The instructions Paula Barr gave at the start of her second-grade math class at Quail Run Elementary last week were simple: Go where you need to go.
Her students whipped out worksheets. They fastened headphones and unfolded laptops to watch videos of Barr's lessons. They partnered up or worked solo as their teacher roved around, offering help.
"I don't really need to give them directions," Barr said later.
She runs what's called a blended learning classroom, an initiative the Lawrence school district began two years ago to outfit classes with an arsenal of technology such as laptops, tablets and desktop computers with 32-inch monitors.
It's supposed to free classes from the "universal lesson" format — all eyes trained on one lecturer — and optimize independent and collaborative learning at a student's own pace.
Two years after the district began by experimenting with eight classes, about 150 classes now function like this. Measurable data are not yet available, but reviews from teachers, students and parents are accumulating and positive.
A 2014 district survey said 97 percent of blended learning teachers think the initiative has increased student engagement. About 82 percent of students said they felt better prepared for blended classes than traditional classes. And nearly 70 percent of parents said their child is experiencing success in blended rooms.
"I know right now that I am the best teacher that I have ever been and I know that every day my students are making better progress than they ever have," Barr said.
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A 2014 district survey on blended classrooms said:
• 97 percent of teachers think they've increased student engagement.
• 82 percent of students felt better prepared for blended classes than traditional classes.
• Nearly 70 percent of parents said their child is experiencing success in blended rooms.
Many of the district's blended learning teachers are moving their classes in the same direction: fewer lectures, more work time and a loose structure that allows students to choose how fast they want to work and how they want to learn. They might do it on their own, with one or more partners or in teacher-led small group instruction. Students are able to find various course materials — assignments, videos and more — through an online resource.
Barr said this freedom has allowed to her to keep closer tabs on students. In a three-minute period, she helped five students at three tables. In another 10-minute stretch, she spoke with four students and sat down at a table to informally quiz four more on subtraction problems. A fifth student saw that happening and joined in.
"I know my students better than I ever have now that I'm standing side-by-side every day, not standing in front of the classroom and talking at them," Barr said.
Andy Bricker, a Lawrence High School science teacher, said the engagement and productivity of his students is "through the roof."
The students seem to relish their liberty and prefer the blended environment to the traditional setup. Kayleigh Pokphanh, a seventh-grader in Kelly Hart's English class at South Middle School, said other classes move too quickly.
"In blended classes you have more time to absorb more information," she said.
Meanwhile, three students of Barr's — Richard Li, Matthew Liu and Cayman Cook (who work together unless "they get annoying," Richard said) — hope they get to take another blended class in the fourth grade.
The Lawrence school district hasn't set a goal for a specific number of blended classrooms by a specific date, but Superintendent Rick Doll said at a Feb. 9 school board meeting that he hopes the board "will put a stake in the ground" this summer during the annual goal-setting process.
James Basham, a professor in Kansas University's Department of Special Education, said this kind of learning is "the way of the future." He said that if set up correctly, "really, I don't see a disadvantage to it."
"It's allowing them to learn at their own pace and really take advantage of maximizing their own learning," he said.
The district won't be finished expanding the program for several years. It's budgeted to spend $675,000 on equipment for 75 to 80 new blended classes every year though 2018. Over that time, another $375,000 per year will go to new furniture such as round tables and desks that are easier to combine for group work.
"We are done buying individualized desks," said Angelique Kobler, the district's assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.
She said the district is working to make tablet devices available for rent from school libraries.
If the pace continues, every class would be blended by 2021, Kobler said. That's what she wants to happen.
"I think it's critical for all students to at least experience it," Kobler said. "Putting the student in more control of their learning by helping them understand what kind of learners they are, I think just prepares them to be more successful."