Blended Learning: The line between two worlds

Originally published as part of a “Students and Media” series for Arthur Newspaper on November 17, 2014

Blended Learning courses are an innovative teaching technique that is just in its seeds of development at Trent University. It features the replacement of certain components of face-to-face classroom learning, with digital or online elements. For instance, a classroom lecture could be replaced by a video lecture while students and instructors still meet for small group discussion. Or on the other hand, discussion and classroom participation may move online while classroom lectures still take place.

Mary Jane Pilgrim, Director of Trent Online, described the presence of blended learning at Trent as something that’s done without many people realizing it.

She said, “Lots of faculty are doing different components of blended learning within their courses without actually calling it a ‘blended courses’. Many faculty have elements that you need to participate in online, technically those are blended courses, but they’re not officially blended unless the seminar portion or the lecture portion don’t exist face-to-face.”

Full-fledged blended courses are still rare at Trent. The practice is still in its infant stages, with only a few professors taking it up in their courses according to their own preferences. Arthur met with a few of such faculty to discuss their specific strategies and any successes or failures they’ve met.

Dr. Steven Rafferty is an associate professor in the Chemistry Department, and he has recently been directing his courses away from standard modes of lecturing and toward more interactive activity based learning. In minimizing his lectures, Rafferty finds that a blended learning model provided a means for engaging with students more fully than standard lecturing. Rafferty said, “For one of my courses, I wasn’t happy just lecturing because when you’re talking they seem to be paying attention, but when they write the test it’s clear that they just didn’t get it.”

To address this issue, Rafferty began having students solve problems that had been posted to the online course manager, Blackboard, during class time. He lectures briefly and then has students solve chemical problems relevant to the material in class. Then they can ask him questions, and work collaboratively or individually to solve the problems. “I think it worked about better because I could see where people had problems with the concepts and I could address it directly, in a way that I couldn’t do with a lecture,” said Dr. Rafferty.

This method also allows for the integration of specialized technologies into the classroom. In Rafferty’s class, students learn how to use chemical analysis software that is built upon in later courses. Rather than provide images of chemical structures, Rafferty has students download a free application to their laptops and in class they will explore chemical structures actively. The structure of the course encourages students to discover new features of the software and promotes self-directed learning in the classroom.

Dr. Cathy Bruce is an associate professor in Trent’s School of Education and Professional Learning, as well as the Director of the newly founded Centre for Teaching and Learning. She conducts research and courses related to math education. Her courses feature a blended environment in which students are expected to prepare ahead of time to participate in seminar discussions. She is able to put a number of resources online relating to the material, which students can peruse at their discretion according to their comfort level with the topics. Bruce said, “It gives you an opportunity to front load some content that doesn’t need to be given face-to-face, and it gives you more time to do the harder learning in the classroom.”

Bruce also finds that this method lends itself well to different learning styles. “The ways that we learn are different, and different people are going to benefit from different parts,” said Bruce. Media that cater to certain types of learners (visual, aural, kinaesthetic, logical, etc.) can be put forward simultaneously and students can focus on whichever method they prefer. “The online is usually more reading intensive, while the face-to-face is usually more auditory intensive.”

Bruce said, “The interesting thing about learning styles is that we all possess a different mix of different ways of learning … It’s not that we’re just one typified learning style, but rather a blend of all of them. Sometimes we want to work on our weaknesses and sometimes we want to work with our strengths. I think the blended learning gives students even more options to push their areas of need and work on those, but also capitalize on their strengths.”

Increasing numbers of departments and professors are incorporating technology into their classroom environment in different ways. Dr. Andrew Vreugdenhil of the Chemistry Department finds technology in his large first-year lectures to be a useful tool for class management and assessment. One of the most useful online tools for Vreugdenhil is the deployment of online assignments.

Vreugdenhil has students complete online questions, which are graded immediately after submission. He feels that this motivates students to review problem areas if they got the question wrong. It does this in a way that paper assignments cannot, due to the extended timelines that paper assignments require to complete and grade. He said, “This is one of the reasons why I’m a big fan of using the online technologies. It allows students to answer the questions whenever they have the time, and also it gets the feedback back to them much more quickly.”

While currently blended courses that fully subscribe to the definition are of limited popularity among professors at Trent University, Trent Online and the Centre for Teaching and Learning are interesting in supporting instructors who want to move in that direction.

As the Centre for Teaching and Learning is only a few weeks old, their activities are nascent, but they are committed to encouraging innovation in the classroom and alternative techniques for imparting knowledge.

In an age of rising online media, blended courses are an avenue for instructors looking to incorporate the wealth of digital tools now at our disposal, while still stimulating the small group discussions that Trent is known for. Pedagogically, blended courses ride the line between the contemporary digital world and old school models for class-based face-to-face discussion.


Originally published at trentarthur.ca.

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