Blended Learning | Feature

4 Keys to a Better Hybrid

Blended learning can improve student performance and help schools meet strategic goals, but success depends on laying a solid foundation first.

This story appeared in the December 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology.

Blended learning has become a meme. While mixing online instruction with face-to-face time is not exactly new, momentum for hybrid learning has been building ever since a Department of Education meta-study in 2010 quietly announced that traditional education simply doesn't stack up. In that study, online education was determined to be more effective than traditional classrooms--and blended learning topped the lot.

Today, colleges and universities nationwide are experimenting with a variety of recipes to find the custom blend that meets their specific needs. To be successful, though, schools must first take time to lay the groundwork. Here, CT looks at the four keystones needed to build a winning hybrid program.

1) Know Why You Want to Blend
It's tempting to believe that schools are gravitating toward hybrid learning simply because it's more effective than traditional face-to-face learning, as the ED study suggests. While schools are obviously motivated by student performance, they are also being buffeted by strong demographic, economic, and business forces. And hybrid classes offer a potential solution to some of their problems.

For starters, blended learning gives schools a way to optimize the use of classroom space. Utilizing a blended model that shifts some in-class sessions online, schools can free up classroom space to accommodate more classes and more students. For example, the University of Central Florida, which is possibly the biggest institutional advocate for blended learning in the country, employs a strategy called "time-shifting" in its courses--holding instruction face-to-face on a limited schedule, with the rest handled online. According to Thomas Cavanaugh, assistant vice president for distributed learning, this approach helps to "maximize facility usage."

Other institutions hope that hybrid programs can remedy underlying business challenges. Minot State University (ND), for example, wants to serve both online and face-to-face students, but it lacks the money and resources to run separate programs--it needs the same faculty for both.

A private seminary in Berkeley, CA, on the other hand, shifted to the blended model as a way to address the issue of dwindling enrollment. Brian Beatty, associate vice president for academic affairs operations and associate professor in the instructional technologies program at San Francisco State University (CA), provided consulting services to the seminary. "They said, 'We like the classroom--we don't want to give that up. But we have to have more students, and we have to provide more availability for them schedule-wise,'" he recalls, "I think for those who have a real need to do both at once, [blended learning] is something worth seriously considering."

However, some academics worry about the use of blended learning simply as a business strategy. "The worst thing institutions can do with blended learning is to try to make money off it, thinking they can pile more students into a class or free up time for their faculty," says Dylan Barth, a member of the English department and a learning technology consultant for the Learning Technology Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "Those are not the reasons to go into the blended business."

He believes that blended programs offer a way for schools to compete against all of the other "online competition out there," especially in drawing non-traditional students into the classroom. "Locally, we have a very good reputation," he says. "UWM has great online classes and great online programs. There are still opportunities for those online programs to work and to grow. But I think we can really grab our local students and meet their needs and allow them the flexibility they need to succeed."

2) Prepare Your Faculty
Identifying the reasons why blended learning makes sense for a school is a vital first step. But it's just the beginning. According to Norma Scagnoli, director of eLearning in the College of Business at the University of Illinois, preparing faculty is probably the hardest part of implementing a blended learning model, especially if the instructors have taught a course for many years.

"They really know their topic and they know when their students are going to need them more," she explains. "The disadvantage is that they trust themselves in the classroom so much that they don't take the preparations as seriously as when the class is fully online."

The biggest problem? It's hard to break the faculty habit of filling up class time with lectures. Scagnoli is often asked by faculty, "If I have my lectures online, what do I do now?" When they are unprepared, they tend to repeat themselves, covering the same content--including the same old jokes--in the videos that students watch before class.

It's also a common faculty mistake to treat the face-to-face and online components as separate units. "Sometimes the instructor gives the online part to the [teaching assistant]," explains Scagnoli, which means "students think the online part isn't as important as the face-to-face part."

And if the instructor never mentions what happens online, students start to think of the components as different classes, even though they both use the same content. "That unity--the connection between having things online that connect to things that happen face-to-face--is really important if students are to see the class as one," notes Scagnoli.

Avoiding the pitfalls of blended learning takes a lot of preparation--more than many faculty members expect. When advising instructors on the blended approach, the Learning Technology Center at UWM tries to be "upfront," says Barth. "It takes a few months to redesign a course. It's really important to get as much done before class starts."

Although instructors at UWM are expected to convert their own course materials, the Learning Technology Center does offer a two-day workshop. "It's a blended format with online activities between our face-to-face meetings," explains Barth. "And we have follow-up consultations with instructors."

At the College of Business at Illinois, the eLearning team takes a more hands-on approach in helping faculty make the shift to the blended model. (The college also pays instructors extra to spend their summers converting their courses.) "We always start by talking about the class before we talk about how technology can help," explains Scagnoli. These conversations explore the goals for the class and how they're currently achieved face-to-face.

Scagnoli's team also sits in classes. "We observe instructors teaching so we understand what they value, how they move or work in the classroom," she says. "We try to understand that instructor before we help him become an online instructor."

Next, instructional designers go through the syllabus with the instructor and show how components of the traditional class might be handled online. "We have conversations until the instructor decides, 'Okay, I think I could do this,'" explains Scagnoli. "The instructor really sits and works through his course."

Scagnoli also has a group of faculty taking a free five-week online course with UCF. Through these training efforts, Scagnoli expects to have at least one more faculty member ready to offer a blended class in spring 2013 and another four ready for fall 2013.

Ultimately, say proponents of the blended model, success comes down to a willingness by the faculty to experiment and view the endeavor as a work in progress. In the course of doing that, says Scagnoli, each faculty member is forced to rethink his role: "Is he just a person who vomits information at the students, or is he an expert that the students can rely upon and ask questions of?" The instructor, she says, "becomes the guide."

3) Set Student Expectations
Students need to be prepared for a blended format, too.4 Indeed, those who have never taken a blended course may go through an adjustment period. According to Barth, some students have trouble believing that the class with a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule really won't be meeting that Friday. "Inevitably, a student will show up on Friday just to make sure," he says.

The challenge for students, says Scagnoli, is to "learn how to manage their learning." In general, upper-level students tend to be more focused and don't need the instructor to tell them what needs to be done for class. For first- and second-year students, though, the "humanizing touch" of the blended approach can help them gain a sense of scheduling that's sometimes missing in fully online courses.

She cites an instructor who used his in-person class time to cover student questions. Unfortunately, students were posting questions just before class began, which didn't give the faculty member sufficient time to prepare. So he imposed a deadline: Students had to post their contributions 24 hours before class. "Colleges have always told students that time management is a good skill to have," notes Scagnoli, "but I think they will have to go back to it with a more modern view and talk about time management when you have an online class."

Students also often experience difficulty with the technology used in blended courses. "We advise instructors to use the lowest-risk technology possible when coming up with assignments and having students do certain things," says Barth, noting that many of the standard technology systems on campus, such as the learning management system, usually don't pose a problem. "It's an issue only when instructors use more high-risk technology, like a synchronous discussion tool."

4) Configure Back-End Systems
Success is contingent on more than classroom technology, however. Hybrid courses can be hobbled when schools don't have back-end administrative systems to support them, or the means to educate students about a blended option. San Francisco State, for example, had to create a new course form that asks students to specify whether they want to take a course in blended, traditional, or online modes.

For its part, UWM uses a three-tier system to classify its blended classes, because the amount of online work can vary tremendously from course to course: The university defines a blended course as a class in which anywhere from 20 to 99 percent of instruction is delivered online. By creating classifications within this broad range, the school can let students know "how much they're expected to meet face-to-face, and how much they're expected to do online," Barth explains.

Many schools are also making concerted efforts to post the specific dates that blended classes meet in person. This enables students--many of whom have jobs and families--to consult their schedules and choose the courses that work for them.

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