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The Right Blend for Learning

For hybrid courses, finding the right blend of online and face-to-face instruction can be achieved only through experimentation--and will differ from class to class.

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

"Tuning the blend" is a phrase that educators hear a lot these days. No, it doesn't refer to how the barista at the local coffeehouse mixes his arabica and robusta beans. It refers instead to finding the correct balance of online activities and face-to-face instruction in hybrid--or blended--courses. As with a skilled barista, though, there is definitely an element of art involved. Finding a mix that meets the needs of both faculty and students requires experimentation, experience, and constant tweaking. And, as with coffee, the same blend is not going to hit the spot for everyone. Schools must be prepared to tune the blend on a course-by-course basis.

Without doubt, faculty face a host of options in developing blended courses. For Dylan Barth, a member of the English department and a learning technology consultant for the Learning Technology Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, deciding which activities and lectures to push online is a matter of determining which elements will turn out to be a "time-saver for the class." These tend to include assignments, quizzes and exams, discussions that can be handled asynchronously, and, of course, recorded lectures. In general, Barth notes, the more complex the assignment, the more important it is to meet in person with students to go over the instructions. If most of these components sound like activities that your instructors are already putting online via the LMS, the faculty are probably primed to make the transition to a blended format. "If you're already using a lot of digital materials in your teaching, like presentation files and handouts--and it's not all paper-based--then you've already got a lot of that development done," explains Brian Beatty, associate vice president for academic affairs operations and associate professor in the instructional technologies program at San Francisco State University (CA). All that's missing, he adds, is the "online-interaction component." For Beatty, the online-interaction portion of his courses includes spending 15-20 minutes three days a week in forums with his students. He continues to hold the same number of face-to-face classes, because that's the format he prefers. When he's traveling, though, those classes go online. For large lecture courses, he records sessions with Echo360, which are then reviewed by students asynchronously. In the graduate program, which has far fewer students in each session, he uses Blackboard Collaborate to hold synchronous collaboration sessions.

Generally, instructors will have to experiment to find that delicate balance of what should be done in person and what can be handled online. Last spring, for example, Barth ran a debate activity in class that generated a lot of energy among his students. This fall, he did the same activity online. "I think there was less excitement, because they weren't all in the same room," he recalls. "But the outcomes were better. The student responses were better."

One Size Doesn't Fit All
And just as individual instructors must tweak the balance of online-offline instruction, schools must also recognize that one size doesn't fit all. The College of Business at the University of Illinois, for example, has three blended courses, each unique. A sizable undergraduate finance course uses a flipped-classroom format, in which students watch prerecorded lectures weekly and spend half as much time in class as under the old, traditional format. The in-class sessions are customized to focus on questions and comments posted by students during the week. Meanwhile, a marketing course at the school features only a few video lectures, and the amount of time spent face-to-face hasn't changed at all. What makes this course stand out is the fact that students do readings and take related quizzes before attending class. During class, the instructor then revisits those topics that need more attention based on the quiz results as well as questions posed online by students.

The third course took an entirely different tack. To accommodate the instructor's travel schedule, the class met in person for three weeks, went entirely online for eight weeks, and then resumed the face-to-face format for the remaining four weeks. While the instructor was out of the country, she met synchronously with her students via Blackboard Collaborate to review the previous week's work and prepare them for the coming week.

If faculty are using videos or captured lectures as part of the blended program, it will definitely take some experimentation to get the mix right. The early video efforts at the College of Business, for example, evolved from whole lectures delivered by the instructor and recorded by a videographer in a production studio into 10- to 12-minute chunks recorded by the instructor using TechSmith's Camtasia. The purpose of these video chunks varies. Some are shown in an online forum where students are invited to ask questions, just as if they were in a lecture hall. Other clips make their way into quizzes: Students watch the videos and then respond to a set of multiple-choice questions. Still others are available as supplemental learning materials.

Hyflex: Putting Students in Control

It may sound like something performed by yoga experts, but "hyflex"--a combination of hybrid and flexible--is a form of blended learning that is receiving increasing scrutiny. Like blended classes, hyflex courses take place both in the classroom and online. Instead of the faculty member establishing what will happen face-to-face and online, though, the individual students get to decide. A student might opt to attend all classes in person, all online, or a combination thereof. Brian Beatty, associate vice president for academic affairs operations and associate professor in the instructional technologies program at San Francisco State University (CA), is probably the best-known proponent of the hyflex model. "We wanted an approach that would serve both populations at the same time," he says in reference to faculty and students. To explain the benefits of the model, Beatty cites the example of a student who lived 60 miles from campus and enlisted in the program as a distance-learning student. After a few weeks, though, he started attending class in person. "He realized he needed to establish a relationship with the other students as well as with the instructor," recalls Beatty. When the student felt more comfortable, he went back to attending online. The hyflex model does put strains on traditional back-end systems, though. Because a student has the option of taking courses fully online, he could potentially enroll in two courses scheduled to meet at the same time. "Our registration systems aren't set up to allow a person to register for classes with that kind of time conflict," explains Beatty. "It would typically take some sort of override in the system to allow that to happen." Also, the model creates some facilities headaches. For example, SFSU found that it had to restrict the number of people who showed up to take exams. "We couldn't schedule an exam and say, 'Okay, all thousand students can now come to class,'" says Beatty. "The lecture hall only seats 200. Now when they register for a class like that, we allow a certain number to show up for tests. The rest are online tests. They're not allowed to come into the classroom for their test."

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