Blended Learning: Pros and Cons

This semester, 4 colleagues and I have piloted blended learning in our subject areas (AP Psychology, Health and Algebra 1).  I taught traditional Algebra 1st semester and kept the same students for the 2nd semester Blended Algebra pilot class. The process has been challenging, frustrating, exciting and rewarding for both me and my students.

All 5 of the blended teachers have been following a model where students are in class 2-3 days per week and then have "independent days" for the rest of the week.  Students are required to come to class daily if they have a D or an F.  Students are also required to come to class to take summative assessments.  If students are not in class, they can work in the library, be in designated hallways around the building where there are couches, go to the cafeteria, work on homework for another class, make up tests, etc.  Below I've outlined some of the key features of my blended Algebra class, and the corresponding pros and cons.

In Class Days
I decided early on that I didn't want students to be watching videos to learn new material.  I love teaching math.  It is exciting to me when I can see students understand new concepts.  I love the questions, thoughts, comments and genuine enthusiasm when a class is engaged in mathematical thinking.  This semester, in class days have primarily been on the 1st day of a target.  On day 2, a practice day, I give students choice about completing tasks independently, or in the classroom, with my help.
Pro:  Students have been more engaged on in class days than they were in a traditional class.  Since students might not have seen me the previous day, and because they might not see me they next day, they ask a lot of questions, listen intently and participate fully during class activities.
Con:  Personalized learning is about offering students choice in the pace, place and path of their learning.  Sometimes a student's pace for completing activities was slower than my plan.  If students hadn't completed the previous day's tasks before coming to class, they weren't necessarily ready to move on to new material.

Independent Days
On independent days, I posted classwork on Canvas for students to complete.  This work included Desmos activities, Google Docs with practice problems, tasks, submitting voice recordings explaining how to solve a problem, online practice quizzes with immediate feedback, Padlet, Discussions, etc.  Attendance on independent days has fluctuated between 1 and 17 students.  Students are more likely to choose to come to class on a review day.  I experienced a day when only girls came to class, which was a fun day for everyone present.  And then later in the semester there was a day when only boys showed up to class, which was also fun and created a unique opportunity for learning.  A handful of times throughout the semester I have grouped students, based on an exit slip, and assigned them to come to class on a particular day.  This differentiation allowed me to help students with similar misconceptions one day and give students an extension if they understood the exit slip the next day.
Pro:  On days when students choose to come in for extra help with me, I have found that I can listen more carefully to what a student is thinking because I am not worried about a classroom full of students.  I am able to ask better questions of students to draw out their mathematical understanding.  This doesn't happen in a traditional classroom when many students are waiting for my help, or for further directions once they've completed an activity.
Con:  My class meets during a lunch hour.  Some of my students have chosen to spend their independent day in the cafeteria, without making plans to complete their Algebra work at another time.

I did not anticipate that blended instruction would change my grading practices.  In a traditional class, I do not give grades for classwork.  Activities we do in class are for the benefit of learning, not for earning rewards (or punishments).  But, it's a different story in blended.  This semester, I have had to find ways to keep track of what students are accomplishing outside of class. Without inputting completion grades into the grade book, assignments weren't being completed.  This is still a challenge for me, because I don't want math class to be a checklist of assignments to complete. However, I need a way to hold students accountable for the 50 minutes of math instruction that happens outside of the classroom.  Another struggle has been that I am giving students a completion grade for incorrect work.  I don't want to penalize students for getting a problem wrong while they are still learning the material, but it also feels weird to assign a 5/5 completion grade for incorrect work.  The challenge with incorrect work is giving students timely feedback.  I might not see students in the classroom for a day or two, or before the next quiz/test, so I want to be sure that they see the comments I make to their work so that they can learn from their mistakes.
Pro:  The benefit of online submissions from students is that I am seeing more student work than ever before.  I know how valuable daily formative assessments are, but I haven't fully put that into practice until now.  Since I am not able to read my students' faces every day, or do quick checks like fist of five or thumbs up thumbs down, I am forced to look at student work to see what they know and what they don't know.  I have been able to say with much more certainty who understands a topic and who doesn't, and what in particular students are struggling with.  
Con:  Students haven't been checking Canvas for the feedback I post to them, even when I make announcements to do so.  The easiest, quickest, surest way that I have found to communicate with students is through the grade book, and I don't like that.

Prep Time
Going into this semester, I didn't know what to expect in terms of how much of a time commitment teaching a blended class would be.  Since I was the primary deliverer of new material, in person, my time wasn't spent preparing lessons.  Rather, it was spent checking student work, and giving effective timely feedback.  On independent days, I used a lot of materials that I had used last year in my traditional class, but this time around I converted them to an online format.  At the beginning of the semester I created HyperDocs, such as this one, with all of the materials for the unit available for students to work on, at their own pace.  I haven't always had the time to create a whole HyperDoc before a unit begins, and sometimes I am posting assignments the day before or day of the activity.  Students preferred the HyperDoc format, but it wasn't always realistic for me to achieve.
Pro:  Everything I planned this semester was very intentional.  I was purposeful when deciding what should be taught on an in class day, and what students could complete independently.  While this ultimately took more work than simply relying on last year's lesson plan, it stretched me in new ways and I am a better teacher for it.
Con:  The thing that has taken the most amount of time is checking student work through various forms of online submission.  At the end of the school day on an independent day, I create an assignment in the grade book for that day's activity.  I then go online and see who has completed the assignment and give the appropriate points in the grade book.  Next, for students who haven't completed the assignment yet, I input a score of zero with a comment telling the student to email me when they have completed the assignment, by a given due date.  As students work at their own pace, I periodically get emails asking me to check their work, and change their grade.

Teaching blended has been a worthwhile experience.  Despite the challenges, and questions I still have about best practice, there have been many rewarding experiences that couldn't be replicated in a traditional class.  I am so proud of the ownership students have taken for their learning when they choose to come in for help or choose to work independently and persevere in problem solving without a teacher present.  While some students have made poor choices in deciding not to come to class, or do Algebra on a given independent day, they have shown maturity by learning from these mistakes and accepting responsibility for their choices.  Blended learning is a great opportunity for some students to have more choice and independence in their education.  I wouldn't recommend blended learning for everyone, in particular a student who is not yet mature enough to make decisions about how to use their independent days wisely.  Blended learning is for struggling students who want more one-on-one help from a teacher, for strong students who want to be challenged more in math class and for a student who wants some flexibility in their school day and an opportunity to learn independently.  I am grateful for the experiences I've had teaching blended this semester and for the students who have embarked on this journey with me!