“If we teach today’s students like we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” —John Dewey
Our school’s transformation began simply enough — with just one idea. We were celebrating our 40th anniversary, and the entire staff of Indian Creek School (Maryland) was looking toward the future. The head of school charged the two of us with coming back from the Online Education Strategies for Independent Schools conference in Boston with “a big idea” — one that would galvanize our community of 631 students and families. There, in a sunny Boston courtyard in fall 2013, we started sketching out a new concept: Blended Learning at Indian Creek School, or BLinc, a program that would mix face-to-face and online instruction.
A Productive Brainstorming Session
We really wanted BLinc to be a game changer for Indian Creek. Like other independent, preK–12 day schools, we face a host of challenges: admission, retention, tuition increases, and revenue streams, to name a few. We thought that BLinc could better position Indian Creek in the marketplace and bolster the school’s value proposition to current families.
To start, we asked ourselves a few pivotal “why not?” questions.
- Why not use our current learning management system (Haiku) to deliver a summer course that middle schoolers could take for upper school credit?
- Why not make this summer course a science class to promote our burgeoning STEM program?
- And why not handpick an experienced teacher unafraid to try new things and who just happens to be the head of said burgeoning STEM program to offer this class?
The details crystallized when we returned to campus.
An Early Groundswell of Support
Head of School Rick Branson quickly got behind our idea for a blending learning program. In fact, he asked us to launch two classes, one in the sciences that would bridge middle and upper school course work, and another in the humanities for upper school students to prepare for their future in college and beyond.
In both blended courses, students would receive content online asynchronously and be required to meet at certain times over the summer. Students in the science course would take field trips to the Chincoteague Bay Field station on Wallops Island. For the writing course, a couple of evening meetings would serve as writing workshops. Students would learn at their own pace, in the comfort of their bedrooms, hotel rooms, a local Starbucks, or wherever! The same was true for the teachers.
We knew none of our competitors had anything like this program; we believed we had a differentiator on our hands.
At the same time our excitement was building, we worried that the initiative wouldn’t catch on. Our mixed feelings disappeared as the two classes began filling up for the summer 2014 session. The Coastal Ecology course reached its capacity of 18 students. Sports Writing had a solid enrollment of upper school students eager to learn to write in a new format. These offerings gave students the opportunity to explore topics our standard courses didn’t address. BLinc was off and running in summer 2014.
Blended Learning at Indian Creek is dedicated to expanding the classroom community beyond walls. Credit: Indian Creek School (Maryland)
A Diverse Array of Courses
Indian Creek classifies BLinc courses in one of two ways: electives for credit or enrichment courses for no credit. Many courses are available in the summer alongside our traditional camp offerings (students can take part in both). We offer enrichment courses during the school year, and other courses are already included in our daily schedule.
As of spring 2016, less than three years after we conceived the idea, BLinc has expanded to 22 courses offered year-round to students in grades preK–12. Students can take Diggin’ Deep into Dinos, Storytelling Through Dance, Author Study, Writing Your College Essay, and Oceanography, among other interdisciplinary courses. The full list appears in the infographic below.
A Satisfied Group of Students and Parents
Since we began BLinc nearly two years ago, we have persisted in collecting hard and anecdotal data about the student and parent experience. Before and after each course, we have separately surveyed students and parents about their familiarity with blended learning. We ask about delivery channels such as email and social media, pros and cons of the online and face-to-face format, frequency of communication, etc.
These surveys have shown that parents and students are highly satisfied with the course format and the instructors. Many respondents said they wanted us to offer more courses. Our lower school families began emailing us and cornering us at parent events, wanting in on the action as well.
The demand for blended courses continues. In summer 2015, we enrolled 16 percent of our 631 students in blended learning courses. In the 2015–2016 school year, 16 percent of our 395 lower and middle schoolers are enrolled in BLinc courses.
A Focus on Student Engagement and Feedback
At the outset, we decided our blended learning program would focus on student engagement rather than remediation. Engagement takes different forms depending on the grade level. Students in preK and kindergarten participate in weekly get-togethers with the BLinc instructor and/or a week of camp in addition to accessing online videos, sharing ideas in message boards, and completing digital arts and science projects.
In the middle and upper schools, students may chat in a Google Hangout, participate in a Skype session, or collaborate on a wiki in which the students create their own content and then share it with the teacher or the entire class.
In BLinc courses, instructors provide students constant feedback via weekly, personal emails. Upper school students enrolled in for-credit classes receive comments and earn grades. Instructors describe what the student has accomplished and what to expect moving forward. They may comment on a student’s paper, give a virtual pat on the back for a particular discussion board post, or offer a simple “keep it up!” Students and parents often receive more information than they do in our traditional classes, in which teachers maintain open gradebooks and send progress reports home every five weeks.
A Teaching Pool of Multiple Generations
Current and retired Indian Creek teachers create the content for BLinc courses. It’s challenging to design and teach a course from scratch in an online environment, and we recognize teachers’ time commitment in undertaking this work. They receive a two-tiered compensation package that includes an initial payment for creating the course and a second payment near its conclusion for teaching.
BLinc teachers design a course with the understanding that they may not always be the course’s instructor. Although we prefer the original creator to be the course instructor, a course can carry on with a new one. Indian Creek owns all course content.
A List of Key Learnings
We’ve learned several lessons from starting our blended learning program.
- Class titles and offerings matter. A colleague said we needed to offer “hot topics with pied pipers.” We have found her advice to be true. Surviving the Apocalypse died on the vine. However, Introduction to Coding has been a crowd pleaser, and Writing Your College Essay already has a waiting list for this summer.
- Our lower school students are excited about blended learning. They are our fastest-growing segment. This is unsurprising in some ways: Younger students are extremely capable in an online environment and primed to use 21st century tools.
- Building a program from the ground up consumes school leaders’ time. We now have three people working part-time on the BLinc program, and running it could qualify for a full-time job with additional help.
A Promising Future for BLinc
We wonder what our school will look like in two years as our blended learning disruption continues to transform our teaching and learning practices. Already we see glimpses of the transformation in traditional classrooms. Teachers of BLinc classes are experts with our learning management system and are thrilled to be able to create the course “they’ve always wanted to teach,” as they say.
Their expertise and passion have translated to the daily classroom environment, and many faculty members have adopted the blended teachers’ methods. For instance, in the upper elementary grades, online discussions are now typical, and assigning students to watch online videos for homework is more common.
Meanwhile, middle school teachers are moving some of their lecture content out of the classroom and into the online space. They choose this flipped classroom model to gain valuable collaboration time in class. Many upper school teachers are reformatting their courses to a blended model to allow more flexibility for them and their students.
A Change in Our School’s Path and Pace
The high levels of satisfaction among teachers, students, and parents have prompted us to explore other avenues where BLinc would be a fit — travel programs, home schooling organizations, parent education, etc.
It is fair to say that our school has fundamentally changed its path and pace because of our blended learning program. As one of our 17 blended instructors put it, “I think the BLinc program is a valuable and exciting component of what Indian Creek offers its students. Not only does it provide students the opportunity to explore areas of interest outside of our curriculum, it allows them to learn from anywhere.”
Individualized learning. 21st century tools. Passionate teachers. Satisfied parents. Better-prepared students. We couldn’t be happier with the outcomes we’re seeing.
Jennifer Malachowski is a teacher and administrator with more than 15 years of experience. She is associate head of the middle school and codirector of the blended learning program at Indian Creek School (Maryland).
Matt McCormick is also a teacher and administrator with more than 15 years’ experience. He will be developing a blended course on Holocaust education through the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. He serves as associate head and dean of students of the upper school and codirector of the blended learning program at Indian Creek School.