Blended Real-time Learning

Is it always important for adult learners to come to class? The answer may sound like a no brainer to some. Yes, of course!  Several years ago I would have agreed, but now I am not so sure. With new technologies, if adult learners have regular access to the web through a digital device such as a computer, electronic tablet, or smart phone, if they want or need to they can fully participate in a real-time class from home, work, a library or someplace else where they have Internet access.

Using combinations of software or one integrated web-based application, a teacher can, for example:

  • Present lessons from a classroom electronic tablet that students in class or outside can follow as s/he presents them
  • Ask classroom-based or remote students to present to the class from their own device, and other students in the classroom and at a distance can see their presentations
  • Showcase a student’s work, for example on a tablet, to the entire class, including those at a distance
  • Broadcast messages to all the students
  • Chat (by text) with any or all students
  • Post images, videos (including screen-capture videos), audio files, presentations and other learning resources for students to access both in the classroom and outside, at any time
  • Assign work to individuals or small online and face-to-face groups
  • Enable students assigned to a small group to collaborate on projects from their electronic devices, and
  • Monitor students’ work in their workspaces, and comment on their work.

Attending class remotely might not work for all adult learners. Some may want – and need – to regularly attend face-to-face classes, but some may not; and some who might not be able to attend a class in person that day could attend it remotely, and now have close to the kind of experience that they might have had in the classroom.

Does the hardware and software for this already exist? Yes. There are ways to do each of these things now using different pieces of free and commercial software. With tools such as Edmodo, Schoology, Moodle, Dropbox, Google drive, Netop’s Vision Me, PowerPoint, Google slides, free conference calling, Skype or Google Hangouts (and Google Hangout presentations) in various combinations, a teacher can do all of these things, although with all the moving parts it may not be easy. However, there is also beginning to be integrated software that combines these features to make it easy for a teacher to have a real-time classroom. One example is Smart Amp™.


This is a relatively new, subscription-based service from SMART Technologies. Its cost is around $10 per student annually. Think of it as an integrated, web-based learning environment for use by students who can access it from Internet-accessible digital devices in the classroom, or from anywhere else that has Internet access.


Screen capture image from SMART Amp™ YouTube Video

SMART Amp™ has most of the features described earlier in this article, including Google drive/docs, in one piece of single sign-on online software. With this, many kinds of lesson content (e.g. Notebook files, Open Education Resources, proprietary content, online videos, audio files, teacher-made lessons) can be integrated by the teacher or by students in lesson presentations, assignments or assessments.

Particularly appealing is the “Follow Me” feature, where a teacher can lead the students through a work space as s/he models how to think about or solve a (math, writing, science, or other) problem. S/he can then copy and digitally distribute this recorded process to individual students or small groups who may need it. Another feature allows a teacher, or students, to view or edit a shared document in real time, which may be especially useful for writing classes. A teacher can also design and embed assessment tools for student learning progress and mastery, which the teacher can then easily track. SMART Amp ™ has a dashboard from which the teacher can control the class roster and monitor progress. It has workspaces where students complete their individual or group work projects. Using this web-based software, compatibility of digital devices is not an issue as students can access it from nearly any digital device (tablets, smart phones, computers, etc.) A teacher might want to also use a communication tool, however, such as free phone conferencing or videoconferencing software such as Skype.

I believe that there will be more integrated online learning platform subscription services like this one, that in the next two to five years there will be ones that focus on what is needed in higher education as well as in K-12 real-time learning. We also need a service that focuses on the features that adult basic/secondary education and adult ELL teachers need.

Blended Learning and Competency Based-Education

In higher education there has been a growing trend the past few years toward competency-based (aka mastery) learning. Competency-based learning has long been a mainstay of vocational education in the U.S., and for some years was a focus of many adult basic education programs. There is still a national competency-based adult diploma program, and some ESOL/ESL teachers use competency-based lessons with a focus on what the learner can do/demonstrate as a result of the acquired learning.

While some learners may need classroom seat time, we should ask why. What is it that a teacher or face-to-face class can provide that could not be provided by that teacher digitally and remotely in real time? In any case, we must acknowledge that seat time in class is a means to an end – that the end is demonstrable learning of acquired knowledge and skills, including demonstration of the ability to transfer knowledge and skills to new environments and contexts. The newly acquired, demonstrable learning, not seat time, must be our focus.

A competency-based blended real-time learning model would need to have a high degree of teacher-to-students and student-to-student interaction, high teacher engagement, excellent modeling of skills and rigorous content standards. It could also benefit from a formative assessment and learning management system that allowed a teacher to easily see what each student was — or was not — learning. With the addition of online real-time and asynchronous learning, more instruction, practice and formative assessment would be possible. Students’ time on task could increase, and the number of missed lessons could decrease.

What if….

What if, with the expert use of blended real-time learning technology and the widespread availability of electronic tablets and Internet access to students, we could improve the quality learning, help students achieve more learning in less time, and increase the focus on higher order thinking skills compared to what teachers can do with the limited time available in most traditional adult education classrooms? What if, with the addition of electronic tablets and computers, we could significantly reduce the number of months or years it takes to prepare for and pass a high school equivalency test or acquire English language listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. What if the hardware and software for such an effort were subsidized by public state, federal and local investments? And what if this blended real-time learning model — through experimental design research measuring adult learner outcomes of the same content, same knowledge and skills, provided to the same kinds of learners, perhaps even by the same teacher – could be demonstrated to be more effective?


I am indebted to my colleagues John Fleischman at the Sacramento (California) County Office of Education, and Steve Quann, at World Education, for helping me think about the software for blended real-time learning.

Post-blog comment: I have created an Adult Literacy Education (ALE) Wiki page on Ted-Ed talks of interest to adult educators. You’ll find it at

6 Responses to “Blended Real-time Learning”

  1. Jason Guard Says:

    Thank you, David, for taking the discussion around technology integration in the field of adult ed in the bold direction of real-time connections between teacher and learner. The possibility of pure distance learning (as opposed to mostly class-time or sporadic class attendance) needs to be taken seriously by local/regional/statewide adult ed programs that want to leverage technology to combat the age-old retention problem. And it’s not just about retention, but the possibility of expanding the reach of adult ed programs to include important target markets.

    Unfortunately, many states have severely limiting distance education policies that look at innovation was suspicion and promote a pejorative notion of learner and teacher capabilities. We should be raising the bar. We should be meeting learners where they’re at, which may be way ahead or outside our areas of comfort. We should be taking full advantage of the NRS definitions of contact hours (in person) vs proxy contact hours (at a distance).

    At the very least, I do think that adult educators should look at the products they use for computer-based preparation and stretch to include more exploration, collaboration, and work focused on critical thinking rather than drill and practice. And then use ambitious tools for robust interaction/counseling/teaching at a distance with learners often enough to keep them moving forward. Whether that’s the tools you suggest, or platforms that we can adopt because our learners already use them, I don’t know. But the work that our learners do independently makes those fleeting moments we have with them more valuable. So we need to make the most of each meeting, even if it’s at a distance.

  2. Jen Says:

    I appreciate the introduction to Smart Amp and thinking about real-time distance learning (DL). What you describe reminds me of what is happening in the “virtual classrooms” that innovative ABE DL teachers create to provide responsive and varied resources that supplement/compliment their primary DL online curriculum or classroom instruction. I had the pleasure of interviewing several of these teachers during a project last year and noticed that they all relied on a central website to coordinate their instruction (both in class and DL). Having such a tool made it possible for them to curate useful resources and get them to learners as needed. Real-time DL seems to be a step beyond this practice, but once teachers got used to teaching online it wouldn’t be that much more of a stretch.

    I agree with Jason; it’s likely existing DL policies would/will be a speed bump. However, I also think that as work and daily life require more use of synchronous communication online, then ABE must follow.

  3. Barbara Says:

    With project-based personalized learning on the rise in all classes, it is impossible to wonder how a teacher will be able to keep up with planning, monitoring, teaching and allowing students to work collaboratively and independently without burnout and discouragement. Already public educators are feeling overwhelmed by the frenetic pace at which they have to move to keep up with day to day schedules, planning, resources and individual learners.The way we instruct via facilitated learning using applications and virtual learning media is a great advantage to teachers, learners and communities. We are all in different places and at various levels of use and skill with technology but we must begin to use what we understand and find broader uses to communicate, monitor, plan and develop waht is needed for our students in general and individually. THis takes a lot of upfront planning and the learning curve can be steep but these products can be saved in electronic files, and revised and edited for the next student, and skill-building becomes continuous for both teacher and learner.

    I am in awe of the SMART AMP, watched the entire video. The thinking for this program mirrors my own, that of an instructor, and holds many of the features that are critical for explicit instruction and providing feedback to students. What I haven’t done is tried Google communities. After seeing the SA tool, Google communities becomes more approachable. I am a newbie with these applications, and I don’t want to get caught teaching the technology without also considering the objective/purpose of learning. This is very exciting and interesting, and I think my time has been well-spent finding out about both SA and Google Hangout, and rethinking how this can be useful in my work with other colleagues.

  4. Susan Gaer Says:

    i also appreciate your post. I have just consulted on an Adult Ed series called Project Success that takes ESL adult learners in to the 21st century but with scaffolding for those teachers who need it. This is not meant to be an ad, as you know this is really my life and my heart moving students into the 21st century. It is just a step for adult learners in ESL

  5. Karisa Tashjian Says:

    Thank you for this thought provoking blog post, David. Each day, I feel the walls of the classroom coming down. Technology and reimagined learning strategies are critical to overcoming two major challenges in adult education: regular interaction (attendance) with students and varying skill levels. As I watch teachers taking steps to blend and flip learning, they continually seek a central tool/place to direct students to so we are excited to learn about SMART AMP. I definitely believe new models of learning are emerging in adult education (or are being applied from other fields) – around informal, connected and “in time” learning.

  6. Cathy Coleman Says:

    I enjoyed your post David. We live in a funny time – where the technology is expanding at a much faster pace than the thinking about the technology, or perhaps this has always been the case. In any case, tools like Smart Amp may have the capacity to allow teachers to truly focus on the role of facilitator and to truly encourage higher order thinking skills in both face to face classrooms and distance learning programs.

    One obstacle to more innovative use of technology which you alluded to above, is the sad and outdated concept of “seat time.” This idea that learning must take place in a certain place and only using technology which is “time tracked” is limiting innovation and creativity of teachers and ultimately, the learning of our students. We need to get beyond this idea. If we don’t, we condemn ourselves and our students to distance learning tools which amount to slightly jazzed up worksheets on a screen.

    Thank you for the information on Smart Amp (am already checking out the website) and for the fuel for thought. How can we advance this conversation to influence the policy makers?

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