Integrating a blended approach to the IB Diploma
By Catherine Brandt
GEMS Wellington Academy - Silicon Oasis (WSO) is a leading multicultural school in Dubai, catering for students aged 3 to 18 years. The school offers a holistic education that extends beyond the National Curriculum for England, International Baccalaureate and UAE Ministry of Education curriculums with a focus on meeting the needs of all learners through a blended learning programme. More than 200 students follow IBDP and IBCP pathways in Years 12 and 13.
The benefit of a blended learning strategy
WSO students are equipped with the learning skills, dispositions and competence necessary to be able to accept and embrace the challenges of an ever-changing world. This means equipping students with a wide range of traditional academic and technological skills to empower and support learners to take increasing agency over their learning.
Blended learning allows for a personalised learning pathway for every student by giving them a choice over the pace, path and place of their learning journey. By combining first-class digital instruction with strong face-to-face academic tutoring, mentoring and support, we are delivering the best of both worlds.
Students have a high level of independence in structuring their work week, but also close supervision and support to help them stay on track. Delivering the IB Diploma in this way enables students to gain a more global perspective as they work together towards common goals with students and teachers from all over the globe via an international virtual classroom. Students develop invaluable and transferable digital competence and skills, balanced alongside social interaction through in-depth discussions and seminars that deepen and extend their learning.
Implementing a blended learning approach
The focus at WSO is on ensuring that we provide students with a world-class education via a curriculum that is personalised and challenging. It began with a pedagogical focus on developing a competence-based approach to learning in order to equip students with the skills and confidence to learn independently. This, coupled with an increasing focus on using technology to enhance and extend learning, led to the implementation of a Bring Your Own Device policy. The learning, in all phases, incorporates a variety of features including flipped learning, online instruction, small group interventions, individualised data and timely feedback, all of which create a personalised and flexible model.
The blended approach to learning is fully embedded by the time students reach Year 12, with many IB Diploma subjects delivered through Pamoja Education’s online courses. Students are assigned an online teacher, as well as an academic tutor they meet with in person. Pamoja Education uses an e-learning platform, which hosts lessons in a world classroom. These interactive online lessons include screencasts from teachers, multimedia presentations and live sessions via Skype. The platform also hosts blogs, forums, and web-based documents that ensure students reflect on their learning whilst collaborating with peers and teachers locally and globally. In addition, WSO has invested in Kognity e-textbook which compliments both traditional and blended teaching practices. The WSO programme gives students the freedom to plan their work schedules, which includes asynchronous and synchronous components.
The value of external support
Pamoja Education has worked in partnership with the school for the past five years and has supported WSO in developing the blended learning programme. Students are enrolled on a variety of Pamoja courses at both HL and SL.
Pamoja teachers are selected for their considerable IB subject experience and are often examiners in their subject. This knowledge and experience is invaluable for both students and staff. Pamoja has structures in place to ensure that virtual teachers deliver the highest quality teaching and learning in line with the philosophy and ethos of WSO. Regular and systematic communication between Pamoja teachers, students and WSO academic tutors ensure that this model of learning is effective.
Supporting staff to achieve sustained implementation
At WSO, we have introduced a differentiated CPD model for all teachers based upon Harvard Graduate School of Education Project Zero’s Creating Communities of Innovation. This enquiry-driven innovation model allows teachers to develop and explore their pedagogy within the context of our school.
The personalised approach to the CPD programme at WSO has ensured that teachers feel safe and supported in taking risks and trying new pedagogical approaches. All teachers are assigned a peer coach who acts as a sounding board throughout the academic year. In addition, digital pedagogy coaches offer one-to-one training and support via team planning and teaching.
At Post 16, the IB Coordinator supports WSO academic tutors and liaises daily with Pamoja academic staff to monitor and evaluate the progress and engagement of students. Sharing of best practice is essential to the development of this approach to foster new ways of working for both teaching and learning.
Overcoming the challenges
One of the greatest challenges with innovation is engaging all stakeholders with the proposed changes. Students and parents initially have reservations about this approach to learning and often take some time to become assimilated with this model. Introducing elements of blended learning in all phases with an increasing emphasis on independence and enquiry has meant that the journey towards a fully blended approach in Year 12 has been smoother as students take greater responsibility for their own learning, and parents are able to see the effectiveness of this approach.
We now have IB results that show the effectiveness of the blended IB provision at WSO. Results show that students of all abilities have been successful and have valued the dual approach that blended learning provides. Many comment that they enjoy the flexibility that blended learning provides.
Planning a blended learning approach? Advice from WSO
School leadership must fully embrace the pedagogy behind successful blended learning.
Think carefully on how to engage all stakeholders.
Provide a comprehensive programme of staff CPD which is personalised for staff to address their specific CPD requirements. This must be continuous and built into the daily school practice.
Celebrate blended successes publicly.
Teaching in a blended learning environment
Psychology teacher at WSO, Neil Hardy-Johnson shares his views on the WSO blended learning strategy:
“The recognition of the value of a blended approach to Teaching and Learning is beginning to gain traction with key stakeholders.
In my experience, there is a need to break away from the traditional in order to maximise the utility of a blended approach; it is in this area that the pedagogue’s role is challenged, yet, offers the greatest opportunity to provide tailored learning experiences for students. No longer do students ask or expect to address the question, “Tell me about concept X?”; rather they are encouraged to ask the much more valuable question, “If my understanding of X is this, have I covered all of the detail?”. Similarly, and representing another key benefit of this approach to learning, students are able to address their own questions as they arise, rather than awaiting an answer as part of a group-wide discussion of a topic during independent learning episodes. Through use of strategically placed interventions, determined formatively, issues of understanding can be avoided, and the benefits of group-based learning can be facilitated, often through a flipped approach.
Adopting a blended approach has proved to have significant benefits for students’ skill levels, including improvements in communication, enquiry, and critical reflection in particular. Student and parental training initiatives enhance the benefits to be gained from a blended approach, particularly when pitched as a whole-school initiative within an environment with flexibility to challenge the norm.”
Catherine Brandt is IBDP and Blended Coordinator at GEMS Wellington Academy, Silicon Oasis, Dubai. She is a Master of Education in blended and gifted students learning and has experience leading education in the UK, UAE and New Zealand. You can contact Catherine directly at firstname.lastname@example.org www.gemswellingtonacademy-dso.com