Tapping into the Collective Wisdom of the Best Blended Course Design Practices

By Michaella Thornton, Assistant Director for Instructional Design

For four years I have taught blended, accelerated, and linked first-year composition courses at another learning institution.  Despite having several years experience teaching face-to-face college-level writing and online educational technology courses before teaching a blended course, I had to teach myself a lot about the educational nuances and practicalities of blended, or hybrid, pedagogy.

While I immersed myself in the learning theory of connectivism (Siemens, 2005), determined how to best facilitate online writing conferences (Hewett, 2010), and navigated the most effective ways to design an integrated writing class that wouldn’t encumber students with lots of unintuitive technology or unnecessary online interactions, I wished then for a more comprehensive yet succinct overview of some of the most effective blended course design practices, especially for those new to teaching a blended course.

A year ago in June 2012, Dr. Patricia McGee and Abby Reis, both of The University of Texas at San Antonio, published their qualitative meta-analysis of 67 public narratives on the “best” or most “effective” practices in blended learning in the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. This summer as I read McGee and Reis’ meta-analysis of existing literature (see below for some of the recommended resources they discuss), oh, how I wished this journal article had been available when I first began teaching blended courses in early 2009.

McGee and Reis’ qualitative research, which focuses on exploring the collective wisdom of teaching blended courses via publically available online resources and the “pedagogical patterns” common in instructional design theory and strategies, underscored the importance of re-designing one’s blended course and not just trying to Frankenstein or simply add-on to an existing face-to-face course with a narrated PowerPoint here or a wiki there (p. 10).  The “course-and-a-half phenomenon” McGee and Reis discuss reflects what many teachers often do, myself included, when first teaching a blended course with little to no instructional design support or adequate time to develop a blended course (p. 11). (Please note: All SLU faculty and graduate students, however, are welcome to have an instructional design consultation with members of the CTTL.  Just drop me a line at mthornt7@slu.edu to schedule a time to talk.)

McGee and Reis note several key patterns and discoveries in their research:

  • While the terms “blended” and “hybrid” are often bandied about as synonymous, the authors point out the limitations of the latter descriptor by pointing out “hybrid suggests that one mode is unused while the other is used” (p. 8).  Blended is the preferred term by the authors largely because a blended course is designed to be “seamlessly operational where the transition between classroom meeting and online component is minimal” (p. 8).
  • The authors also tackle the “seat time” conundrum that is often omnipresent when first creating online or blended programs, especially for those programs intent on meeting accreditation standards.  The distribution of time between face-to-face or online modalities was often not explicitly broken down in the sources the authors surveyed; however, even when looking at ratios of between “30 to 79% in either online or face-to-face” interactions, the authors find many of the ratios too limiting, especially when “focusing only on the context and environment in which learning occurs rather than course roles, pedagogy, and functions of meetings that, for us, are what makes the blended course unique” (p. 9).
  • A key tenet of many guides to designing effective blended courses is that these courses often shift “from a teacher-directed to a learner-centered paradigm” (p. 11).
  • How long does it take to design an effective blended course?  McGee and Reis found that the oft-cited “time to redesign courses is reported to require three to six months in advance of implementation” (2012, p. 11).  An important logistical consideration for faculty members interested in redesigning a course in a blended format.
  • Two notable factors related to increasing student engagement in blended courses include “varied interactivity and prompt feedback” (p. 13).  These factors, of course, are also essential to face-to-face or wholly online classes.
  • Not surprisingly, “blended courses provide a fertile environment for metacognition as students are involved in learning within and outside of the classroom” (p. 13).  The authors point out that many online discussions, due to the medium and the wait time afforded to all students participating in asynchronous conversations, often elicit a more “discursive” and democratic discussion and prompt higher-order level of thinking for students beyond “completion-based” or clarification conversations often found in face-to-face classes.
  • A finding from the study I double-underlined and plan on posting prominently on my desk and referring to often: “Using technology for technology’s sake is distracting and does not motivate the learner.  Student motivation decreases when technology is at odds or superfluous to instructional outcomes” (p. 15).
  • While there are so many gems in McGee and Reis’ research, one that I think bears repeating focuses on how we frame the blended courses we teach to students: “[I]t would seem that setting expectations is of the utmost importance so that learners understand how the course works, and whether or not they are equipped to be successful” (p. 16).  This is a truism for any course one may teach, but especially so when talking with students who are taking a blended course for the first time.

All in all, this article serves as an informative yet targeted synthesis about what has been written publically in higher education about how to best design blended courses.  The authors also highlight where additional research on creating effective blended courses could be done (and how such research might be initiated and vetted).  Also interesting to note, the authors point out that actual examples of blended courses are often hard to come by – at least in the public literature they reviewed (perhaps due to the shrouded or proprietary nature of many Learning Management Systems).  Recommendations for how more of us can capture and share examples of blended courses are also included in the authors’ concluding remarks.

For what this journal article covers about designing effective blended courses in 22 short pages (not to mention the instructive course-alignment table provided in The Design Process section), I highly recommend reading, and then re-reading, McGee and Reis’ findings.  Their meta-analysis is well-organized, helpful, and straight-forward – a must-read for anyone interested in designing a blended course for the fall or spring semester.

A few helpful online resources mentioned in McGee and Reis’ (2012) study:

References

Hewett, B. (2010). The online writing conference: A guide for teachers and tutors. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc.

McGee, P., & Reis, A. (2012). Blended course design: A synthesis of best practices. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(4), 7-22. Retrieved from http://sloanconsortium.org/jaln/v16n4/blended-course-design-synthesis-best-practices

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, 2(1). Retrieved from http://www.itdl.org/journal/jan_05/article01.htm

Comments are closed.