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.