Today’s learners are looking for schools to help them achieve their learning goals through structures and pedagogy that challenge many traditional norms. One of the reasons for this shift in expectation and thinking comes from the ability to receive very personalized and flexible learning experiences via digital technologies. The students who walk through the doors of our schools expect to be able to leverage digital technologies to meet their schooling goals and pursue their learning passions. These technologies remove all manner of barriers for our learners, including access to information, access to experts in a field of interest, and access to others seeking similar learning experiences. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us then, as educators, to find ourselves working through a time of deep change in the ways we work with students traversing the journey that is K-12 education.
The Enhanced Learning Model
One way that Wolf Creek Public Schools is working to provide learning experiences that resonate with our students is through the implementation of the Enhanced Learning Model (ELM). This learning model blends high quality digital course content with face-to-face teacher supports in the classroom. The ELM also removes predetermined calendars and schedules of dates as a constraints on our students’ growth. If a student wants to accelerate their pace and finish a course early, that’s possible. If a student needs to take a few extra weeks to complete their coursework into the next semester, that’s possible too. Much of the learning within the ELM is delivered via digital online media, is student directed in terms of time, pace, path and place, and appeals to students seeking a learning model which yields results both in terms of scores on standardized exams, as well as on other assessments of mastery of learning.
We are closing in on our first full year of implementation of this exciting new approach to learning and are excited about the expansion of the ELM from pilot phase to full implementation within our division. We have learned a number of lessons from our first year with this model which will guide our path forward as we work with high schools and Outreach schools across Wolf Creek to successfully implement the ELM. Our first year take aways may also provide other educators who are beginning a similar journey with some insights around things to replicate and things to avoid in their own context. We certainly recognize that we are still at the infancy stage of this journey and know that we don’t have everything “figured out” just yet. However, we believe deeply in sharing the lessons of our journey and connecting with and collaborating with others who do the important work of educating the next generation of learners and leaders alongside us.
Lesson 1 – Leadership is key
The Enhanced Learning Model would not exist, or have found the success it has without leadership. This leadership has come from many levels of Wolf Creek Public Schools including:
- our board of education, who was willing to fund the development and growth of this model;
- our Assistant Superintendent of Learning, Mark McWhinnie, whose vision and passion set the development of the Enhanced Learning Model in action;
- the collaborative partnership between the Directors of Technology Services and Learning Services to organize, develop, and implement the model as a combined effort driven by what’s best for student learning;
- Mr. Lane Moore and Mr. Riley Quance, principals of our pilot schools, who were absolutely critical to the process of guiding their staff, students, and communities through a new approach to scheduling, delivering, and supporting a new approach to learning in their schools;
- the teachers working hard to implement the new model, provide feedback about its flaws and strengths, and support their students as they take on more and more responsibility for their own learning.
Leaders at every level and every stage of implementation have provided access to resources, guidance, support and encouragement to teachers, students, and parents. Without the critically important role that leadership plays, we have found that it is almost impossible to bring about meaningful shifts in pedagogy.
Lesson 2 – Have a strong vision and share it with others
We truly believe in the vision for the Enhanced Learning Model, which is to enable a rich, flexible, and personalized learning experiences through web-based access to high quality digital course content. This content delivery method is supported by strong face-to-face interactions with classroom teachers. Taking the time to explain this vision to our board, our administrators, our teachers, and our students and their parents has resulted in a very high level of support for and championing of the model within the schools who have adopted it to date. Building and sharing the vision for the ELM allowed us to:
- attract a deep pool of highly skilled teachers to build content for the model during the summer months;
- secure funding for content development for the model from our board;
- build a culture of support for a new approach to education within our pilot communities;
- encourage and challenge others within our system and beyond to consider alternative approaches to education.
Lesson 3 – Dream and build big, but implement small
Wolf Creek Public Schools has a long track record of successful implementation of high impact learning and technology initiatives. This can be credited to our approach of dreaming and building big, but implementing small. When building the ELM courses, we set out to create an ambitious list of high quality academic courses in math, science, and the humanities. At the end of a seven week summer development period, our team of highly skilled teachers had developed 26 courses at a variety of levels, which could be used “out of the box” to support the implementation of the ELM in our pilot schools. Though we knew we had a pool of strong digital courses that could eventually be of value to all Wolf Creek high school students, we also recognized that this approach requires certain conditions of readiness to be present in schools before they would find success. We began our implementation journey by focusing on just two of our 9 high schools and outreaches. These schools already had the structures they needed in place, including a non-traditional and flexible daily schedule, built in tutorial/seminar time for students to work independently or find help from a teacher, and staffing and supervision structures that allow students to set a pace and place to their learning, with support. The pilot schools helped us learn many lessons in our first year and are instrumental in helping lead our other schools forward in making the shift to implementing the Enhanced Learning Model.
Lesson 4 – It’s not about the technology… unless it doesn’t work
It needs to be stressed that though the Enhanced Learning Model relies heavily on digital tools and technologies, at it’s core this approach isn’t about technology. This is a deep shift in our delivery of content and the methods and means we employ to support our students’ learning.
However, it likely goes without saying that one can’t expect to successfully implement a learning model which heavily relies on and leverages the power of digital technologies without ensuring that there is adequate infrastructure in place (wireless, bandwidth, etc.) before asking your staff and students to undertake this fundamental shift. It is also imperative that any district thinking of pursuing a similar path have approaches in place to maximize students’ access to devices that support their learning. This may be through school or district purchased equipment, or through personally owned devices brought in by the students, or through a combination of the two. It is critical to think through how to maximize, and make equitable, the number of devices students have on hand in order to access their course content and create artifacts of their learning mastery ahead of any kind of pedagogical shift such as the ELM.
Another key concern for us in regards to technology supports and frameworks for the ELM was around delivery platform(s) for the content. We are extremely pleased to have chosen Hapara’s Workspace for this purpose in part due to our long partnership with Hapara, which has been positive and impactful for both parties. Choosing a solid, reliable, and standardized platform like Workspace allows us to streamline our training for new teachers entering the model and also prevents adding having to learn yet another LMS interface to a student’s workload. Wolf Creek prides ourselves on partnering with organizations which provide reliable and high leverage tools to support our learners. To date, this is exactly what Hapara’s tools have been for us.
Lesson 5 – It’s a journey and you never arrive
As we close out our first year with the Enhanced Learning Model, we have gathered feedback from our students, teachers, administrators and school communities around “the good, the bad and the what can we do better”? To date the response to the ELM in participating schools has been extremely positive and schools are excited about continuing to access the course materials and expand the use of this model in Wolf Creek. This feedback and our own reflection helps us see that from here, we need to think about:
- Evergreening the course material to keep it current, fresh and up to date. We are currently exploring structures and supports needed to maintain this course development and refresh process.
- Training teachers around how to plan high quality digital course content that supports flexible delivery models like the ELM. We have learned through the course of the year that developing a course which can be delivered through this model requires a deep well of skills in our teachers, cutting across a wide variety of areas from instructional video development, to digital assessment creation, to course break down and objective mapping, to web based interface literacy and so on. We are currently exploring means for building these capacities in greater and greater numbers of our teachers so they can begin developing “ELM style” courses of their own.
- Supporting schools to take advantage of the power of collaborative technologies to connect their teachers and students with each other, as every learns at different paces and in different places in Wolf Creek. We believe in the power of collaboration in Wolf Creek but are just beginning to leverage, and imagine ways that technology can be leveraged, to support our students no matter which Wolf Creek school they may be enrolled in.
The one thing that will never change
We are working and living through some very interesting times in K-12 education in North America and around the globe. The ready availability of information via the web and the ability for our students to pursue very personal passions and individual learning goals through technology calls into question whether the current structures of schools, both physical and cultural, are meeting the needs of today’s learners in optimal ways. One thing we are confident of in Wolf Creek, is that though the physical layout of our classrooms may change, though the structure of the daily, monthly, or yearly calendar may change, and though the way that students access and interact with course content and learning objectives is changing – the one thing that will never change in our system is the critical role that a highly skilled teacher plays in student success. Teachers with deep understanding of how to support individualized learning, how to form professional, caring relationships with students, and how to guide students towards mastery of learning outcomes of complex curricula will always be the critical component of any approach to formal education in our K-12 system.
Read our case study on Bentley School, one of the pilot schools for the Enhanced Learning Model, to learn more about how the program has impacted learning in Wolf Creek so far.