvas Learning Management System—can be thought of as similar to Spotify and Pandora, he says, except with assignments instead of music. “Kids click through these playlists on their computers, and they’re basically lists of activities and instructional assessments they work through at their own pace,” he says.

Pendergrast says the playlists let students control the “place and pace” of learning. “They can learn anywhere that they can access WiFi, and they can learn at their own pace,” he explains. “Students can also go back over lessons multiple times and check their understanding and progress.”

Pendergrast already has data that he says indicates progress in his district. He starts with the high-achieving students. “They’re reaching new levels,” he says. “For example, we have over 10 percent of our seventh-grade students in algebra I for the first time, which we directly attribute to some of these new strategies.”

As for the more challenged students, he says: “The longitudinal data in the Morris School District regarding students in language arts honors classes in the sixth through 10th grades is very telling. For example, since the inception of our school district, African-American, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students slowly drop out of honors-level language-arts classes with each year…. By the time they get to their junior year in high school, there’s only a handful left in honors classes. However, this year, for the first time that we know of—and we have at least 10 years of data—all three subgroups not only held in the language-arts honors level, but actually increased for sixth through ninth grades.”

Student access to computers helps. Morris is a one-to-one district, the pedagogical term for schools in which every student is issued a laptop. Under Pendergrast’s initiative, the district also provides free home WiFi access to students in need. Support for that initiative comes from the Morris Educational Foundation, a nonprofit that enhances educational opportunities for the more than 5,200 students in all 10 district schools. During the 2015-2016 school year, 65 students in the district were provided with home WiFi via a hotspot-enabling chip in their Chromebooks.

The Chromebooks are provided by the district at a cost of $199 per student. In grades six through 12, each student is issued a Chromebook to take home every day. In grades K through five, one Chromebook is provided for every two students. The machines stay in the classrooms.

Chromebooks (notebook computers based on Google’s Chrome operating system) are appealing for price and practicality. “If we want to push out a new online tool or platform, for example WeVideo,” says Hartman, “we can send it to all of the almost 5,000 Chromebooks in the district with the push of a button, and it will be available to students in less than one minute. In the past, an IT person would have to touch each and every laptop to install a program, which could take months.”

State data on one-to-one districts is self reported and therefore “not verified,” says the DOE’s Cocco. The figures indicate that 16 percent of schools have at least one grade level at one-to-one.

One-to-one is not a requirement for blended learning. In Newark, where Koen took the first steps toward introducing the concept to some schools and classrooms in 2014, the ratio of Chromebooks to students is more like one-to-three. “One-to-one makes it easier to implement,” he says, “but we use a rotation system.” In other words, the students share computers.

One-to-one is also not a guarantee that blended learning—the way it’s applied in Morris, at least—is happening, or even imminent. Hillsborough Township is “one of the very few districts in New Jersey that are one-to-one K through 12,” says district director of technology Joel T. Handler. “But we don’t use the word blended when we talk about our embrace of digital learning.” Instead, Hillsborough uses terms like “asynchronous learning,” which means students begin and complete a lesson at different times, according to their own schedules, with online collaboration.

In fact, blended learning is just one form of classroom innovation driven by technology. According to Cocco, Springfield, Pascack Valley and Monroe Township were early adopters of digital learning, and they’re still among its leaders. Other schools have been attracting attention, and not just in Trenton, for their innovative use of computers in the classroom, too.

Northfield Community Middle School in Atlantic County, for example, won the 2016 State Educational Technology Directors Association’s Student Voices Award, which honors a K-12 school or district that has leveraged technology to dramatically improve the educational experiences and achievement of students. (SETDA is a nonprofit membership association launched by state education leaders in 2001.)

The school, which adapted a program developed at Stanford University, has embraced a manifesto: “Becoming Life Ready.” As part of a project-based learning program, students and teachers developed 3D prosthetic hands for children in need, and designed video games from books for children during the past school year. The school also implemented a blended-style learning management system that allows students to control their pace of learning online.

Other schools in Northfield’s district and beyond are just as wired and ready to enter the digital future. The state doesn’t collect “hard data,” Cocco says, “but most if not all schools have WiFi.” They also may have an interest in keeping up with the Joneses. “If parents are hearing from other parents, ‘In Johnny’s school district, every kid has a tablet,’ they’re going to want a tablet for their child, too,” he says. But Johnny may or may not get one; each district is tasked with mapping its own road to digital education and technology spending. The state, however, has provided substantial financial assistance.

Cocco says that through 2016, the DOE has offered a million-dollar grant program to schools statewide for use in implementing digital learning, as well as a $10-per-student allocation for technology, approved through fiscal year 2017. “That was specifically added on the budget to help any schools that needed to bridge the gap to be able to handle online assessments,” Cocco says in reference to the new generation of standardized tests.

Pendergrast acknowledges that blended learning is one of many modalities that can foster digital learning—and that all the kinks have yet to be worked out. But he believes his is the best model.

A former history teacher who came to his current job after a four-year stint as superintendent at the West Morris Regional School District, he was moved to adopt blended learning after reading the 2014 book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (Jossey-Bass) by Michael Horn and Heather Staker. “I was part of a group of superintendents who were invited to the White House for their Future Ready Initiative in 2014. It was at this event that I heard Michael Horn speak and then read his book.

“When I became super, we gave a copy to all the administrators and said, ‘Read it and take notes,’” he says. “Then we had a three-day retreat in our administrative offices where we really designed what we wanted out of blended.”

Ever since, the Morris team has been fielding inquiries from other districts interested in the model. They also present their approach at education conferences, including last spring’s New Jersey Education Innovation Summit at Monmouth University.

Pendergrast, Hartman and the Morris district teachers continue to tweak the system. “We’re exploring,” Pendergrast says. “It’s like putting together a Lego structure. Sometimes when you put the pieces together, you get something good, but sometimes if you move the pieces around, you get something even better.”

As might be expected, the system is not immune to criticism.  In Newark, Koen says, “there are always going to be parents who offer the paradigm, ‘What worked for me in school should work for my son or daughter.’ My response is, ‘You wouldn’t want the same medical treatment you had when you were growing up for your son or daughter, right? You wouldn’t want to send your son or daughter to a hospital that was still operating like it was the ’70s or ’80s.’”

In Morris, “we’ve had some doubters, as there should be,” Pendergrast adds. “With blended, one of the conversations that we’ve had is about how much control we can give kids over their learning.”

Will Gingrich, a 7-year-old in Hong’s class, says he prefers working in his Chromebook to working with his classmates in small groups because he likes computers and can move through math, his favorite subject, at his own pace. But Michael Matos, a 15-year-old freshman in the physics class, says his Chromebook can be distracting. Though the machine’s settings, imposed by the district, don’t allow him to access games like Minecraft or Grand Theft Auto, “I can still get to some games,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard to resist.”

Tammy La Gorce is a frequent New Jersey Monthly contributor.

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