Thursday, March 01, 2012

On hybrid courses, blended learning, online instruction, and educational innovation

Today and tomorrow I'm going to be part of a panel considering the topic of “Online and Blended Learning” sponsored by our DoIT Academic Technology professionals and our Division of Continuing Studies. I thought I might post some links and examples here to accompany my presentation.

I actually started using "blended" or "hybrid" approaches to learning -- or techniques which incorporate online experiences into traditional classroom lecture and discussion work, usually (but not always) time-shifting and/or place-shifting the delivery of faculty instruction and student participation -- in most of my "regular" or "face-to-face" courses starting in the early 2000s. Although our university makes available many different kinds of academic technology and courseware resources, I began incorporating online experiences into my teaching when free external collaborative weblog, wiki, and document services started to be available on the Web. Over the last decade I've experimented with four main courses in this mode, and (hopefully) learned something different from each one.

J 201 - Introduction to Mass Communication (4 credits, Comm-B)

My first large-scale experience with these tools was in the undergraduate lecture/discussion course, J 201 "Introduction to Mass Communication." This course serves several different purposes. As the title indicates, is an introductory service course for students interested in all aspects of the mass communication industries. It is also a required course for entry into the competitive School of Journalism & Mass Communication undergraduate major. And it is a course that meets the Comm-B requirement for instruction in research skills, oral communication skills, and, especially, written communication skills. The four hundred or so students who enroll in J 201 each semester choose the course for a combination of these three purposes, I'd guess.

As you might expect, there's lots going on in J 201. It is a four-credit course with three 50-minute lectures per week, and one 75-minute, TA-led discussion section. For the faculty member, monitoring a dozen or so TAs -- ensuring consistency of teaching, learning and grading across discussion sections -- is an additional challenge. There are weekly written quizzes, two in-class exams, a final exams, and lots and lots of writing and speaking assignments. And we've wrapped various digital tools into the course as we've gone along, including using rich media in lecture, having students evaluate online information sources, and experimenting with student-produced video podcasts.

And we also started using online collaborative tools for blended/hybrid education in J 201, for three reasons: (1) to expose our students to some of the platforms "out there in the world" as part of the course material itself; (2) to find more efficient ways of handling student work in order to cut down on the time burdens of managing the course; and (3) to make that student work visible to myself and the rest of the TAs so that we could learn from each others' experiences and help ensure consistency across sections.

The first blended/hybrid tool we tried in J201 was a weblog service, Blogger. This is a free service (owned by Google) which allows the creation of unlimited weblogs, allows either public weblogs or private password-protected spaces, and does not include advertising. We signed up students into discussion-section-specific blogs and used it as a platform for writing about and then discussing the two scholarly articles that students had to read each week as part of the normal coursework. This writing could take place asynchronously and aspatially from the discussion section; students could participate from any computer with a web browser, at any time of the day or night. Having students rehearse their reading summaries and critiques beforehand helped us have better in-person discussions in sections -- and we stressed this important link between the online world and the in-person activity. But we had to make clear what we were asking of students, especially at the beginning, telling them "write 250 words in your blog post" or "respond with a comment of at least 150 words" in order to set a good pattern for participation. And we had to mandate that students completed their blog posts at least 24 hours before section, in order to give time for replies -- otherwise we'd get blog posts literally minutes before section was to begin. We were surprised to find that for most of our students -- who ranged from first-year students to seniors -- this was their very first experience at authoring a blog post.

The second blended/hybrid tool we tried was a wiki service, PBWorks. Again, this free service allows us to create unlimited wikis, either open to the Web or walled off as we choose, with no advertising. We used discussion-section-specific wikis along with the three four-page writing tasks that we assigned each semester. Students each created their own wiki page and posted the rough draft of each assignment to the wiki. Then, fellow students were assigned to read these rough drafts and write substantive comments and critique on that same wiki page. (Again, we had to mandate a certain word length to ensure proper participation.) As with the blog platform, we were surprised to discover that most of our students had never used a wiki before, so that was a good learning experience for them. We also made sure to stress the relationships between online writing and writing for print; the final drafts were not posted to the wiki, but printed out and handed in traditionally. We found this was necessary to bring the appropriate level of seriousness and completion to the final draft; it became "real" (and was treated by the student as a document to be carefully proofread) when it was printed out. But the main benefit from this wiki system was logistical: it allowed the instructor and TAs to get a bird's-eye glimpse of writing topics and skills and ideas from across a very large course, and to trade exemplars of both well-written papers and common writing mistakes.

LIS 201 - The Information Society (4 credits, Comm-B)

In Fall 2007 I had an opportunity to propose a new undergraduate course for my second department, Library & Information Studies, which would work very much along the lines of J 201 as described above. It would be a large-lecture course with TAs, covering an introductory topic, and incorporating the Comm-B requirements. But in order to find TA funding for this course, I designed it for a competition on "distance education" experimentation as a blended/hybrid course. In Fall 2008 I first began teaching this course, LIS 201 - The Information Society.

In LIS 201 I incorporated the same weblog and wiki features as with J 201 -- online discussions and online peer review of writing work. But we also went farther, actually pulling out one hour of face-to-face instructor contact and replacing it with more in-depth online work. This made sense in terms of the course content -- considering the impacts of information technology on social, political, economic, and cultural life over the last century or so -- but also in terms of student scheduling. After all, this was a brand-new undergraduate course in a department, Library & Information Studies, that does not actually have an undergraduate major. What would motivate students to take it? We hoped that the subject matter would be attractive, and that the Comm-B training would also be a draw. But by making this four-credit course accessible to students through one 75-minute lecture per week and one 75-minute discussion per week, we hoped to create a more flexible scheduling solution that students could fit more easily into their busy schedules.

The online experiences that we developed for that final hour of class time started out as "traditional" narrated slideshow lectures produced by the professor (me). But I quickly tired of this technique; I feared that students weren't engaging with these canned presentations. Instead, we shifted gears and turned the online hour into a different kind of active assignment each week, always ending in a blog-based collaborative discussion of the experience. Basically, we were creating a mini online laboratory activity and a mini online discussion section to go along with it. Some of the topics we've used were:
  • Search the Prelinger Archives for telecommunications-related films (telephone, telegraph, etc.) and find the most interesting vintage film for a 21st century class on the "information society" that you can.
  • Do a geodemographic marketing analysis on yourself, by searching online for data about the place where you live which someone might ascribe to you, starting with the US Census.
  • Pick a term relating to the modern information society — "world wide web" or "computer" or "cell phone" or "digital divide" or ... well, use your imagination — and try to find the earliest journalistic use of this term in three different historical newspaper databases provided by ProQuest: the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times.
Here the fact that this course involves several graduate teaching assistants has been a great asset. Over the four years we've taught LIS 201, we've built a nice little rotating library of such online lab assignments, often at the suggestion or design of the TA. As with our strategy of exposing the students to blogs and wikis, we are always surprised by what we find: they tell us that they never used a library database before, or that they never Googled themselves to see what private information is openly available about them, or that they never realized that Wikipedia pages had "talk" and "history" components lurking in the background.

J 176 - Media Fluency in the Digital Age (3 credits)

Just this Spring I've taken these techniques one step further in yet another hybrid/blended course experiment, J 176 - Media Fluency in the Digital Age. This is a smaller course, with only 45 students and a single TA. We meet for one 50-minute lecture on Mondays, and one 50-minute discussion section (held in a computer lab) on Wednesdays. Here, rather than using discussion section blogs and wikis for student participation, we've turned the model around. Each discussion section of 15-18 students is broken up into three groups of 5-6 students, and each of these groups is charged with creating its own online weblog over the course of the semester -- publicly available to all users of the Web -- dealing with some aspect of "media fluency". This collaborative lab work, monitored online by both the instructor and the TA, and mediated behind the scenes using collaborative Google Documents services, makes up 1/3 of the course contact time.

Students get to choose everything about the blog that they construct, such as: the specific angle on media fluency that they will promote; the specific target market of university students that they will try to reach; and the specific blog platform that they will utilize. Over the course of the semester we ask them to flesh out their blog with RSS feeds, analytics tracking, advertising connections, Facebook promotions, an associated Twitter account, and rich media of all sorts. Once again, most of these students had never even read a blog when starting the course, let alone produced one. But while they see their own blog design, production, maintenance, and posting as the main challenge of the assignment, what we see is their use of the Google Documents services, face-to-face meetings in the computer lab, and communication between group members on the public blog itself as the real learning experience: figuring out how to use online networked rich media tools in order to effectively collaborate in a way that everyone is able to learn something new, everyone is able to contribute something unique, and everyone is pleased with the effort put in by all of their peers (no free riders).

INTER-LS 260 - Internship in the Liberal Arts and Sciences (1 credit)

My final example takes all the ideas and lessons of these blended/hybrid course experiments and moves them to a fully online course. A few years ago the College of Letters & Sciences Career Services Office identified an acute need on campus related to student internships. Many students were seeking internships in for-profit, non-profit, and government organizations around the country, not only over the summer but during the fall and spring semesters as well, but were being told that they had to link their internships to a college credit experience. Some majors have such internship courses, but many do not. How to provide a flexible internship structure for students that is low-cost (only pay for one credit) but intellectually rigorous (linking the learning outcomes of a liberal education to the world of work) and able to scale up (more than the traditional single professor mentoring a single internship student by demanding an independent study term paper at the end of the experience).

What we came up with takes the wiki model from J 201 and LIS 201, and structures the whole class through this sort of collaborative web site. Students in INTER-LS 260 get signed up to our wiki (password-protected so employers cannot see it or Google it) and there they write up a weekly set of fieldnotes about their internship experience. We also pose specific questions to them, ask them to do some online readings, and (through collaboration with the professional advisers at L&S Career Services) provide resume design assistance. So this is an efficient way for our instructors to connect with the students and provide course materials at a distance, since students may be interning anywhere around the state, around the country, or around the world.

But the real benefit of this collaborative online wiki-based internship course is that students get to see each others' work, read each others' field notes, and learn about each others' internship experirences. Again, we mandate that students comment on each others writings in order to get the virtual community started. But it doesn't take much to convince them of the value of this social network, especially in an internship situation that can feel overwhelming and isolating -- away from family, friends, and school. The reading, writing, and critical thinking work that the students do online certainly meets the one-credit requirement of the course. But interestingly, students report that they feel like they're doing a lot more work in our course than even in some of their more traditional three-credit courses. Thankfully, though, this does not sour them on the experience; at the end they have a written record of all that they've accomplished, and a way to articulate the value of their internship experience for their next employer. So in this case, I believe the online tools we use not only make the class feasible in the first place, they are what make it a desirable learning experience at all.

1 comment:

  1. Ron Cramer8:35 AM

    It's important for people to see the iterative side of your course development as I think many view an online course as a product that is made by combining some fixed measure of content with technology -- hence the criticism that online learning lacks the richness of the face-to-face experience. Thanks for this post and for reminding us that online/blending learning approaches can be full of flavor as well if one thinks critically about student learning and is willing to tweak the recipe along the way. Geez, I should've had breakfast this morning.