The Concurrent Classroom: Using Blended Learning Models to Teach Students In-person and Online Simultaneously

Teachers all over the country are being asked to teach “concurrent classrooms” in which some students attend class in person and others attend virtually. The teacher in a concurrent classroom attempts to meet the needs of the students in class and online simultaneously. This is the most challenging scenario I can imagine in our current situation.

Several teachers have reached out asking for advice. I wish there was research I could point to or a collection of best practices that I could share. Unfortunately, there is a scarcity of information on this topic in the context of K-12 education. In an attempt to support teachers in this situation, I’ve been reflecting on how I would approach design, instruction, and facilitation in a concurrent classroom.

It is helpful to begin by identifying the benefits of an in-class experience as compared to an online experience. In-class, students have easy access to the teacher and each other. There are more opportunities for social learning and human interaction. Online, students have a higher degree of agency, autonomy, and flexibility, but they may feel isolated or disconnected.

As architects of learning experiences, teachers should focus on providing that human connection to students working remotely. The students online need to feel like they are part of the class community even though they are not sharing a physical space. Conversely, teachers will have more success engaging students attending class in person if they build more agency, autonomy, and flexibility into their lessons.

As I wrap my mind around the complexities of the concurrent classroom, I believe blended learning models can make this challenging situation more manageable. Below I will explore three blended learning models–the station rotation model, the flipped learning model, and the playlist model. I’ll review the benefits of each model and explain how I would use these models to teach a class with students attending both online and in person.

#1 Station Rotation Model

The station rotation model does what the name suggests. There are a series of stations–or learning activities–and students rotate through them. Given current restrictions on movement and supply sharing in classrooms, students will not physically move but rather progress through a series of learning activities–a) teacher-led station, b) online station, and c) offline station–in the same physical location.

Benefits of the station rotation model:

  • Create smaller learning communities within the larger class.
  • Spend time working directly with small groups of students.
  • Differentiate learning (e.g., instruction, scaffolds, practice, assignments).
  • Balance online and offline work to give students a break from the screen.

Tips for using the station rotation model in a concurrent classroom:

  • “Rotate” or transition groups of students from activity to activity on a set schedule.
  • Have “may do” activities ready for students who pace more quickly through their work.
  • Host an offline teacher-led station for the in-class groups and an online teacher-led station for online groups using video conferencing software.
  • Record video directions for each station to reduce questions and confusion.
  • Create a pathway for online students to ask questions as they work (e.g., Remind or ClassroomQ).
  • Prepare your station rotation lesson (e.g., learning objectives, directions, links, and resources) so that all parts of the lesson are easily accessible by students both in class and online.
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#2 Flipped Learning Model

Flipping instruction with video is a great way to avoid spending our synchronous time–in class or online–talking at kids. If teachers shift explanations, instruction, and modeling online with video, they have more time to interact with and support learners. I encourage teachers to consider organizing their flipped learning lessons into three distinct parts–a) pre-video activity, b) video, and c) post-video activity. For more detail on this three-part approach to designing a flipped lesson, you can read this blog.

Benefits of the flipped learning model:

  • Students control the pace at which they consume and process information.
  • Students and families have 24/7 access to video instruction online.
  • Teachers do not have to spend time repeating the same information over and over.
  • Video provides on-demand instruction and frees the teacher to move around the room working directly with individual students or groups of students.

Tips for using a three-part flipped lesson in a concurrent classroom:

  • Begin class with the pre-video activity and create groups that are a mix of both online and offline students enabling them to work collaboratively using video conferencing software.
  • Allow students to self-pace through the instructional video.
  • Engage students around the video content using online discussions (e.g., video-based with FlipGrid or text-based with your learning management system). This makes it possible for students to continue learning from one another regardless of their physical location.
  • Encourage students to practice and apply during the class period so they can ask for help if they get stuck or need support.
    • Create a pathway for online students to ask questions as they work (e.g., Remind or ClassroomQ).
  • Provide individual or small group support (in person or online) as the class works on the practice and apply activity or use this time to conference with individual students.

#3 Playlist Model or Individual Rotation Model

The playlist model presents learners with a sequence of learning activities that they can self-pace through. Teachers can create a playlist around a unit of study, a formal writing assignment, or a project. Playlists integrate different types of media and learning modalities to keep students engaged while freeing the teacher to work with individual learners. For more on playlists, check out this blog.

Benefits of the playlist model:

  • Shifts control over the pace of learning to students.
  • Paths can be differentiated or personalized. 
  • Creates clarity about the trajectory of work.
  • Mixes media and learning modalities. 
  • Affords the teacher time to conference with students.
  • Pulls feedback and assessment into the classroom or synchronous virtual sessions.

Tips for using the playlist model in a concurrent classroom:

  • Allow students to work independently or strategically pair your online and offline students to create a support network as they work.
    • If you strategically pair students, create a digital space (e.g., Google Document) where they can connect to chat if they have questions or need support.
  • Meet with online students for “teacher check-ins” using video conferencing software.
  • Post a “may do” list for students to work on if they are waiting for their teacher check-in.
  • Create a pathway for all students to let you know when they have hit a “teacher check-in” and need to conference with you (e.g., Remind or ClassroomQ).

Teaching a concurrent classroom is a daunting task. I am hopeful that strategies and best practices for K-12 will blossom out of this challenging school year as teachers experiment, reflect, create, and share.

As the new school year begins, teachers must be gentle with themselves. We don’t need to be experts. We don’t need to pretend that we have this all figured out. We need to be vulnerable and honest with our students and remind them that we are learning right alongside them.

Need support getting started with blended learning or online learning? Check out my self-paced online course.

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Asynchronous vs. Synchronous: How to Design for Each Type of Learning

This school year will look very different for most teachers. Some are beginning entirely online and others are returning to school on a modified schedule where they will only see students in person a couple of days a week. So, the question many teachers are asking is, “How should I spend my limited time with students in the classroom or in video conferencing sessions? What is the best use of that time?”

First, let’s be clear about the differences between asynchronous and synchronous learning.

Asynchronous LearningSynchronous Learning
Occurring at different times and in different places (e.g., students working at home).Occurring at the same time and in the
same place (e.g., students working in the classroom or meeting online for a video conference session.
Students can access content, resources, activities at any time, and from anywhere.Students can access content, resources, and activities at a specific time and location.
Students can control the time, place, and pace of their learning.Students may have some control over the pace of their learning, but they do not control the time or the place.
Students work independently to complete assignments and tasks. Students have access to teacher and peer support while completing assignments
and tasks.

If we take a step back and think about the benefits and challenges of asynchronous learning and synchronous learning, that can provide clarity about how to think about the design of our curriculum in an online or blended learning course.

Asynchronous learning provides students with a high degree of flexibility and autonomy. They can control the pace of their learning, which lends itself to the following activities.

Teachers who are seeing students for synchronous face-to-face sessions in a classroom or virtual conferencing sessions online may find it useful to think of the asynchronous learning as pre-work and post-work for the synchronous sessions.

The pre-work may involve students reading texts, watching videos, listening to podcasts, exploring teacher-curated resources online, and taking notes. Completing this work asynchronously lets the students control the pace at which they consume and process information. Teachers may also want to engage students in online discussions to encourage them to think critically about that information before attending class.

If students engage in meaningful pre-work prior to class, the teacher can maximize their limited synchronous time with students in a blended learning or online learning course. They can focus their time and energy on high-value learning activities when working directly with students. Instead of feeling pressure to cover the curriculum or present information, the teacher can use their precious synchronous time to do the following.

Teachers can follow this synchronous time with post-work activities, like additional review and practice, research and exploration, or reflection that build on the work students did in synchronous sessions.

The biggest advantage of synchronous learning is human connection. When students learn in a shared time and space, they have access to their teacher and each other. So, teachers should design with that in mind, prioritize community, and leverage those human connections to engage students in social learning.

Need support getting started with blended learning or online learning? Check out my self-paced online course.

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Video Conferencing: Establishing Routines and Structuring Online Time with Students

Need support preparing for fall? Check out my self-paced online course Prepare for Fall 2020: Blended & Online Learning.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Linwood Paul, an executive coach, for an episode of my podcast, The Balance. In the final moments of our conversation, I asked him what advice he had for achieving a work-life balance at this moment when many of us are both living and working in our homes. The first thing he said was “routines rule all.” I immediately thought about all of the teachers who are preparing to start the school year online and wondering how to structure their online time with students.

As teachers consider their routines for this upcoming year, I encourage them to take the ideas and values that guide the design and facilitation of their in-class work with students and adapt them for the online environment. For example, most teachers use flexible grouping strategies in the classroom based on the objectives of a lesson. They may provide whole group instruction, work with small groups, and conference with individual students. Similarly, teachers hosting video conferencing sessions will want to consider whether whole group, small group, or individual sessions make the most sense given the purpose of that session.

Whole Group SessionsConnect learners online
Build community (e.g., icebreaker questions, scavenger hunts, or check-ins)
Introduce concepts
Provide an overview of the work for the week
Small Group SessionsProvide differentiated instruction
Guide practice and application with frequent check-ins
Collect formative assessment data (e.g., check for understanding)
Facilitate small group discussions
Individual SessionsPersonalize instruction
Individualize practice and application
Provide “real-time” feedback on student work
Conference about individual student progress
Conduct a virtual side-by-side assessment of student work

Once teachers have a schedule and know how often they will be meeting students online, they can begin to think through a schedule or routine to guide that time with students. A routine can provide clarity for the teacher about how to plan for synchronous sessions as well as provide consistency for the students.

I have had several teachers ask about how to approach their work with students online, so I wanted to share an example. Below is a sample schedule I created for teachers who are meeting with their students online on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday for an 80 minute block period. If teachers are meeting with students multiple days each week in video conferencing sessions, I encourage them to mix up the types of sessions they offer–whole group, small group, and individual. Teachers will likely find their small group and individual sessions the most rewarding as they provide time to work directly with students. In a distance learning scenario, those interactions are gold!

As teachers think about structuring their online time with students, remember that the moment when students typically get stuck or need additional support is when they are practicing and applying. Build time into your video conferencing sessions to allow students to mute their mics and put pen to paper. This can help you identify moments of confusion or gaps that need to be addressed. Teachers can project a slide like the one below to guide the offline practice during a video conferencing session.

As teachers think about how to create routines for themselves and their students online, I hope they will embrace their many roles from the architect of learning experiences to the coach supporting individual skill development. The physical distance between teacher and learner in an online course does create new challenges, but teachers who embrace their many roles online are likely to find their work more rewarding.

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