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How can the Higher Education Administration program at Northwestern University maintain or strengthen the high quality, interpersonal learning experiences of graduate-level seminar courses when offering them in a blended learning format? What factors influence student engagement and satisfaction?
We will explore this question by examining the complete blended learning redesign process, including the program format, activities/tools used, faculty development/ongoing support, and student training/support.
A qualitative case study of blended format courses within the professional graduate program was conducted from Spring 2016 through Winter 2017 (additional courses in Spring and Summer 2017 will be added). The blended coursework was developed as part of a new certificate program, created to engage students who were already working in the field, but may not be able to attend classes in the traditional format, either due to location or scheduling. Changes were made to courses and the blended format over the course of the year based on feedback from faculty and students.
Table 1. Background and Context of Blended Format Courses. Each row represents one of the courses examined, with rows 5-8 representing upcoming courses.
Blended learning as opposed to fully online learning was likely a strong contributing factor to establishing interpersonal connections and providing ongoing engagement in seminar-style courses.
- Classes include face-to-face weekend intensives and synchronous online sessions to help facilitate dialogue and build relationships, both with peers and instructors.
- Instructional designers work closely with faculty to ensure that asynchronous content closely aligns with synchronous and face-to-face activities to create a cohesive learning experience.
- The program works to ensure that our certificate (online) students have access to the same resources as our traditional (onsite) students, including academic and career counselors and professional development workshops. Students are encouraged to engage with the broader MSHE community via our online community and onsite social events.
In alignment with previous research on edtech adoption, emphasis should not be placed on the technology tools but rather on how those tools are used, with particular emphasis in the blended format on integration between asynchronous and synchronous activities.
- Coursework incorporates a variety of activities that promote communication and collaboration, including group work, discussion-based assignments, and peer reviews.
- The program emphasizes active learning strategies: synchronous and face-to-face sessions are leveraged to facilitate as much interaction as possible. Any activities that do not require significant interaction (lectures, video content, written assignments, quizzes, etc.) are delivered asynchronously.
- An assortment of educational technology tools are employed to facilitate student engagement and discussion, including Flipgrid, Yellowdig, and Adobe Connect breakout rooms.
FACULTY DEVELOPMENT & SUPPORT
Faculty involvement in the instructional design process is critical with development focusing on redesigning courses and modifying teaching practices for the unique blended format.
- Instructional designers follow a structured course design process, which based on the ADDIE model, emphasizes faculty involvement and ongoing evaluation. While the process is structured, course development is not ‘one size fits all’ – each course is approached individually.
- Course designs benefit from both the quantity and quality of meetings between the faculty and instructional designers. Emphasis is placed on approaching each meeting with a clear focus and providing faculty with ideas for evidence-based learning activities.
- Faculty are provided with ongoing resources, including technical support during synchronous sessions and continual access to instructional designers.
Providing students with orientation to the technology and strategies for participating in a blended format may have a bigger influence on their experience in a course than their reasons for taking that course (i.e. wanting to take the course vs. being required to take it).
- Students are required to attend a technology orientation before their first blended course. Familiarizing students with the platform minimizes technical issues during the online sessions, helps facilitate smoother class discussions, and lowers the cognitive demand on students (they are able to focus on the content, not the technology).
- Courses include expectation-setting information regarding the benefits and challenges of the online/blended format.