Blended Learning Conference Take-Aways

jspohrer's picture

I was struck by two themes running through the conference presentations this year:

First, the importance of "closing the loop," or bringing the online components of a blended course back into the classroom in some way. Kristine Rabberman, for example, talked about the importance of opening class discussions with insightful observations, questions, or debates from her course's online discussion boards and blogs, as part of her strategy for fostering a deeper, sustained intellectual conversation online and in the classroom. This resonated with feedback we received on student surveys of courses that were part of the NGLC blended learning study project. Rightly or wrongly, students perceived online work that was not recognized in some way as being unimportant or ancillary to the course. Making these activities "low-stakes" (i.e., giving some points or credit for completing them) rather than "no-stakes" was one common mechanism faculty used to signal that online materials were important, but student survey responses and experiences faculty shared suggest that discussing students' online work in class as Kristine did or explicitly communicating how you are using student's online work to diagnose and address problems -- for example, by going over a problem you noticed students were having trouble with in online homework, might be as, if not more, effective. 

Second, I was struck by the extent to which blended course development challenges us to become confortable with what my friends in the computer game industry would call "live beta." Typically in software development, projects would pass through an "alpha" development phase and a "beta" testing and bug-fixing phase, before a final version was approved for public release. With the advent of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs), however, in which tens of thousands of players might play and interact simultaneously over the Internet (from whence, incidentally, comes the acronym MOOC), an adequate software test required thousands of simultanous users. Companies now routinely release an unfinished game for a "live beta" that incorporates end users into the testing process. Pedagogical innovation requires a similar "live beta," since, at minimum, students have to be involved before we can assess whether something works. Things that don't work as planned -- a tool students don't use, for example -- can feel like failures, but in a live beta context, they are really successes, because you've identified a problem and can take steps to fix it -- survey students to figure out why they didn't use the tool, and use that information to remove barriers to using it or to find a better alternative.

Are there other themes or threads you noticed?

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