Blended Learning Courses Challenge Teachers to Shift Thinking from What They Do to What Students Do

Over the last few months, my energies have been focused on developing blended learning courses.  These courses are taught in every MBA or EdD program, and as such the content and skills that we expect from students are widely understood, and there are lots of texts and other materials available that provide content and structure for “the material.” Many of us involved in “blending” these kinds of courses believe that they have huge potential for individualizing instruction and providing new paths to deeper, more involved learning.

The courses I’ve been developing courses are from a variety of perspectives:

  • Working with faculty in the Mason School of Business to develop a distinctive and sustainable set of courses for the 48 credit MBA program.
  • Transforming our School of Education’s three-course inquiry sequence from the executive EdD program to a more generalized format that can can support all the EdD degrees offered in the Educational Planning Policy and Leadership Program.
  • Revising the format of the data-driven decision-making course I’ve taught for the last couple of years from a format in which about a third of the course is provided online to one in which about half of the course is provided online.

In developing these courses (along with my own Ed School course) I’ve gained experience with some of the challenges that instructors face with blended courses — many of these challenges involve entrenched conventions of teaching and learning that can be difficult to re-conceptualize.

Bringing Together Face-to-Face and Online Elements

Old classroom structures are one thing that provides a challenge to the instructor of a blended course.

Old classroom formats are one thing that provides a challenge to the instructor of a blended course. This classroom at the University of Colorado at Boulder, photographed in 1889, looks similar to many college classrooms today. Image courtesy of the Denver Public Library.

Developing high quality blended, hybrid, or flipped classes is much harder than it might seem on the surface. The online components have to be as good as those offered by the most innovative and effective universities in that arena, and the face-to-face parts have to be highly engaging, individualized, and focused on application and deep learning.

Even if an instructor were starting from scratch, blending those two elements is a significant intellectual and creative exercise. In reality, few of us in traditional higher educational institutions have the luxury of starting from scratch; our attempts at educational innovation are enmeshed in legacies of agricultural-era calendars, classrooms with seats bolted to tiered floors, and credit structures and evaluation schemes built on defining courses by seat time.

The Biggest Challenge Is the Conceptual Shift from Teacher-Centered to Student-Centered

As real as those forces limiting our innovation are, however, their influence on our actual teaching practice pales when compared to the power of our own beliefs about the nature of teaching and learning. The hardest conceptual link for most faculty members in adopting blended learning is moving from an emphasis from what *I do* as the teacher to *what the students do*. Historically much of our evaluation of our success as teachers has come from how skillfully we can deliver a lecture or guide the student discussion in a more interactive format.

In blended courses, each student will likely take an individualized path through the content. Those with previous experience or interest in the topic will move quickly through readings, videos, and exercises, while those with less experience will likely move more slowly. Group problem-solving projects, which will often replace lectures during class meeting times, will be equally individualized, depending on the makeup of the group and the interaction among members. The success of the course depends more on the skills of the students in self-regulating their learning and in helping other class members of their groups learn more effectively.

Not About Content Delivery but Designing Activities

In this new world of blended learning, however, the most meaningful contribution comes in conceptualizing and designing the activities of the course — not in delivering the content. The best course designers will be those who have thought deeply about their disciplines and how to best help students understand them. They understand the trends and controversies and know which seminal ideas have withstood the test of time and which have fallen by the wayside. They can design learning activities that help students learn the vocabulary, concepts, and habits of mind that are distinct in that discipline and then apply that new knowledge in ways that enhance learning.

Good teachers have always had those perspectives, skills, and knowledge, but moving to blended courses forces all of us to be more intentional about applying them to student learning. Course developers, not online lecturers, will be the rock stars of the next educational generation.

About Gene Roche

Gene Roche is director of Academic Information Services with responsibility for assisting faculty in using technology effectively in their teaching, learning and research. He also has an academic appointment as Executive Professor in the School of Education where he teaches courses in educational technology planning, emerging technology, and adult education and works with with students on independent study, dissertations and comprehensive exams. Current projects include working with the SOE’s Executive EdD program, co-chairing William and Mary’s Survey Center, and serving as chair of the Electronic Campus of Virginia. Gene completed his AB degree at Hamilton College and his MS and EdD degrees at Syracuse University–all in the snow belt of upstate New York. Before coming to William and Mary, he was the Director of Career Services at Hamilton and taught in graduate programs in Adult Education at Syracuse University and Elmira College.