A+ Advice for Parents

Q: Our elementary school does "blended learning." What defines blended learning, and is there a good resource on it? What devices are best? If we understand it correctly, we think we'd like to use it at home to move our boys beyond video games.

A: Blended learning is an instructional strategy that combines face-to-face teaching with online engagement, allowing students more control over the time, pace and place of their learning. Surveys suggest that more than 75 percent of the nation's school districts are implementing some type of blended learning.

"It's a way of re-centering learning around individual student needs," says Heather Staker, the founder of online resource Ready to Blend, and co-author of "Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools" (Jossey-Bass, 2014).

The Internet offers parents opportunities to supplement the classroom curriculum and "provide their children with learning resources that before were out of reach," notes Staker. "Say a family wants to learn a foreign language, understand computer coding or go inside the Smithsonian. ... These experiences are now affordable and accessible with a basic device and Wi-Fi."

But to navigate this world requires effort. "No wise parent would send a child on a field trip without knowing if it were safe and worthwhile," explains Staker. "Similarly, every site on the Internet is also a destination -- albeit a virtual one, and this time, children usually travel alone. Parents are well-advised to be as concerned for the safety and worthiness of destinations in the virtual realm as for those in the physical."

To find appropriate sites, Staker refers parents to CommonSenseMedia.org, "a great resource to help families identify worthwhile content. It reviews education apps, as well as movies, videogames and other media."

To help parents find safe sites and give kids fun academic challenges, Staker and her husband created an online blended-learning program called Brain Chase (brainchase.com).

"The program offers multiweek academic challenges that motivate second- through eighth-graders to learn by disguising the hard work as an adventure quest. Participants search for an actual buried treasure," says Staker.

Each day, participants are challenged to read and write and solve puzzles and problems provided by such online resources as Google Books, myON, Rosetta Stone and Khan Academy. Credentialed elementary teachers grade the writing assignments. During the program, kids receive "adventure tools" such as decoders in cool packaging in the mail. (The spring 2016 Brain Chase adventure starts Monday, Feb. 8. Go to brainchase.com for details.)

Which devices work best for blended-learning activities? Staker likes Chromebooks because "they are affordable (less than $300), and our family doesn't mind that the software resides in the cloud, not on our local hard drives. Other families see benefits in tablets because of their mobility.

"Be aware, however, that although tablets are great for consuming content, they are ill equipped for producing it. Students have trouble composing essays on tablets, for example, and external keyboards tend to break easily in backpacks."

For more information, go to readytoblend.com.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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