Saturday, September 29, 2012

BlendKit2012: Week 1

I am participating in BlendKit2012, an online course about blended learning.  It is my plan to write a weekly blog post in response to issues or questions raised by the readings for the course.  This week, the readings focused on some of the big questions that underlie the redesign of a course to incorporate elements of blended learning.  I wanted to respond to two of the "points to ponder" in detail.

"Is it most helpful to think of blended learning as an online enhancement to a face-to-face learning environment, a face-to-face enhancement to an online learning environment, or as something else entirely?"

Before I started teaching my blended (actually, flipped) class, I'd have answered the first option, an online enhancement to a f2f learning environment.  Certainly, I embarked on the redesign of my traditional lecture-format course with the thought that I would move some/all of the content delivery to outside of class so that we could devote class time to learning and applying the basics of Systematic Moral Analysis to case studies from roman history.  Now that the class is underway and we are 1/3 of the way into the semester, it is clear to me that, while the class is combining f2f learning with online learning, the end result is something entirely new.  I feel a bit like a chemist in her laboratory, mixing beakers full of chemicals and expecting a certain reaction to happen when, in fact, an entirely unexpected reaction happens.  Something I've been reminded of: students are not predictable creatures (or at least, not entirely predictable); and group dynamics are very hard to explain and predict.  I have been really surprised to see all the ways that changes in my behavior as an instructor have resulted in some predictable and many unpredictable changes in student behavior.  It is clear to me that we are still very much on the frontiers with blended learning and that there is a great need for additional research, more data, before we reach firm conclusions about what it is and how it works.

"As you consider designing a blended learning course, what course components are you open to implementing differently than you have in the past? How will you decide which components will occur online and which will take place face-to-face? How will you manage the relationship between these two modalities?"

I went about my redesign in a pretty straightforward way.  I figured out what my objective was, beyond getting them to master the course content, and then thought about what parts could be done without me.  So, first, I decided that my main aim was to reinforce with every element of the course a basic idea: the mastery of course material is about student learning and not instructor teaching.  I needed them to take responsibility for their learning, to become self-sufficient in their use of the tools for learning that I provided (textbook readings, pre-recorded lectures digesting textbook readings, piazza discussion board, Friday reviews of recorded lecture material, in class discussions, i>clicker questions, etc.), and to view me as an experienced guide rather than a fount of all wisdom who would magically fill their minds with knowledge.

When I determined which components of the course to move outside of class (e.g. pure content delivery, announcements about course logistics) and which to retain, I asked myself one question: for what parts do they need me?  What parts can they reasonably do on their own, especially when they can post questions to piazza?  How do I make sure that at least 80% of class time is spent with them talking, clicking on questions, and otherwise being actively engaged?  I have been fairly ruthless about finding ways to do everything apart from i>clicker and peer instruction outside of class.  When I hand back their first midterms, for example, I will direct them to watch a short video of me reviewing the exam, talking about trouble spots, telling them the class grade distribution, etc. If they have questions or want to review their exam, they will be directed to the TA who oversees the grading team.  I refuse to waste 15-20 minutes of a 45 minute class period conveying information to them that can be conveyed in other ways.  By being so ruthless about preserving class time for student engagement, I am able to preserve the integrity of our classroom as a place for them to talk, not me.  They seem to like this.


  1. I like the idea of "ruthlessly" preserving class time for interactions and not falling in to the trap of covering (re-covering) material that should have been picked up online. Good point!

  2. It has definitely required ruthlessness (or at least a lot of discipline) on my part. At the start of last week, I made an announcement that there would be no announcements of any sort in class and that everything would be announced via Blackboard so they needed to be diligent about staying on top of it, paying attention when an email came in, etc. Partly, I am trying to avoid the temptation to infantalize them. I *do* use i>clicker questions to review difficult concepts/complex material from my online lectures. But otherwise urge them to ask questions on piazza. So far, that has worked really well.