New model gets blended response

Blended learning, a mix of online and classroom instruction, and collaborative group work has become a prominent method of teaching in the Faculty of Arts and Science over the past two years

Blended learning involves time spent working through lessons online
Image by: Tiffany Lam
Blended learning involves time spent working through lessons online

Of over 140 100-level courses listed in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences course calendar, five are taught in a blended format. But the gradual move towards this new method of learning isn’t always the most cost-effective way to study.

In 2011, the Collaboration for Online Higher Education Research (COHERE) released a report highlighting the emerging trend of blended learning in university classrooms.

This report states that while there may be significant upfront costs for universities that lack adequate technical infrastructure to implement blended courses, higher revenue can be attained through expansion of programs and students.

Brenda Ravenscroft, associate dean (studies) of Arts and Science said blended courses could be saving money when it comes to campus infrastructure.

“If the growth of blended courses means that the University does not need to build more large auditoriums then this could be seen as a cost-saving benefit,” Ravenscroft told the Journal via email.

The Faculty of Arts and Science has received funding from the Provost’s Office to support blended learning. Most of this funding has been applied to the development phase, which provides instructors who are redesigning the course with an instructional designer.

Psychology professor Jill Atkinson said that she believes the blended format will make learning more effective for students, but the necessary increase of TAs for PSYC 100 will add extra costs.

Blended learning refers to the combination of classroom learning and online learning. Students are encouraged to engage actively through online learning, and collaborative classroom work in labs and tutorials with fewer lecture hours — the general structure of the blended format at Queen’s.

Atkinson, one of the course coordinators for PSYC 100, said the number of TAs has increased since implementing the blended model, meaning higher employment costs. Previous years have had 15 TAs for the full year. This year there were 24. PSYC 100 has seen a decrease in students this year — 1550 compared to 1800 last year.

“The big cost is getting enough peer mentor facilitators, TAs, people who can work hands-on with the students,” Atkinson said.

A blended course differs from correspondence and online courses in that they have mandatory lecture and classroom components.

GPHY 101, SOCY 122, GNDS 120, FILM 110 and CLST 205 are also being offered in the blended format this year. Five more courses are under development for the blended format.

Atkinson said the process began when the department started a committee following discussions in 2009 regarding blended learning.

She added that students learn best when they’re in small groups, actively solving problems and interacting.

The blended format of PSYC 100 combines online lessons accessed via Moodle, with classroom time in the form of traditional lectures and labs. The new format means students have to produce written work every week for their classes and labs.

Atkinson said that students might enjoy lecture format more because there’s less responsibility on the learner to actively learn.

“In lecture, there is no expectation and what you do at that point nobody knows — it’s a private process,” she said.

There have been no results published pertaining to how effective blended learning in PSYC 100 has been. Because the course is now structured around what research states will encourage better learning, student learning will be more effective, Atkinson said.

Isabelle Duchaine, AMS academic affairs commissioner, said the AMS supports the idea of blended learning, but at this stage it’s not a measure that’s less expensive than traditional lecture.

The decision to introduce blended courses to Queen’s was in an effort to capitalize on new technology communication amongst students and professors.

Duchaine, ArtSci ’13, said she currently believes there to be significant upfront costs of developing a blended learning course because of new infrastructure that needs to be built.

D’Arcy Norman, an expert in online communities from the University of Calgary, said he thinks education will be more blended in the future.

“Communication in the rest of our lives is online. Why would education be immune to that?” Norman told the Journal via email.

Scott Matthews, adjunct professor in the policy studies department, taught his American Elections course online. His course wasn’t blended, but he said he missed out on interacting with students.

“Head nods and smiles give you a lot of feedback that you don’t get with the online medium,” he said.

Matthews said that he thinks that having to go to lecture is a powerful motivator.

“I’ve taught classes of more than 200 students and even in the worst week when everyone is writing term papers, I still get at least half the class coming.” By the end of the course he had less that 20 per cent of students looking at the material online, he added.

Veronica Tuason, ArtSci ’15, is a student in FILM 110 — another class to have transitioned to the blended learning format.

After taking the class both last year in the traditional format and this year in the blended version, she feels that there’s a lack of interactions between professor and students.

According to her, the blended format lacks the intimacy of the traditional lecture courses because the screening and lecture are combined in the same slot.

This lack of intimacy was made up for in the weekly labs because TAs now seem more engaged in the course, she added.

“Last year with my TA he didn’t really know much about film so we talked about what we thought and it was nice, but he couldn’t really explain the prof’s lectures,” she said.

Tuason said she was surprised by only having one lecture per week.

“I kind of liked last year’s format better where we have an actual lecture and where the prof could talk to us and then have a separate time for screening,” she said.

Sidneyeve Matrix, an associate professor in the film and media department at Queen’s, has employed various social media outlets in her FILM 240 course. The course isn’t blended, but it offers students the choice between attending a lecture or watching a webinar.

Matrix said after introducing social media to her classes and publishing information such as flash cards on Facebook, Twitter and Moodle, student marks jumped 10 per cent.

She began doing this in 2008 after feeling dissatisfied with students’ marks on their final exams.

“The fun thing about a webinar — you don’t have to wear pants to school.”

– With files from Alison Shouldice


Academics, Blended Learning

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