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Have Catholic Schools Missed the Bus on Blended Learning?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

img 3033Blended learning has become a buzzword (or buzz-phrase, perhaps) in education circles, praised as the next big thing in education reform, or criticized as just the next education fad. Is blended learning helpful for students, and more specifically, how can blended learning be helpful—and potentially game-changing—for the unique context of Catholic schools?

I sat down with ACE’s blended learning experts—T.J. D’Agostino, who has helped incorporate successful blended learning models into a number of Catholic schools across the country, and Fr. Nate Wills, C.S.C., whose doctoral scholarship and research focused on blended learning in K-12 Catholic schools—to talk about blended learning and how well it translates to the Catholic schools context.

What makes blended learning so exciting?

D’Agostino: We know that not every child learns at the same pace or in the same way, even if they’re not in the same grade. But our schools and classrooms are still designed to teach students with a one-size fits all approach. Blended learning can help to change this.

Wills: We tell teachers they need to differentiate their instruction based on student needs, but give them few tools to help them accomplish this. Blended learning has the potential to offer powerful tools.

Blended learning is definitely exciting, but it seems like, while the charter sector has really embraced the possibilities, Catholic schools have been slower to react. With tighter budgets and less focus historically on innovation, have Catholic schools missed the bus on blended learning?

Wills: I think Catholic schools have an opportunity to learn from the earliest efforts and struggles in the blended learning space. Also, being less encumbered by regulations and bureaucracy, Catholic schools have great potential to innovate. The key is empowering our leaders with the knowledge and skills to excel.

D’Agostino: Catholic schools have certainly begun to experiment and invest in the blended learning space. There are benefits of not rushing in overzealously. Catholic schools can be deliberate in their adoption to get the best of the innovation while preserving the core of what makes Catholic schools great.

So, blended learning can actually work in a Catholic school?

D’Agostino: It’s already working in Catholic schools in dozens of places around the country. I wrote a post more than a year ago on blended learning in Catholic schools, and the biggest trend since then is the significant investment of (arch)dioceses as partners supporting blended learning adoptions. From San Jose to New York, from Los Angeles to Toledo, dioceses are supporting clusters of schools to implement blended learning with the potential of significantly increasing the pace of adoption.

Wills: We encounter innovative and creative teachers—in ACE and around the country—who are hungry to improve their practice and their schools in meaningful ways. Often, Catholic educators are not aware of the potential and the options that could benefit them in this area. If we can bring knowledge and skills about blended learning to these motivated leaders, the potential is very exciting.

D’Agostino: Fundamentally, Catholic schools are about the holistic development of children towards fullness of life. This is rooted in caring and supportive relationships in an intellectually rigorous environment. Blended learning can be a valued tool in the context of those relationships and help teachers to meet the needs of every child, especially those who struggle and are at greatest risk. If used in this way, blended learning can help Catholic schools live out their commitment to justice.

Wills: We believe that every child can learn and that every child is made in the image and likeness of God. As such, children deserve to be educated so that their unique potential is realized. This means equipping teachers and leaders with tools and methods that can help them do just that. Nothing could be more Catholic.