Getting the Right Blend: A Case Study of How Teaching Can Change in Blended Learning Environments

Authors

Introduction

The transition from teaching in the classroom to teaching online is not one that most professors or students take lightly. This is in part because colleagues who do not teach online often ask for a defence of the concept. Even with the advent of the 21st century, some use pejorative terms like ‘correspondence school’ and question the pedagogy, especially for a college course. In this case, a biostatistics course for nurses is examined. The present study takes place in a large private university in Florida known for its use of blending learning. Blended learning in this context includes traditional classroom experiences, a WebCT Internet course, as well as asynchronous and synchronous communication among a class of undergraduate students new to the concept.

Northedge (2006) writes that distance teaching is an ‘extended act of imagination’. One must imagine the students; their insecurities are even more hidden than when you can see their faces and their body language. Northedge also suggests that distance education presents both the most challenging and satisfying forms of teaching. The challenge is apparent; the satisfaction part is less clear at the outset. The purpose of the present research is to recount the transition in one teacher very much experienced in teaching university students face-to-face who must now teach them with minimal physical contact. Writing in real time about this new teaching experience will also provide what Brookfield (1995) and others (i.e., Schon, 1991) call critical reflection. Critical reflection exposes prescriptive and causal assumptions that may or may not fit the new experience.

First impressions

The concept of ‘uploading’ students into one’s online class is among the first differences a teacher new to online teaching faces. Sometime before the day the course begins, the teacher must connect students to her and the course deliberately. Once that has happened, students begin to seek one out by email. As of the morning of the first class, most students had responded to a ‘welcome’ email asking them to reply with times they might be most likely to be prepared for ‘virtual’ office hours. It is now apparent that the primary reason for students selecting distance learning is about time and space limits. These students have literally no common hours. As practicing RNs (Registered Nurses), they work around the clock and fit in time with their computers at odd hours. The only option is to offer a wide variety of virtual office hours when students know the instructor will be online and available for relatively synchronous discussion. It is apparent that students in this course have taken it because they cannot attend consistent hours or locations each week. Wang and Newlin (2002) have shown that teachers should know why students take online courses and they should closely observe online activity as both factors have been shown to predict student success.

Bonk and Graham (2006) has stated that almost every educational experience has some proportion of the blending of several sources of information. But the distributed learning, e-learning, open and flexible learning, and hybrid learning offered in online, or online with face-to-face components, can really be a different breed of educational delivery. One unique aspect of such courses is the increased access and flexibility they provide. The RNs in the present course would only have access to this course if they could take it around swing hospital shifts. One student nurse commented that she did not really need a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) degree, the one she would obtain upon succeeding in this class, but that she wanted to keep herself intellectually active. She said she could not afford the time to drive to a classroom and that she needed to be able to work on her own schedule. These are the reasons behind why no one reported the same schedule and that virtual office hours would not work as traditionally conceived. Even the chats that were subsequently scheduled across several different days and times were populated by those students with the most discretionary time.

So far, only one student has asked a question. A student would like to know if there is a textbook for the class and is confused about downloading the statistical software to be used in the course. Both of these issues are clear from reading the syllabus, but the instructor is guessing she wants reassurance that she has read it right. She is probably also testing the waters regarding the instructor’s willingness and grace in answering questions that have written answers. It is actually quite astute on her part. If you know that a professor will answer questions politely and patiently when they are clearly written on a syllabus, then you can anticipate the same manners when the questions stem from genuine ambiguity.

Developing an initial narrative

Northedge (2006) calls the first impression process ‘developing a teaching narrative’. Encountered within the first student exchange there is the beginning of making meaning together without meeting in person. Northedge likens the initial steps in an online course to writing a play. The opening scenario must capture the students’ attention and imagination. And in a statistics course, it must also be soothing. The instructor decides her ‘play’ must focus on the timing of events and on being fair. Being fair means that if you follow the course narrative as asked, then you should be able to meet course objectives and do well in the course. Part of the problem is that the play the instructor writes is different from the play the students reconstruct. The instructor’s play is about learning to be consumers of statistical information. The students’ play is about getting a passing grade in a required, and often dreaded, course.

The second day brings most students into the virtual world of this course through their emailing of schedules. The instructor finds out that several are from other states and again, there are no common hours among them. In a second question, the instructor finds out how she and the students have a different view of filenames. The syllabus did not explicitly state that one needs the course software to open the datasets. The instructor had assumed knowledge about file extensions that did not exist. She responds that one needs the software to open the datasets and reminds them that there is a ‘built-in’ extra week before the first homework is due to make sure they can get the right software on their computers. The instructor now adds to the ‘play’ by indirectly reassuring them that time is of the essence, but that there is a plan for a slow start and a potentially steep learning curve. Students do not have basic knowledge about file names. The teacher has started to see the ‘satisfaction’ part of the online teaching experience. If students continue to send questions that reveal gaps in knowledge, and ones that they would probably not ask in a live setting, then sh
e will begin to rethink the objectives of the course. One new objective has now become teaching them about file names and other basic properties of a computer environment. For example, a student asks if they need a calculator and the instructor is surprised to have to point out that using a computer and statistical software is using a calculator. The next section describes some features of online communication and what these relatively novel features might anticipate for teaching and learning.

Online communication

Niesten and Sussex (2006) describe some of the basic differences between online communication and face to face. Online communication is a written media limited only by the speed of the typist, network and server. It is weakly synchronous at best since even virtual office hours will never be as quick an exchange of thoughts as face-to-face interactions. Online communication is not live, either physically, or in audio or video terms. Even the chat room is not close to the synchronicity of a telephone. Online conversation proceeds in order of receipt and is therefore organised by threads or topics that can overlap or be out of sync compared to a typical face-to-face conversation. What do these differences tell a teacher about what to expect? First, meaning is negotiated differently online. The shared structure is in flux and must be constantly monitored. Special features occur like the use of emoticons. Emoticons are icons used to compensate for the emotional cues present in face-to-face interactions. There is even evidence that people perceive the intimacy of online communication differently than when conversing in person, (Kiesler et al., 1984; Walther and Burgoon, 1992).

Because participants cannot see others’ facial expressions, gestures, voice intonations, appearance, or physical adornments, it is harder to interpret statements and responses they might make (Walther and Burgoon, 1992). Social presence theory explains that the personal nature of a relationship is determined by the salience of the participants. The lack of non-verbal elements or feedback cues may lead participants to be more intimate and more likely to ‘flame’ or insult other users, to focus more on themselves, and to equalise each other’s status because of the lack of cues to show them what is appropriate. It seems that online student groups can and do develop in relationally positive directions, as long as they are allotted sufficient time to mature. One of the instructor’s first realisations in teaching online is the need to be responsive and sensitive to student communication. It’s not just like teaching students in the classroom from ‘behind the doors’. Students will respond in different ways and expect different things when communicating by email than in person. The student who asked about how to open a file, assuming that any file would open in the same way has learned something valuable. The student who asked about calculators has learned that their PC is a calculator, and the statistical software is a calculator.

After the first assignment

It is now the period after the first written assignment. Nearly everyone appears to understand and complete the first assignment with the only problem being saving files in a format that is readable as text. The instructor had assumed that most students would automatically copy and paste statistical output from the analysis package into a more comfortable format like a word processor in order to insert text. The instructor found that about half of the students tried to save an output file that could not be sent through the WebCT-based course system and read as text. The instructor gives them generous benefit of the doubt credit and then asks them to try to resend in a text format in a ‘couple of days’. She also asks several students who did it successfully to send a short discussion about how they did this. It seems natural to ask for students to write ‘in their own words’ answers to other students in an online format.

Two things would have gone differently in a face-to-face class. The teacher would have given them less time to hash out a solution themselves and would have just told them how to do it, or even typed in the sequence for them. Online learning then can provide a benefit in terms of encouraging students to work out problems on their own. The frustration may be more intense at the outset, but only time will tell if the concepts are learned and ready to be transferred to the next task more easily than if the online students had faced less independence.

White and Weight (2000) have written an online teaching guide that corroborates the instructor’s sense that frustration and other emotions seem more intense in an online course. The guide points out that, somewhat paradoxically, online teaching requires greater, not lesser interpersonal skills. Students who had expressed total lack of understanding, fear, mistrust, and other negative emotions less typical of a face-to-face class, managed to do quite well on the first assignment. Perhaps the heightened emotion is a way of getting the extra assurance students anticipate needing when they cannot talk to the instructor in person. The next section places online learning in the context of traditional classroom lecturing.

In defence of lecturing and university life

Bligh (1999) in the classic update of his work on lecturing, presents a defence of online teaching indirectly and in an unlikely place. Upon describing the virtues of traditional lecturing, he describes first what lecturing does not readily provide. Lectures are presented as relatively ineffective in teaching ‘values’, inspiring interest, increasing personal or social adjustment, or for teaching behaviour skills. Most researchers of online teaching, on the other hand, are likely to point to success in terms of just these social outcomes (i.e., Mantyla, 1999; Simonson et al., 2003). Face-to-face lectures have inefficiencies despite many centuries of their apparently successful use in imparting information. Bligh cites research, however, that finds that lecturing is not always more effective than other teaching techniques and may, in fact, be inferior to discussion and other more interactive methods of instruction.

Discussion works best because learning is practice (i.e., Moore and Marra, 2005). And merely passively listening to someone lecture is unlikely to lead to real engagement with the material. In an online environment, discussion is part of the system by definition. There is a virtual place (a link and icon) for discussion of various threads just like there is a place for traditional lecture-type material presented as slides or notes. Students can choose to move among these virtual places at will. The instructor’s experience is that they do move from a Discussion link to an Assignments link and on to an Email link and only occasionally to a link that corresponds to traditional lecture content. The virtual, and presumably mental, action that takes place in an online envir
onment may surpass that of the action taking place during a typical lecture in a face-to-face auditorium or classroom. The mental actions of the teacher are less visible as well.

The instructor’s colleagues outside of the ivory tower often comment on her schedule, especially now that she teaches online. She reports that she is as likely to be working in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning on a weekend, as she is 9­ to 5. This has become even more the case now that she teaches an online course with less than 50 students. She also feels the need to defend the concept of teaching so few students at a time. For example, a college-educated non-academic wonders just how a professor spends her professional time. A professor may write on a variety of scholarly topics, conduct research with colleagues, consult on statistical and methodological questions, communicate with students, prepare instructional materials, and serve on committees in and outside her university. Kennedy (1997) writes on the misunderstanding between business outside and inside the ivory tower and he points to the difference in work habits as one particularly visible point of departure. The instructor may see online teaching as bringing this issue even more into focus. The instructor plans chat sessions for weekend hours trying to capture the diverse times her nursing students are most likely to be able to participate. University life is under increasing scrutiny for being accountable to society. Kennedy writes about the need for academic duty along with academic freedom. Academic freedom gets all the airplay but responsibility is at least as lofty a goal. Online teaching provides even greater physical freedom. One need not be in a particular physical location at a specific time to be ‘teaching’. But as the instructor new to blended learning is about to find out, students have evolving needs for her time that she did not originally anticipate.

Academic duty in the online course

As the instructor reads more about online learning and reflects on her experiences one third of the way through her first teaching experience, she finds that many books on education or the academy in general give only a hand wave to the challenges of new technologies. For example, a book by Kennedy (1997) describes the occupation of university professor. Only a few sentences in more than 300 pages are devoted to ‘cyberspace’ in the teaching realm. Kennedy states that ‘cyberspace is no substitute for personal contact between teacher and student’. The online environment changes the nature of the phrase ‘personal contact’. If Kennedy means a face-to-face meeting, he would be neglecting the thousands of students taught college classes without ever seeing their professor’s face but who in fact might feel that the experience is quite ‘personal’ nonetheless. The present instructor has become a convert to at least this part of how online instruction changes the way she teaches. To be fair, Kennedy wrote this almost a decade ago and goes on to say obliquely that cyberspace ‘does make possible a level of interaction that would otherwise be inconceivable’. He then explains that online teaching ‘in its highest form’, makes routine tasks go more quickly leaving time for more important and meaningful interactions. The present instructor would agree and add that striving for the highest form of online instruction becomes increasingly a nontrivial matter, even after weeks of working on her first course. The instructor will search for more recent resources in the general domain of the university professor as occupation and see if more attention is now being devoted to online teaching and its challenges.

Stephenson (2001) writes about an international effort coordinated among 30 teachers and scholars of online education. The introduction begins with a raison d’être. Administrators have embraced online learning because it promises to offer direct delivery of learning to existing learners and to groups traditionally excluded by personal circumstances. It also promises an economy of scale and increased information technology skills among students. Stephenson has brought many experts together in order to discuss pedagogy, evaluation research, experiences and challenges of expert online instructors, commercial designers, and finally, views on an emerging knowledge society.

The first part of the book presents evidence for the idea that without careful structuring, online learning is no more or less successful than whatever the instructor was doing in a traditional classroom environment. New experiences are interpreted in light of what has been learned in the past. This certainly applies to the present instructor’s attempts at making sense of online environments. Second, learners actively construct their own experiences. It is sometimes difficult for the instructor to understand the online world that her students inhabit. Further, learning is a holistic process, it is socially and culturally constructed, and it is influenced by the socio-emotional context in which it occurs.

Computer conferencing, online debates, and role-plays and simulations can take advantage of the qualities of learning that the online environment brings to the fore. The instructor’s use of the chat room has been experimental. Not all students have participated and not all are experiencing the same virtual communication that she envisions. Her next attempt at chats today and tomorrow will be discussed in the next section. At least one student has already responded by email that she will be ‘present’ but she makes it sound as if it were a class requirement that she is confirming rather than something less formal. The instructor has tried to hold out the carrot of discussing ‘what we have learned’ from the first exam. She will see how this works out. In the traditional classroom, students often turn off their maximum attention when discussing something that has already been ‘graded’. Perhaps the chat environment can suggest something more future-oriented, something that will stay with the students like a meaningful experience in the rest of their non-academic lives.

Some lessons learned

Designing blended learning experiences is not a simple redesign from existing course materials, even those honed from years of what were presumably high-quality classroom experiences. The self-directed parts of a course are underemphasised in a face-to-face class. When students work online, they learn the content by interacting with it individually. They are learning when and what to ask when they don’t understand. The evolution in this instructor’s course proceeded from things like not understanding that students didn’t see a computer as a calculator, and not seeing that students didn’t know how to change a data file into a text document, to learning that students need reassurance and gradually become more empowered as they develop some successes online.

Recall that Northedge (2006) describes online teaching as both the most challenging and satisfying forms of teaching. The present instructor would count the greatest challenges as those that were
grossly unanticipated and that cost her first online students some grief. The present instructor did not understand the basic structural difference between ‘discussion’ as communication and ‘email’. These were two separate sources of two-way channels and she took two weeks to get them straight. Students thought they were deliberating being ignored. The instructor did not understand the need for some students who could do so to meet with her in person. The instructor did not anticipate that students would need to have assignments that should proceed in a regular weekly pace available instead of ‘all at once’ so that those who went on gruelling 100+ hour work weeks could get, or stay, ahead. Some conversations that took place in person in the classroom offering the same visuals as those in the online course explained more thoroughly the information than the teacher had thought. Online students found every gap in knowledge that was not completely available in the visuals.

Among the most satisfying aspects of this professor new to blended learning are these: The instructor could travel anywhere there was a computer connected to the Internet and have her entire teaching materials available within a few key presses. As the instructor anticipates her second teaching assignment, a true blended course offered in the same WebCT software shell but with a weekly three-hour face-to-face meeting, she finds she is leaving less to the imagination in her preparations. She studies the WebCT materials carefully for places where students, many students at the same time, might send an email of confusion. She also anticipates that the trajectory of novelty, frustration, gaining expertise but having some learned helplessness, will likely transform itself into a need for less reassurance from her and better designed teaching materials.

Conclusions

The right blend appears to be the blend that includes what makes all learning experiences work: active engagement with information. Active learning includes reducing the conceptual gap between what the student knows and what the teacher knows. If this is done in an online environment, instructors will need to monitor student communication as insecurities may be more hidden, intimacy may be heightened, and a sense of physical time and space will be relatively dynamic and recreated constantly. Furthermore, questions generated by students indicate that more detailed content was provided face to face than met the eye of the instructor.

The challenge of online and blended learning will be to anticipate, rather than simply predict post hoc what activities that can be monitored online will lead to the best outcomes. Future research should provide students with ways to become more actively engaged in their own learning. Practice in a technologically challenging environment is part of 21st century life. The challenge of blended learning is to help students keep up with the pace of change. The satisfaction of teaching online is the knowledge that students who are reinforced for taking initiative, and who practise learning to learn, will do better in the short and long run than those who learn to memorise a set of static facts in whatever media they are presented.

Acknowledgement

The authors would like to thank the students of Biostatistics for Nursing Practice, the initial group of online students taught by the first author. Send correspondence to the first author at 3200 South University Drive, College of Allied Health and Nursing, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33328-2018, USA, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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Author details

Sarah Ransdell (Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA) received her PhD in 1987 and has taught and conducted research on educational technology since then, earning an EDUCOM award for best psychology software in 1989. Sandrine Gaillard-Kenney has taught online courses in Health Sciences for five years and is the Director of the Masters in Health Sciences programme. She received her master’s degree in Education from L’Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France and is currently working on her doctorate in Education, majoring in Instruction Technology and Distance Education. Sally Weiss is a professor of Nursing and has taught online and blended courses for more than 20 years.

References

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