May 24th, 2010

Structuring Blended Courses for Maximum Student Engagement

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Blended learning is gaining momentum in higher education…and for a very good reason. According to the U.S. Department of Education, blended learning can improve learning outcomes. To achieve better learning outcomes, however, blended courses need to be carefully structured to engage learners.

In an email interview, Dr. Ike Shibley, an associate professor of chemistry at Penn State Berks, talked about blended course design and activities.

Q: One of the findings of a recent Department of Education report is that students who took all or part of their class online performed better than those taking the same course face-to-face. What accounts for this?

Shibley: We don’t know for sure why students in blended courses outperformed students in both traditional and online courses. I suspect the explanation lies with clarity and motivation: teachers who can talk to students face-to-face on a regular basis can address any confusion about the course layout or the content, plus the teacher can constantly remind students about assignments due that week. The online components are quite helpful and can help students succeed, but it seems that when you add even an hour of face-to-face time each week students will have a clearer conception of the course and will feel the pedagogical pressure to get their work done. Having that meeting time seems to me a powerful motivator.

Q: A recommended practice for online instructors is to have every aspect of the course ready to go on day one. Is this also the case for blended courses? Where can you build in flexibility?

Shibley: Anyone hoping to teach a blended course should have the course ready to go on day one. Organization is of utmost importance because students need to understand the course design so they can achieve maximal success.

Flexibility is built in when students make suggestions such as due dates for online quizzes: during face-to-face time an instructor can poll students about any possible changes. Another way to be flexible is to build in that flexibility. If you have a course where an instructor can exercise discretion about what extra topics to cover, he or she can create a poll as one of the first assignments in which students choose the most interesting topics from a drop-down list. Then the syllabus can reflect those topics.

Q: How do you communicate to the students what to expect? Do you recommend structuring each unit in the same way? Why or why not?

Shibley: Students quickly acclimate to any organizational structure that an instructor chooses. They have learned how to adjust. What they will not accept is changes throughout the course. Once they plan to have an online quiz every weekend the instructor cannot say, “Well, it’s not done yet so you can take it on Monday or Tuesday.” Students structure their time during a semester around their course requirements, but if a teacher keeps changing times or assignments then students feel like they are shooting at a moving target and will quickly get frustrated.

I am a bit compulsive, but I do believe that students benefit from having the same structure throughout a course. The instructor wants to teach content and the best way to achieve that is through a course design that is easy for students to follow. Then students are worried about learning the material instead of trying to figure out when assignments are due or what kind of assignment they have in any given week. Consistency in design will lead to improved student outcomes.