February 22nd, 2011

Using Blended Learning to Transform the Classroom Experience

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When we maintain our focus on learning, the means used to help students learn dominates our thinking. Too often teachers can fall into the trap of testing students only on lower-level material (knowledge and comprehension questions). When exams become the only means to assess learning, a teacher becomes a carpenter with only a hammer: all problems start to seem like nails.

Blended courses offer a way to move beyond a midterm and a final. By combining the benefits of online instruction with the advantages of face-to-face instruction, you might improve learning in your course in ways that are impossible to achieve using only face-to-face meetings or only online resources.

I often hear teachers lament that there is so much content in a course that they never have time to do any critical-thinking activities in class. Moving lower-level content—such as definitions, simple exercises, timelines, and other strictly factual content—to online resources allows the teacher to spend face-to-face time on more critical-thinking activities as well as active and collaborative work. But a teacher cannot simply think of the online activities as a way to accomplish lower-order skills; otherwise, online work runs the risk of becoming an electronic textbook. Technology broadens the range of pedagogical choices so that step 2 in the list on Monday’s post requires even more background knowledge, more creativity, and more pedagogical savvy.

When I recently taught nutrition, I was able to guide students through the reading material in the textbook prior to class so that critical-thinking activities could be done in class. We analyzed food labels while eating different food each week: chips when discussing fats, peanut butter sandwiches when discussing carbohydrates, protein bars for proteins, and sports drinks for vitamins/minerals. The face-to-face activities were used to rehearse content from the book but also to help students as they worked on a higher-order assignment online. They reviewed a current diet book, based on the nutritional information they were learning in class.

When designing a blended learning course, the instructor should remember to use the online portion as an opportunity to create more exciting face-to-face interactions. Utilizing a pedagogically rich repertoire of online resources will allow an instructor to become the teacher he or she has always dreamed of being: the creator of dynamic classroom learning environments that fully engage all students. The power of blending online activities with face-to-face work can allow this transformation. Face-to-face interactions should work synergistically with the online activities. The blending of the two components can transform learning. But to accomplish the transformation, the focus must remain on learning.

Ike Shibley, PhD. is an associate professor of chemistry at Penn State Berks, a small four-year college within the Penn State system.

From Putting the Learning in Blended Learning. Online Classroom, February 2009, 1,8.