Whether online, F2F, or blended/hybrid, to help our students learn, we need to build an effective community. That means learners feel a part of something bigger than themselves, they use bouncing ideas off of each other and working collaboratively to deepen their learning, and they want to take care of each other.
In the F2F classroom, this happens, but shy kids might stay observers, rather than comfortable community members. In small groups and work done in pairs, shyer kids have an easier time, and also get to use social learning to add ideas, possibly challenge their ideas, and work collaboratively. Working with a friend feels safer, but sometimes socializing becomes paramount. Also, if a student has poor social skills – whether in the whole class, small groups, or in pairs – both that student and others have difficulties.
In the purely online classroom, which I have only experienced with adults, the community gets created by effective facilitators build community using discussion forums (particularly where students are required to be active throughout the week) and sometimes small group work. There are still students who don’t like discussion, don’t like group work, who choose to lurk. They may be learning, but they are on the edges of the community.
In the blended classroom – partly F2F and partly online – I feel like we have the best of both words.
We build community in the F2F classroom. But we also build community online. Shy students have an opportunity to work privately; deliberate thinkers get to think as long as they need to before sharing. The playing field (to use an overused metaphor) is leveled, because everybody can participate without needing to have the courage to raise their hand. (See http://adventuresonlineteaching.blogspot.com/2011/05/looking-back-on-our-moodle-year.html).
But in the blended classroom, I’m not limited to posting information or replying to discussion forum posts or uncovering new and interesting resources and activities. I can also talk with students F2F. Kids like to hear the words. And because I can’t count on middle schoolers to go back to a discussion forum to see what I wrote (they tend to consider themselves done once they have posted and replied to other posts), I need to make sure they actually hear from me. I have to say my kids sure like hearing, “Good post!” or “I enjoyed what you wrote last night,” or “Good point!” And dealing with problematic posts is easier to do F2F, where communication isn’t restricted to written words, but can include my tone, gestures, and posture. (See http://adventuresonlineteaching.blogspot.com/2011/02/dealing-with-nastiness.html).
As I’ve written before, the blended classroom seems more cohesive and there is more risk-taking. Many more students raise their hands in the blended F2F classroom because they’ve had success online. And not just from me. There are also the “Gee, I didn’t know you were so smart” comments from peers.
Finally, everybody gets a chance to be successful somewhere. For example, some students have great computer skills but aren’t strong writers – they get to shine when we’re in the computer lab. Middle school is not a time when kids feel confident or successful. And I think the blended classroom lets them find a place to experience success and confidence.