Blended courses to offer ‘best of both worlds’

Blended-Learning

Launched in the fall of 2016 as part of Western’s Blended Learning Strategy, the Supported Course Redesign (SCoRe) program – which supports faculty members in the transformation of fully face-to-face large-enrollment courses into blended offerings – will see its first three course offerings this September.

Biology for Science I and II, which has an enrolment of 1,900, and Introduction to Health Promotion, which has an enrolment of 350, will soon see at least 30 per cent of student learning take place in an online environment.

Blended courses have been shown to offer the best of both worlds – online and face-to-face – by providing students with more flexibility when learning course material, while still retaining the active, social aspects of learning that can be more difficult to facilitate in an online environment, said Gavan Watson, Associate Director of eLearning at Western.

“This is not just putting static PDFs online, just to put them online. There’s thought and intention behind the design of these courses,” he noted.

While faculty have been teaching in the classroom and in an online environment in the past, mostly on an ad hoc basis, there is a stronger focus now on creating tailored learning content, he added.

“We think (blended courses) allow for the thoughtful integration of technology into the classroom. It allows increased flexibility for students, so they can experience both face-to-face and online learning.”

The things we like about face-to-face classroom learning, such as the social engagement, learning from others, which may be easier in the traditional classroom setting, often forms the criticism of the online class, Watson continued.

“The literature is clear blended courses offer the best of both worlds and students that take a blended course, have better outcomes,” he said. “With the online environment – and with thoughtfully created learning objectives – students get introduced to concepts and receive material easily. There is this intentional design component of a blended course where there is thought about what’s going to happen in the online environment, what will happen in face-to-face, and how the two talk to each other.”

The SCoRe program, a three-year initiative created by the university, brings together participating faculty – with on-campus experts from the Teaching Support Centre, Information Technology Services & Western Libraries – for a 12-week learning community to develop course-level learning outcomes, assessments and learning materials appropriate for a blended course. Each faculty member receives 192 hours of direct support from the members of their interdisciplinary redesign team.

For Biology professor Tom Haffie, who said past university blended courses have been “DIY projects” held together with duct tape, having the SCoRe program in his corner has made a huge difference.

“If you are working towards something, and then suddenly, someone says they’ll put a bunch of resources into this? OK,” he said smiling. “You now have this team here helping to accomplish what you may have been trying to do on your own.”

Haffie said while some might think of a blended lecture, his team’s focus will be on blending the lab component of Biology classes – learning the basic lab techniques through interactive exercises and being ready to participate when they come to class.

“In the old days, we’d say (to students), read this stuff before you come to the lab, now we’re going to say, go and do this immersive online module before you come to class,” said Haffie. “What you’re doing will be like a video game. You’re doing the experiment online, close to what you’ll do when you come to the lab. We can track who’s doing it, who’s not, who’s struggling. We’re building in individual accountability before you get into teamwork, to be prepared.”

He added one of the strongest arguments in favour of blended courses is accessibility, by expanding who can take the course and offering these students increased flexibility with how they learn.

“The blended enhancement is more structuring out-of-class time in order to make in-class time more productive,” said Haffie. “These are first-year students, so helping them structure their time is how you prepare them for learning.”

Jen Irwin, who is working on blending one of her second-year Health Studies courses, said it made sense to find ways to support student learning and provide more flexible learning opportunities.

“Nothing is broken in the course, but it felt like in providing the best educational opportunity for students, for me, I wanted the course to meet them more where they’re at – a more technically savvy group,” said Irwin. “I feel it can take learning to the next level so that it’s a more effective experience for the students.”

Being a learner and a teacher, she needs to change with the times as well, she added.

“I have to be able to meet students where they’re at, and they do have a relationship with technology, which is foreign to me,” said Irwin. “We’re always telling students to think outside their comfort zones, outside things you think you know. How can I have integrity if I’m asking them to do that, if I’m not willing to put myself out there, too?”

She added having a team environment through the SCoRe program creates a supportive process to take something that, on her own, would be “terrifying and daunting.”

“We have to lean to the needs of the students,” she said. “We haven’t identified tools that are just cool, we have identified tools that actually meet the needs and are a good match for this course.”

Watson said over the initial three years of the SCoRe program, nine courses are projected to be redeveloped, with a combined enrolment of 4,300 students.

“We’re bringing this together to encourage faculty members to think even more thoughtfully about their courses,” he said. “What we see through the process is instructors really being able to identify what their learners look like, and what their needs are. This design and model is about improving the student’s learning experience and not simply change for change’s sake.

“Students are expecting technology to be involved in their learning, and where the technology is incorporated, thoughtfully, it does improve the learning experience.”

BLEND YOUR COURSE

Applications for faculty interested in course redesign are now open, with SCoRe looking to recruit three to four large enrolment, introductory courses in the 2017-18 cohort. Deadline is May 26. A faculty information session is scheduled for May 2 (11:30-12:30 p.m.) at the Teaching Support Centre (Room 121) in the D. B Weldon Library. Visit westernu.ca/tsc for more information or to apply.