Blended Learning

Carnegie Mellon To Experiment with Blended Learning in Computer Science Course

Carnegie Mellon University will launch an experiment this year intended to discover if blended learning can help it meet the growing need for computer science courses without also increasing staff or classroom space.

The Pittsburgh-based university will add online instructional tools and targeted study groups to a popular introductory computer science course with the goal of both accommodating more students and maintaining instructional quality.

Associate Professor Jacobo Carrasquel, who teaches Data Structures and Algorithms, a course popular with non-computer science majors, will largely replace formal lectures with videos and optional mini-lectures. He will use an online software application, Classroom Salon, to collect feedback from students and identify concepts that need to be reinforced by in-person instruction. Then he will have small group meetings with students who he has been able to identify as having common instructional needs.

By using less time to lecture in person and spending more time with smaller groups of students, Carrasquel said he hopes to target the needs of students across the entire spectrum of capabilities.

"We can no longer teach to the middle," he said. "When you do that, you're not aiming at the 20 percent of the top students or the 20 percent at the bottom."

Carrasquel will add new elements to the course this fall and fully implement them in the spring.

He will be helped in the process by a $200,000 grant from Google's Computer Science Capacity Awards program, which tries to identify ways to manage growing demands for computer science instruction.

Carrasquel, his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon and Google all recognize that the solution to the challenge is not to simply add more classes or to videotape lectures and push courses online.

"You're looking for something in between," said Ananda Gunawardena, a Princeton University faculty member who is collaborating on the project. "You're looking for that sweet spot."

The project is expected to not only evaluate the instructional effectiveness of the changes, but also to see whether it is scalable and can be applied to other academic fields.

In another phase of the project, Carrasquel will begin work with a consortium of high school instructors with the hope to pass on some course materials to them that they can use in their classes beginning in fall 2016. Plans also call to share the materials with community college instructors.

"We're not just looking to build enrollment," Carrasquel said, "but also to make computer science instruction accessible to underrepresented minorities and other students who might not have had the opportunity to develop a strong interest or background in computer science."

About the Author

Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the former executive editor of THE Journal.

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