The Next Questions: Five issues in perfecting the blend

In transforming one’s course design for blended learning, the initial efforts tend to focus on course design. Instructors focus on develop course models, determining what should be accomplished online and face-­‐to-­‐face, and the organization of the course. After a course is delivered for the first time, several challenges can be encountered and need to be examined in order to perfect the blend.

Anecdotally, it can take up to three (3) semesters to prefect the blended experiences for you and your students. We have identified “next” questions an instructor should ponder after delivering their course based on our research (see Kaleta, Skibba, and Joosten, 2007) with experienced instructors and our own experiences teaching blended courses.

1. Course and a half syndrome

UWM defines the “course and a half syndrome” as the tendency for faculty to be unable to give up any material from their face-­‐to-­‐face course and simply add additional online content and activities to an existing course when they transition to the hybrid model (Aycock, Garnham, & Kaleta, 2002; Skibba, 2005). A number of the research participants succumbed to the "course and a half syndrome" and said that they felt they were “teaching two classes.” Although the dangers of this “syndrome” were stressed often throughout the faculty development training program, many instructors still got “carried away with activities.” Another instructor commented similarly and admitted, “Something that I am probably guilty of … is packing in too much.” A common finding was that the study participants tended to overload their courses with activities and needed to rethink the amount of work they assigned students and, consequently, themselves.

Question: Now that you delivered your first blended course and have experienced course and a half, what strategies can one use to streamline the course and help manage instructor workload to avoid course and a half?

2. Re-­‐examining course goals and objectives

When designing their hybrid courses, the research participants emphasized the importance of critically re-­‐examining course goals and learning objectives, even if they had taught the same course previously in the traditional format. One said she was a “believer” in focusing on course goals: “What do you want them to learn and how do you want them to learn it?” The hybrid format demanded even more reflection because two learning “spaces” needed to be considered. One research participant said you can’t just “divide it [the course] in half” and another elaborated on this part of the course redesign process:

I went through and really thought about what are the learning goals of the course, what are the things that we do to lead to those goals, and then what are the best ways would each of those mini-­‐goals best be facilitated, online or face-­‐to-­‐face.

Another instructor summarized, “Goals and objectives must come first in developing any course…I feel that connecting the online and face-­‐to-­‐face activities needed attention because they need coordination in order to be integrated into a unified whole.” When discussing course design, instructors concurred that it was “time consuming” but essential “because it is a conscious decision-­‐making process” of deciding which lesson plans work best online or face-­‐to-­‐face. Findings indicate that faculty found that the process of reexamining their learning goals and objectives was critical to developing a successful hybrid course

Online or Face-­‐to-­‐Face

Redesigning a traditional course into a hybrid course compelled faculty to think through how best to use two learning spaces instead of just one. “I really just had to reconfigure the class to include, or to sort through, what I was going to do online and what I was going to do face-­‐to-­‐face.” After reflecting on their goals, the research participants used a variety of methods to decide which environment to use for which learning activities.

Instructors tended to use the online environment for work that students could do “on their own,” such as assessments, tutorials, readings, and quizzes. Some of the instructors who were new to hybrid teaching felt that it would be a "waste of face-­‐to-­‐face class time" to do these things in the classroom. Other instructors saved activities for the in-­‐person class that required “interaction” and to address “issues or misconceptions that popped up in the online discussion.” For example, one instructor used the face-­‐to-­‐face environment to introduce a complex essay critique assignment. Then she followed up online by reading the students’ essays, answering critical reading questions, and drafting a summary. Face-­‐to-­‐face was also used to present visual information like film clips, provide demonstrations, conduct hands-­‐on activities like labs, conduct group activities and student presentations, give lectures, answer questions, and give exams. Findings indicate that the majority of instructors used the face-­‐to-­‐face environment to present information needing context and explain interpretations to facilitate better student understanding. In contrast, the online environment was used for information that was independent in nature or was clearly conveyed and easily facilitated in the online environment
An essential component to a successful blend is a set of clear learning objectives, how those learning objectives are going to be assessed, and which environment (face-­‐to-­‐face or online) would be most effective. Successive iterations of a blended course should reconsider the language, aims, and focus of its learning objectives based on the demonstrable integration of online and face-­‐to-­‐face activities.

Question: How can one identify and build upon the successful elements of learning objectives in the blended model? Specifically, was the learning environment (face-­‐to-­‐face or online) appropriate for the assigned activity and achievement of each learning objective? Did it provide the evidence or documentation that the learning objective was met?

3. Building presence, enhancing connectivity, and building community

Many of the instructors talked about the importance of creating a “community of learners,” which is a well-­‐known challenge in online education (Brufee, 1999; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff, 1998). To create this community, the research participants shared their experiences of establishing “social presence,” also known as a feeling of connection and community among individuals (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976). One instructor summed up what many discovered:
A lot of people are afraid that replacing seat time with online is going to diminish the quality of the relationship – whether it is teacher-­‐student or student-­‐student. And actually I have to say from my experience it is contrary to that… I get more quality interactions and feedback from the students ... which then helps increase my connection to them.

Study findings indicate that when a positive climate is created, hybrid environments have the potential to increase and extend connectivity and to build relationships even more so than in traditional or online courses.

Connectivity Challenges

The biggest concern instructors feared when converting their traditional courses to the hybrid environment was the potential of losing the connection they had with students. One instructor who taught a freshman seminar explained that he had “withdrawals” from not being able to meet personally with each of his students as often as he did when he taught the same course face-­‐to-­‐face. Another undergraduate lecturer felt a sense of “panic at first” because she also was concerned about the lack of social interaction. Both instructors admitted that they needed more experience creating interactive discussions, particularly with freshmen who needed more attention. These instructors also noted that students seemed to “disengage” from discussions if they were given too much work. Others noted that “sometimes students disappear” online and that it can be tricky to get some students to participate.

However, experienced hybrid instructors and faculty with online teaching experience were more at ease “encouraging people to ask questions of each other online” and getting students to share ideas. These instructors also found that their students were excited about logging in to see what people said. So while many felt it was important to “have some physical contact with an instructor,” they also were able to build connections through online discussions in between in-­‐person meetings. When these connections were created, most felt that the communication increased in a hybrid course compared to traditional courses.

Question: Sometimes we can lose the connection and our ability as instructors to build presence in the mediated environment. Instructors need to develop skills and strategies to meet these needs in the blended format. What are some ways one can successfully enhance social presence and connectedness with students?

4. Community Building

Although some of the instructors were concerned about losing the personal touch with students, others related how they were able to get to know their students even better in a hybrid course. The majority of the instructors said students were more conversational “and more open” online than they were in the classroom. Plus, students who normally did not speak up in class participated online. For example, when talking about personal subjects like dating, religion, and sexuality, the psychology instructor was surprised how “comfortable” students were sharing personal information. Many of the instructors also explained how these frank conversations started online and carried over into the classrooms where strong “friendships formed.” In addition, students “were more willing to participate in class” because they were “warmed up by the fact that they have already been contributing to the discussions online.” The three instructors who incorporated group work in their hybrid courses said that a sense of community also carried over when group members worked together, either face-­‐to-­‐face or online, and enhanced the interactions and productivity of the groups.

Question: Many times when we introduce a mediated environment, we find out course design needed more opportunity for collaborative learning for students to engage students and assist them in building peer networks. Where can your course lends itself in assisting students in building community with other students? the instructor? and, the public?

5. Managing your time and staying organized

Findings indicate that managing hybrid courses forced instructors and students to become “more organized” and “prepared” than they had to be in a traditional course. The hybrid environment also added additional scheduling challenges as courses meet both online and face to-­‐face. Although both faculty and students enjoyed the “flexibility” and the increased “personal contact,” navigating these dual-­‐learning spaces did cause some challenges and confusion. As one instructor said, it can be hard “to keep straight” when the class is meeting in person or online. To create one seamless course, the hybrid instructor’s role needs to expand to include unique scheduling and organizational tasks (Sands, 2002). The following are the major faculty and student benefits and challenges of the managerial role as shared by the research participants; they involve course scheduling, course organization, and student time management.

Course Scheduling

A major decision for faculty was the frequency and pattern of scheduling for face-­‐to-­‐face and virtual activities. Some faculty still met with their students weekly, while others only met face-­‐to-­‐face a few times in a semester. When asked how they decided when to meet as a class, reasons varied, including “it depended on the content,” the need to schedule around other obligations and courses, and a desire to give students an opportunity to work on a project online between classes. The frequency and pattern of course meetings varied greatly for the study participants. For some instructors, the class meeting schedule “was different every week” while others convened on a regular schedule every week equaling half of the original course time.

While both faculty and students appreciated not having to meet in person as often, many instructors commented that it was often difficult to manage the online workload. Comments included “there is so much to read” and “it was difficult for me everyday to get online because of my busy schedule.” Faculty explained that it is important to set aside time to focus on the online components. One instructor explained, “It is a matter of self-­‐discipline, to sit down and just read it or do it or set a time block aside where I am going to read posts and be committed to it.” Despite these initial challenges, as instructors gained more experience, these scheduling issues diminished over the semester.

Student Time Management

Student benefits and challenges mirrored those of the faculty. Several instructors noted that hybrid offers “flexibility for over-­‐burdened students” and for those with family and job responsibilities.

However, like faculty, students had more difficulty committing time to online work than they did for “those 50 minutes in class.” Some students viewed only the face-­‐to-­‐face portions as the real class, and “ignore the responsibility of doing all the other work.” One instructor noted that students “have twice as many opportunities to miss an assignment” because they are responsible for both in-­‐class and online activities. “They [students] have a lot of things to keep track of.” Others put a positive spin on this challenge and felt that the hybrid format should go beyond teaching students content to teaching “important life skills” of time management, self-­‐discipline, and organization. One instructor said, “A challenge and benefit for students is that they needed to learn to better manage their time.” Instructors said it is important to
clarify that it is the student’s responsibility to “check the course page” for weekly announcements and assignments.

In addition to helping students better manage their time, instructors noted how working online also made the face-­‐to-­‐face time “more serious and more valuable.” One instructor noted how prepared students were for the face-­‐to-­‐face class after participating online: “When they came into class on Tuesday nights, they were really focused…. I think it [the hybrid format] made that time more productive.” Scheduling flexibility and time management were the benefits as well as the challenges for students.

Question: Many students enroll in blended courses because of the flexibility associated with time shifting. At the same time, they may overbook their schedules or not allocate time for studying. What strategies did students employ to balance their schedules and manage their in-­‐ and out-­‐of-­‐class time effectively? What effective instructional strategies can one employ to help students stay on track?

Are there any additional strategies one could implement the next time the course is delivered to help students stay organized, assessed student readiness, and manage student expectations?

References:

Picciano, A.G. & Dziuban, C., Editors (2006). Blended learning: Research perspectives. Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium. http://sloanconsortium.org/node/921

Activity: Taking the Next Step with Perfecting the Blend

For this breakout session, we will ask you to respond to one of the five questions in a group at your table. In responding to your question, consider the elements of the question that you find intriguing, problematic or surprising?

While you are crafting your response, we invite you to post your responses to the questions at the following wiki space:

http://ut2015.wikispaces.com/

After you’ve had a chance to make some notes to yourself and post them to the wiki space, we’ll invite participants to present their ideas and reasoning to the large group. Each presentation will be followed by a brief discussion and feedback from the facilitators and the group as a whole.