Blended Learning | Feature
Overcoming Blended Learning Obstacles
- By Bridget McCrea
Blended learning programs are booming in higher education as a growing number of institutions adopt this model to meet the unique needs and learning styles of an increasingly diverse student population.
But blended learning programs are not without their hurdles. Building an effective program means knowing--and addressing--the challenges that can impede learning and instruction. Here's a look at what institutions should know as they consider implementing a hybrid learning approach.
Don't assume all students are technologically literate. Recent high school graduates may be "digital natives," but not all of them have had hands-on experience with college-level technology tools. "They know how to use Facebook and smartphones, but that's the limit," stated Carey M. Roberts, Ph.D., coordinator of university assessment and associate professor of history at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, AR. Roberts added that basic course delivery systems can trip students up and hold back their progress on the blended learning front. "A lot of them become easily frustrated when confronted with new technology." To address that issue, Roberts said ATU offers a college skills class to introduce freshmen to the various tech platforms--such as the school's student information system (SIS)--that are in use on campus. "We're really only starting to understand the depth of this particular challenge," Roberts added, "and are attempting to address it through student training and education."
Tying content into curriculum can be a challenge. An early user of blended learning, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania began recording classes via satellite TV and broadcasting them over cable TV in the 1980s. Fast-forward to 2012 and the institution employs a broad range of blended tactics across all of its departments. Every executive MBA student, for example, uses an iPad to access course content that incorporates video and that is delivered digitally. Now the institution wants to take its blended learning to the next level. "We're starting to dip into using videoconferencing for instructional courses for 15-week-long semesters," said IT Director Marko Jarymovych, whose team is working on the most effective way to deliver that content. "We can build the infrastructure, but tying it into the curriculum is a completely different matter."
Some faculty may be uncomfortable with digital tools. Accustomed to lecturing from a lectern, fielding questions face-to-face, and then testing students on their progress, faculty members aren't always quick to warm up to the idea of videoconferencing, lecture capture, and other blended learning tools. To address that roadblock, Jarymovych said his team works closely with the institution's technology vendors, A/V integrators, software developers, and other third parties to ensure that all equipment and applications are as user-friendly and applicable as possible. "We're not interested in running vaporware here," said Jarymovych who points to Epson as an example of one of the school's manufacturing partners and "how technology is sourced, installed, and supported in our environment." The IT department has also joined forces with faculty and students, surveys both groups often, and works to understand exactly what they expect (and don't want) out of the blended learning experience. "Buy-in from these core user groups is a critical component in the success of these initiatives," he said.
Faculty buy-in takes time--and proof of success. For some professors, online videos, videoconferencing, and other A/V tools simply do not replace time spent at a desk in a classroom. This can be a major obstacle for any blended learning initiative. "If a student isn't in class for 15 weeks some faculty members feel that student hasn't learned--even if his or her test scores prove otherwise," said Roberts. The institution has been using blended learning since the late-1990s and offers a number of online-only degree programs. To work around the "seat time" issue," Roberts said the institution's professors are urged to compare how many students earn passing versus failing grades in the classroom versus online. "We find that once faculty understands this comparison," remarked Roberts, "they are more open to teaching in a blended learning environment and not as concerned with seat time."
Locked Wi-Fi systems can create gridlock. Standing by as a group of 100 students connects their laptops, tablets, and/or mobile devices into the campus-wide Wi-Fi system can eat away at valuable classroom time. This was a key challenge to ATU's blended learning initiative and one that the college solved by opening up its Wi-Fi system to the public. "We needed instant access," said Roberts, "and didn't want our faculty members spending 5-10 minutes in every class making sure everyone was online." Roberts advised institutions to review federal, state, and regional regulatory requirements concerning privacy and security of online networks and systems before opening up the doors to their campus Wi-Fi networks.
Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.