15 July 2009

Attractions of a Blended Teaching Environment

I want to expand on a quotation from the last post in this blog, wherein a student is quoted as preferring a "blended teaching environment." I would like to explain the notion of such blending, what the student implies as the benefit, and what I have observed as other benefits of blended teaching from the standpoint of an instructor.

The notion of blending in instruction involves both classroom and online components to the course curriculum. A "blended" course will have face-to-face meetings, but will also have requirements for online activities and assignments. The exact mix of "blend" is quite flexible, with some courses more devoted to face-to-face activities and assignments while others are more focused on online work.

Blended courses are given different names by different institutions and instructors. For example, once I had been engaged as a designer of some online philosophy courses, I began to introduce online elements into my "regular" (face-to-face) philosophy curriculum. In these regular courses, I carefully explained the elements of the course, both those experienced in class and those online. However, there was no change in the overall course name or description to indicate that my philosophy course would be "blended." A growing number of university professors around the world are implementing Internet media, activities, and assignments in their "regular" courses. In other cases, such blended courses are called "mixed-modal," indicating that some of the course is in the mode of face-to-face, while some is "mediated" by the Internet. In cases where the blended course is uniquely represented in the course number and description, there may be a specific drop in the expectations regarding how often and how long the class meetings will be. For example at most institutions where I have taught, a "3-hour-credit" university course is understood to meet for three "hours" each week during the semester (the "hours" are shortened to provide time for students to get to and from other classes). In a blended system, classes may meet for as little as an hour a week to provide the essential elements in class.

In the quotation from the student mentioning blended teaching, Aaron Anderson notes a benefit of the blended teaching is that the instructor is available whenever he as a student reaches a "critical teachable moment." On the surface, this sort of comment is disquieting to those who teach, since it can imply that instructors are "chained" to their courses and available to answer student questions at all possible hours of the day (and night!). However, I don't believe Mr. Anderson really has this expectation. Rather, I think his insight is this, when instructors are "available" online (meaning that there is a forum or similar mechanism for interaction) students can post questions and other comments on the course at a time convenient to their own learning activities, rather than having to wait until the instructor is next encountered in a face-to-face setting. I have found that many students benefit (especially during the long period over the weekend between a Thursday class and the next meeting on the following Tuesday) from questions about assignments posted on a course forum along with the answers I may supply on a Saturday morning or late Sunday afternoon (according to when I find it convenient to browse the forum between classes). Such an online forum is particularly more convenient than, say, email or the phone, since all students can see both questions and answers posted, rather than: 1) each student emailing or phoning the question, and 2) my having to take the time to answer each of the students individually.

There are additional benefits to the incorporation of Internet interaction in courses, as well. For example, some of my students (either because of personal shyness or lack of fluency in English) find it quite hard to pose questions in class. Such students may also feel reluctant to try to talk during "office hours," either because their own class schedules prevent this or (in some cases) because cultural practises do not allow them to take instructors' time in such ways. No matter what the impediment to interaction is, students often benefit enormously from the distance inherent in Internet forums. Students do not feel rushed to explain their questions and can take time to carefully think about the questions they pose and the comments they make, when they are writing and posting messages to a course forum.

Also, because the forum is available to all students taking the class, it acts as a sort of FAQ page to keep students from being block in the completion of their work. In such a way, a forum can make the instructors (when they actually participate, of course!) seem to be present for longer periods than just the class sessions for the course.

So far, we have been considering the benefits of blended teaching from the standpoint of the face-to-face class that incorporates online elements. Now, I would like to turn to courses that focus their materials and activities online. In such cases, face-to-face activities can considerably enhance the learning experience.

Students who take online courses report considerably isolation as they attempt their work. They also find it easier to put off completion of the course when they have busy work schedules or activities with their families or friends that compete with their course work. Often, they find the curriculum hard to understand and instructions hard to complete. Introducing face-to-face support for students taking online courses addresses each of these needs.

First of all, support such as is offered by Paradox is intended to bring individual students together with others who are taking the same online courses, so that they do not experience the isolation of online learning. They can work together with others to understand the course curriculum and complete assignments. They also provide a positive peer-group pressure to complete the course when individual motivation might fail.

Also, at the end of a long day or when people students care about place demands upon the students that conflict with completing their course work, having a scheduled group collaboration meeting helps to set off special learning time, so that it does not get put aside so often. Many students find that having a particular time and place in which they will complete assignments for a course actually frees up other time during their week to focus on work, family, personal, and social demands.

Finally, many online courses are not actually designed to make full use of Internet media and interactive tools but merely take the print lecture notes, the text, and assignments and place them online where students can access them. In such courses, discussion may not be clear or apparent to the learner, there may be limited contact with instructors, and phone contact with support staff may not always appeal to students. In these cases, Paradox supports online learners, making sure course materials are available and clear to students and providing students with the guidance necessary to remove confusion from the learning experience.

A growing number of instructors appear to recognize the need to incorporate Internet activities into their classroom-based courses, and such blended teaching appears to have several advantages over more traditional forms of teaching. In many settings where universities are far away, and for students whose work, family, and lifestyle prevent them from attending courses at their local campuses, the blend of services Paradox provides for those taking online courses at universities far from their residences brings these same benefits.

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