Blended learning: wave of the future?

Walk into any oversized lecture section and observe the large number of students passively listening to their prof. To remedy such a scene, alternative teaching approaches are being explored which would require students to take a more active role in their own education. One such approach is “blended learning.”

“What we’re doing is exploring ways that seem to be more effective at getting interaction from large groups of students through the use of technology,” said Associate Director for the Learning Commons Heather Kanuka.

Courses restructured under blended learning would no longer be lecture-oriented. Instead, courses would be comprised of traditional face-to-face classroom components–tutorials, minimized lectures–blended with web-based independent learning through online environments such as Blackboard, whose implementation will be finalized this year.

“The university remains without a central policy on blended learning,” stated Students’ Union Vice-President Academic Demetrios Nicolaides. “One thing is clear, however, and that is the push for more online interactive courses is a direct result of over-capacity, overworked faculty and generally means that faculty don’t have time to interact with students inside the classroom.”

An example of a redesigned class incorporating major online components is COMS 363, which meets once a week for lecture.

“COMS 363 is a course that is getting close to blended learning in practice,” explained Learning Commons Educational Consultant Dave Hawes, who is also part of the team responsible for migrating WebCT courses into Blackboard format. “In lieu of meeting three times a week for lectures, they’ve incorporated Blackboard and other supporting web sites into their design. The essential content and exchange happens online. They’ve helped to manage their time a little better, a little more constructively.”

Dr. James Nicholls has allowed for more one-on-one interaction in his SCIE 311 course, Writing and Reviewing Scientific Reports. Dr. Nicholls posts all of his lecture notes online and students use his lecture time for drop-in opportunities. He warns that with reduced in-class time and an increased emphasis on independent learning, only the self-motivated student can fully benefit from the blended learning method.

“Only half of my students would come in for one-on-one sessions,” said Dr. Nicholls. “I saw mistakes in work that could have been fixed if that student came in for consultation. If fulfilling drop-in time is not a requirement and a student is having problems, it’s important the student makes the effort to go in and speak to their prof.”

Currently, 900 courses utilize Blackboard in some way, either extensively like COMS 363 or merely as a discussion board.

Learning Commons is developing the Inquiry Through Blended Learning program, a course piloted for January 2004, which is aimed at faculty and would help teach them how to apply Blackboard technology for blended learning. With Blackboard implementation finalized this year, and the ITBL course available to professors, students can expect an increased number of courses using the blended learning method in the near future.

“Right now there is no formal process to get faculty on some sort of development track,” Hawes explained. “We’re hoping they can engage the ITBL program, get a better idea of what blended learning is, and have some sort of work product which they could apply to a course. Most likely by next fall term the campus will see more blended learning courses rolled out in a more formalized, systematic way.”

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