HUNTLEY – When John Burkey was in high school 30 years ago, he thought the traditional method of having a teacher write on a chalkboard and students copy down information was flawed.
“That’s part of the reason I got into education, because I did think there were better ways we could do things,” said Burkey, superintendent for Huntley District 158.
Burkey and Anne Pasco have spent the past two years developing a new way to educate the district’s high school students. Called blended learning, it combines independent online assignments with traditional classroom instruction and testing.
This school year, about 500 of the 2,393 students at Huntley High School are enrolled in 10 blended classes, said Pasco, the blended learning/educational technology department chairwoman at Huntley High School. The program will be expanded to 19 classes next year, and an estimated 1,300 students have requested a blended learning class.
Burkey and Pasco said blended learning may be the best way to teach students born into a digital age – and they’re open to revisions as to how the program functions.
“We are innovators, and we are creating this as we go,” Pasco said.
New model of learning
District 158 is not alone in offering blended learning: In Illinois, a survey of 210 public high schools conducted in 2011 by Babson Survey Research Group found that nearly 23 percent had students enrolled in a blended learning course.
But Burkey and Pasco aim to distinguish Huntley High School’s program. District 158 is designing its system – instead of buying the online content – based on a combination of existing models. District teachers, not other providers, direct the online learning components. The costs for blended classes are no more than for traditional classes, Burkey said.
The program is designed to let students learn at their own pace. Online assignments must be completed before an assigned due date, and students must attend 47-minute classes twice a week. Those needing it can come to class five days a week for extra help.
Pasco said the district is determining the benchmark students need to meet to register for a blended class. This year, it was open to upperclassmen who wanted to experiment with a different learning environment.
Blended learning classes were held during first- or eighth-period classes, so students could come late or leave early if not required to be in the classroom. With the program’s expansion, there are hopes of building conference rooms for collaborative work and expanding the library.
Pasco said the program was designed to encourage students to take ownership of their education, and to teach independence, time management skills and self-discipline.
“I think learning the skill of working on your own is one of the most important things we learn in school,” Burkey said.
Some teachers are concerned that unless self-motivated, trusting high school students to discipline themselves is idealistic.
“Too much with education we go on faith,” Spanish teacher Laura Devlin said. “You expect [honest hard work] from somebody getting their master’s degree because they’re an adult. You expect, as [four-year college students] get into their higher-level classes, they’re invested because of their intellect and their desire for learning.”
Devlin wants to believe that students take her Spanish class because they want to learn the language, but said that in reality kids take it because it’s required.
Pasco said built-in safeguards prevent the system from falling victim to ideal expectations. One goal of blended learning is to prepare students for the next level, but it doesn’t expect total independence.
“It is modeled after [college] with the safety net of high school,” Pasco said. “We will support teachers saying, ‘This is what’s good for this student – they need to be in here every day.’”
Burkey said blended learning at Huntley High School will never be just online, noting that he thinks the student-teacher relationship is an important part of learning.
Several students in Pasco’s Advanced Placement U.S. history blended class said that since she can provide individual attention more often, the student-teacher relationship is improved.
Junior Adam Urbanski said it took time but ultimately it was easy to adapt to a new teaching style and learning environment. Several students said they preferred the challenge offered by blended classes.
“It gives you more freedom, and it makes you have to use your resources instead of relying on the teacher to give you information,” junior Michelle Caputi said.
Biology teacher Jeff Robinson has found it allows for more in-depth teaching, as he can provide base knowledge on given content before he even sees students.
“I might not be laying the foundation – they may have done that independently online,” he said. “And then I can immediately supplement and build on that foundation that they have right when they walk into the room on the first day of a unit.”