Blended learning in an international school
Blending on-line and in-class learning has clear advantages for international schools. But how can it be sustained in practice? Catherine Brandt and Neil Hardy-Johnson report from Dubai.
At GEMS Wellington Academy, Silicon Oasis, Dubai (WSO) we focus on meeting the needs of our learners through a blended learning programme which follows National Curriculum for England, International Baccalaureate and UAE Ministry of Education curricula.
A blended approach with the IBDP
More than 200 of our students follow the IBDP and IBCP pathways in Years 12 and 13 where students are equipped with a wide range of traditional academic and technological skills to empower and support them to take increasing agency over their learning. By combining digital instruction with face-to-face academic tutoring, mentoring and support, we believe we are delivering the best of both worlds and preparing students well for their futures.
A blended approach to learning, which has been introduced in the early phases of the school, is fully embedded by the time students reach Year 12. Many IB Diploma subjects are delivered through Pamoja Education’s online courses. Pamoja uses an e-learning platform, which hosts lessons in a world classroom. Students are assigned an online teacher, as well as an academic tutor from our school that they meet with regularly. The interactive online lessons include screencasts from teachers, multimedia presentations and live sessions via Skype. The platform also hosts blogs, forums, and web-based documents that ensure students reflect on their learning whilst collaborating with peers and teachers locally and globally. In addition, WSO has invested in Kognity e-textbooks which compliments both traditional and blended teaching practices.
This blended learning approach allows for a personalised learning pathway for every student by giving them a choice about the pace, path and place of their learning journey. The students have a high level of independence in structuring their work week, which includes asynchronous and synchronous components. They also receive close supervision and support to help them stay on track.
Delivering the IB Diploma in this way enables students to gain a more global perspective and develop important skills. Through digital instruction, they work together towards common goals with students and teachers from all over the globe via an international virtual classroom. This enables them to develop invaluable and transferable digital competence and abilities, balanced alongside social interaction through in-depth discussions and seminars that deepen and extend their learning.
Facilitating blended learning
Experience suggests that there is a need to break away from the traditional in order to maximise the utility of a blended approach; it is in this area that the pedagogue’s role is challenged, yet, offers the greatest opportunity to provide tailored learning experiences for students.
No longer do students ask or expect to address the question, “Tell me about concept X?”; rather they are encouraged to ask the much more valuable question, “If my understanding of X is this, have I covered all of the detail?”. Similarly – and representing another key benefit of this approach to learning – students are able to address their own questions as they arise, rather than awaiting an answer as part of a group-wide discussion of a topic during independent learning episodes.
Through use of strategically placed interventions, determined formatively, issues of understanding can be avoided, and the benefits of group-based learning can be facilitated, often through a flipped approach.
Pamoja teachers are selected for their considerable IB subject experience and are often examiners in their subject. Their knowledge and experience is invaluable for WSO staff as well as the students. Through regular and systematic communication between Pamoja teachers, students and WSO academic tutors, we ensure that this model of learning is effective.
Sustaining the model
A differentiated CPD model for all WSO teachers is based upon Harvard Graduate School of Education Project Zero’s Creating Communities of Innovation. This enquiry-driven model allows teachers to develop and explore their pedagogy within the context of our school. A digital pedagogy coach provides one-to-one training and support via team planning and teaching, and all teachers are assigned a peer coach who acts as a sounding board throughout the academic year. This personalised approach to CPD has ensured that our teachers feel safe and supported in taking risks and trying new pedagogical approaches.
At Post 16, the IB Coordinator supports WSO academic tutors and liaises daily with Pamoja academic staff to monitor and evaluate the progress and engagement of students. Sharing of best practice is essential to the development of this approach to foster new ways of working for both teaching and learning.
The impact of a blended learning strategy
Adopting a blended approach has proved to have significant benefits for students’ skill levels, including improvements in communication, enquiry, and critical reflection in particular. Many students comment that they enjoy the flexibility that blended learning provides, and they recognize the value of this blended approach to teaching and learning. Many students have articulated post-IB, both the particular value of blended learning and the enhanced skill development they have attained whilst learning in this way which has supported them in their University courses and has eased the transition into this phase of their educational journey.
Student and parental training initiatives enhance the benefits to be gained from a blended approach, particularly when pitched as a whole-school initiative within an environment with flexibility to challenge the norm. WSO now has IB results that show the effectiveness of the blended IB provision. Results show that students of all abilities have been successful and have valued the dual approach that blended learning provides.
Catherine Brandt is IBDP and Blended Coordinator, and Neil Hardy-Johnson teaches Psychology and is an Academic tutor at GEMS Wellington Academy, Silicon Oasis, Dubai.