Hoping to enhance the learning experience of students in large classes, the faculty of arts and science at Queen’s University will broaden its offering of blended-learning courses this fall.
Blended learning can take different forms but usually involves a combination of classroom instruction and online work. “We see it as a tool with a lot of potential for addressing the quality of learning in large first-year classes,” said Brenda Ravenscroft, associate dean of studies in the faculty of arts and science.
A 2011 report by Canada’s Collaboration for Online Higher Education and Research (COHERE) found many examples of blended learning in the universities it surveyed across Canada, ranging from a single course to a degree program. It also found a growing awareness that universities need to adopt “an organized and inclusive approach” to adopting blended courses.
At Queen’s, first-year psychology and geography courses were the first to adopt the new learning model in the fall of 2011. This coming September, the university plans to introduce blended learning to first-year classes in sociology, calculus and gender studies and to second-year classics. More blended-learning classes are to be developed.
In the case of Psychology 100, one of the most popular courses at Queen’s, students attend a single one-hour lecture a week instead of three that were held previously. Much of the basic course content is covered online at a student’s own pace. Four professors team-teach the course and use the lecture time to present aspects of their own research to students or to explore additional ideas and concepts. Students also meet in groups of 25 to 30 once a week in a learning lab led by a teaching assistant.
The labs are noisy, active and generate a lot of discussion among students, Dr. Ravenscroft said. “The goal of the whole project is to enable active learning in the classroom” and to improve student engagement in high-enrolment courses. She said Queen’s has invited interested faculty members in other disciplines to participate in the project through a call for proposals.
Dr. Ravenscroft said the psychology course at Queen’s was modeled on a first-year blended-learning psychology course at McMaster University. Other examples across Canada, described in the COHERE report, included a four-year funded program at the University of Calgary (since ended) that assisted instructors who wanted to redesign delivery of their courses to the blended format. Mount Royal University has offered blended courses for more than a decade, and the University of Manitoba, for three years. York University recently set up a $2.5 million fund to pay for innovative projects to engage students that included 11 blended courses; it is planning for 75.
At Queen’s, the project has had some detractors. Some students and professors argue that the shift to blended learning is a thinly disguised cost-cutting measure. “I’m not against blended learning,” said Mark Jones, an English professor at Queen’s. “What I’m against is the way they are pushing it for what appear to be financial rather than academic reasons.
“Any time you can teach the same number of courses with fewer faculty, as an administrator you are doing that to save money. You’re not doing it to improve quality.”
Dr. Ravenscroft disagreed and noted that redesigning courses involves significant costs, including the hiring of instructional designers and additional TAs. However, she acknowledged there are some resource benefits, such as freeing up urgently needed auditorium space.
“I think there’s a lot of apprehension about anything that involves online learning and it leads very quickly to the fear that we’re replacing on-campus student learning experiences with online experiences,” added Dr. Ravenscroft. “In this case that’s completely unfounded.”
The results aren’t in yet from student and faculty surveys that Queen’s is conducting to gauge satisfaction with the changes or from its assessments to measure student engagement, Dr. Ravenscroft said.
Jordan Bawks, a former TA for the Psychology 100 course, said for the most part, students’ reaction was positive. Working in the same small group throughout the year helped them build social networks and gave them a place to turn if they needed help with their studies. Team-based learning has long been used in medicine and business, he noted. “I definitely think this is the future of teaching.”
Watch a TedX talk on blended learning.
I don’t know why Queens is “experimenting” with blended learning. It’s been practiced by universities in other parts of the world, and other provinces, for well over a decade. The results are in. It works! In fact it works very well. Let’s get in with it.
With respect to “team-based learning” or learning in small groups being the “future of teaching”, a few points. First of all, a group of 25 to 30 students is really not that small – that is the size of an average class for many upper level courses. Students generally meet outside of class in any case, with a few friends or classmates, to exchange notes or study together, and so on, in an informal way.
Also, in between my undergraduate and my graduate Biology degrees, quite a few years ago, I also earned an Education degree, at the University of Toronto. At the time, many people there were talking about student-centered learning, which referred to students studying mostly on their own, in small groups, as the future of teaching (so, this type of rhetoric is nothing new). There may be some merits to this approach, and, as mentioned, some students tend to do this informally, in any case, outside of the classroom. However, at the Faculty of Education, during one of the teaching assignments, I was able to observe first hand the practical application of this approach. The teacher had been teaching Biology for many years, even though he had an English degree (and no Biology or science-related degrees). He was a strong believer in “student-centered learning”, which, to him, meant that nobody should lecture for more than 10 minutes during a 70 minute-long class. The rest of the time, the students sat in small groups and tried to read or discuss class materials on their own. Of course, students could have done this just as well in the cafeteria, or at home, and did not need to come to class for this. As a general rule, the good students tried to read relevant materials, while many other students appeared to simply waste their time, and wait for the end of the class, usually by engaging in activities that had little to nothing to do with the course they were supposedly taking. To me, this appeared like a monumental waste of the students’ time, but to the teacher in charge of the course, this “student-centered approach” was “the reason why he was still interested in teaching”. Hopefully, this will never become “the future of teaching”, at least not if, as professors, we think we have something valuable to teach our students during our classes (as I am sure most of us do).
Despite the very optimistic previous comment, as an educator, I think it is perfectly legitimate to question the rush towards more and more online learning, and there are quite a few good reasons (some of which were discussed in detail elsewhere) to doubt that this is the best way to proceed, in many cases. One can also legitimately ask: if online courses were considered to be a more expensive alternative than regular courses delivered in the classroom, would online courses still be advertised by so many as “innovative teaching” or “the future of education”?
Dr. Radu Guiasu
Associate Professor and Coordinator
Environmental and Health Studies Program
Glendon College, York University
The question is not whether students like it (we are confusing education with a somewhat older profession). The question is whether they learn the material better than those who take the usual route. Comparative measures of how much was learned, and how well, are extremely easy to conduct. It interesting that such measures are conspicuously absent.