Encounters: Blended Learning Is Largely an Illusion

Encounters: ideas that go bumpIntroduction: This encounter begins with an idea, a “bump,” from Steve Eskow. It was originally posted as a reply to Lynn Zimmerman’s “Computers in the Classroom Can Be Boring.” Please participate in this encounter by posting a comment. I’ll append most or all of the comments to this page as they’re published. -js

steve_eskow80Steve Eskow, editor, hybrid vs. virtual issues, on 24 July 2009, said:

What Lynn is confirming, I think, is that blended learning is largely an illusion.

The “campus” is a collection of spaces designed to feature a standing and speaking “instructor” and a sitting and silent “student.”

The “lecture hall” is designed for lecturing, not for computers.

Again, the “classroom” is designed for a standing instructor speaking to sitting students.

Despite all attempts to to mute or end the lecture, it continues to be–overwhelmingly–the favored mode of instruction in our elite colleges. And it should be: Why pay distinguished scholars to teach and not listen to them?

Perhaps it is time to consider the possibility that the classroom and the computer are oil and water.

encounters: ideas that go bump

claude80Claude Almansi, editor, accessibility issues & site accessibility facilitator, on 25 July 2009, at 11:09 am, said:

“Blended learning” always reminds me of the mush I prepared in a blender, scrupulously following sadistic pediatricians’ instructions to wean my daughter. She contemptuously spat it out. Then our landlady asked me: “Have you tried that revolting stuff yourself?” and had hysterics when I did. Then she suggested tiny pasta with peeled and seeded raw tomato and some parmesan cheese and real olive oil. It worked.

By the same token, maybe computers still do have their place in the classroom, but a separate, not blended one. I once organized an intensive French workshop for which I’d made a wiki, with the precise purpose that students would not be distracted by note-taking during discussions and other active things. There were the active moments, then there were other moments when they wrote about these activities in the wiki, or did other writing assignments, like captioning videos. It worked too.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Steve Eskow, on 25 July 2009, at 2:19 pm, said:

Claude, suppose we added the video captured lecture to the blog and the wiki, and occasional web cam interactgions between teacher and student.s Is there something important lacking in this pedagogy that requires us to bring teachers and students to specially constructed buildings for face-to-face interaction?

(I like very much your gastronomic illustration of “blending,” and will steal it shamelessly. I may change it to what happens when you “blend” two splendid fluids, wine and water.)

encounters: ideas that go bump

Claude Almansi, on 25 July 2009, at 8:10 pm, said:

Replying to: Steve Eskow’s July 25th, 2009 at 2:34 pm comment:

Steve, for foreign language learning, I still believe that F2F can produce better results, as discussing in real time is part of using a language. But I left the wiki online (micusif.wikispaces.com so that the students who took part in the workshop could refer to it during their MA course. And others too: they can use the references to the materials we used and the activities we did with them, and even a link to some abominable snapshots I took with a webcam of what we wrote on flip charts. No videos: I don’t know how to. Had I lectured, I might have made an audio recording (did some of their discussions).

encounters: ideas that go bump

keller80Harry Keller, editor, science education, on 25 July 2009, at 11:11 am, said:

How many lectures have you attended that inspired you? What is the percentage? Most lectures I’ve attended would be just as good as pages in books.

Exceptions may abound. I was always engaged by Richard Feynman’s lectures. Perhaps, it was his engaging grin along with an infectious love of discovery and of explaining things so that his audience could comprehend. Still, the exceptions are rare.

Large lecture halls have been around for centuries. Maybe it’s time for them to give way to smaller venues and to social networking tools. My junior English literature classes typically had 3-5 students attending. Imagine having the professor (not a teaching assistant) almost to yourself.

I have sat in lectures by enough distinguished scholars. I’m talking about CalTech and Columbia. With few exceptions (e.g. Feynman), I could just as well as had a teaching assistant. Having distinction in scholarly affairs does not indicate lecturing talent. Great scholars are not always great teachers. Besides, they get paid for bringing in grant money and making the institution more famous. Undistinguished scholars (read assistant professors) are the ones who really get paid to teach.

So, yes, computers in the classroom take away from the interactive flavor that can be established by good teachers. Classrooms full of computers *look* boring. Computers at home or in the dorm room are another matter.

What will the future of instruction be? We’re in a state of extreme flux. The situation is too fluid to know for sure. It will include computers and the Internet. It will, for a long time anyway, include instructors. I predict that it will not include large lectures except as entertainment, which can be educating at times.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Steve Eskow, on 25 July 2009, at 2:34 pm, said:

Harry, if you were in charge of staffing for a new university, would you hire folks such as Richard Feynman and ask them to teach?
Richard Feynman
(I’m assuming that to take get faculty such as Feynman you’d have to offer them teaching loads no larger than five or six hours a week, right?)

Or would you not hire distingusiehd scholasr and researchers as teachers?

encounters: ideas that go bump

Harry Keller, on 25 July 2009, at 5:54 pm, said:

[@ Steve] Not ever having been a university administrator, I’m not certain what I’d do given the chance. I feel that the traditional role of institutions of higher education is being challenged. For many decades, students at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, et al. have discovered that their famous faculty is rarely seen by them.

These institutions perform two services. One is research and publication. The other is teaching. As much as I decry the University of Phoenix’s excessive concern with their bottom line, they have set out a model of the university solely as a teaching institution.

Universities have plenty of non-teaching researcher/publisher personnel who are called postdoctoral fellows. I was once a member of that tribe. Many professors view teaching undergraduates as a necessary evil they perform in order to hold a job at their chosen school.

The whole concept that undergraduate students will benefit from the crumbs that get scattered from on high makes little sense. What do they get for their high tuition? Mostly, they seem to get associations with their fellow students that will stand them in good stead in the future. The courses can be as good or better in other schools.

To answer your question, I would not be in charge of any part of a new university. If forced into it, I would have to understand fully the goals of that school before I could make such a decision.

It’s just as I harp on regarding science labs in secondary school. You shouldn’t do them until you know why you’re doing them. Teacher impose labs on students just because. Without clear reasons for having them, they’re a waste of time and money.

There are just too few Richard Feynman and Harry Gray types in the world to staff all of the universities that could use their services.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Claude Almansi, on 25 July 2009, at 8:10 pm, said:

Harry Keller’s July 25th, 2009 at 11:11 am comment. Re “I could just as well as had a teaching assistant” – when I had to take the history of the French language course in the 70’s, the professor was on sabbatical and his lectures were being read by his teaching assistant, who’d say things like “here the professor inserts a little joke:…” It was all the more zany as most other professors had agreed to have their lectures they repeated from year to year a) published as “polycopiés”; b) recorded on audio-cassettes, for students who could not attend lectures.

But like you, I also remember great lectures, like you: Jean Starobinski’s, George Steiner’s for instance. But thei impact was also due to the fact that they were combined with seminars where we could discuss with them.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Carrie HeeterCarrie Heeter, editor, games development, on 25 July 2009, at 4:22 pm, said:

Blended learning is the best!

I feel that my fully online courses finally became as good as or better than in person classes when I added one hour of synchronous time per week. My students report valuing the mix, claiming to enjoy it much more than fully online classes.

I never lecture during our precious hour. The online aspects of my blended courses include lots of mini-lectures (10 to 20 minutes of audio, often plus power point or video) and guest interviews (10 to 15 minute edited audio interviews with industry professionals), plus online readings. Individual and group project work also occurs outside of the hour “together.”

I use the hour to answer and ask questions. We often use polleverywhere,com to have small breakout discussions and come back and vote on an intriguing question. We negotiate changes in class assignments, and coordinate forming groups for group projects.

It would impair the quality of the student experience if I were not allowed to blend a dash of synchronicity.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Harry Keller, on 25 July 2009, at 5:58 pm, said:

[@ Carrie] You are reaching the perfect blend of blended instruction. You have figured out what instructors really can do best. You plan the course and then you execute it while making yourself the moderator of the discussions that you engender. The last part is critical for science and, I assume, for many other subjects as well.

Students should be full of questions raised by the curriculum you created. By having them discuss these questions among themselves with an expert helping to guide them, they’ll learn more than from a hundred hours of lectures.

encounters: ideas that go bump

jims80Jim Shimabukuro, editor, on 25 July 2009, at 8:00 pm, said:

Carrie, I think your definition of “blended” is unique. I believe most people would define “blended” as combinations of F2F physical meetings in a classroom and online activities such as participating in forums and logging in to webpages for readings. I also believe that many define “blended” as a smart classroom where instructor and students meet, F2F, and use the equipment to extend the learning environment to incorporate the web as well as social networks that allow all participants to communicate virtually. In some cases, the blended class replaces F2F meetings with online synchronous or asynchronous activities.

Then there are online classes that require a very small number of F2F physical meetings, sometimes as few as 1 or 2. I’m not sure exactly how to categorize these, but I think most would say these are online classes with minimal F2F requirements. Purists, though, might argue that even a single F2F requirement makes this a blended class. The point is that that requirement automatically excludes large numbers of students who cannot meet the F2F requirements. I tend to be a purist, but I’d be hard pressed to come up with a viable justification for my position.

IMHO, Carrie, your classes aren’t blended. They’re completely online but with synchronous requirements. Students and instructors can participate from anywhere without ever having to physically attend a required F2F session. I believe most online instructors require or at least encourage synchronous activities. For my completely online classes, I know that I always enjoy impromptu live interactions in the chat room that’s built into our university’s Sakai course management system. I drop in at times when I know many are online, working on assignments.

But I also know that, at least for my students, a synchronous requirement would be a huge stumbling block, negating the primary attraction that online has for them, which is the freedom to log in when it’s most convenient for them. My guess is that your population of students differs from mine, and this is why synchronous works for you and wouldn’t work for me.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Carrie Heeter, on 26 July 2009, at 6:31 am, said:

Jim,

Actually, my students are F2F together (in Michigan) for the in person part, although I am online, for our synchronous hour. Since my department currently does not offer an online curriculum, the students are physically on campus. I Skype and Breeze in to the group. For my Serious Game Design class, they meet in a lab. For the Design Research class, they meet in a classroom.

However, I do entertain a mixed blended mode for those who live relatively far from campus. Students have the option of coming in person, or coming electronically.

It depends on the class composition each semester, but typically either all or most are F2F in the traditional sense, except that the instructor telecommutes.

C

encounters: ideas that go bump

Jim Shimabukuro, on 26 July 2009, at 8:05 am, said:

Thanks for the clarification, Carrie. I should’ve remembered this from your earlier articles Online Hybrid as Asynchronous, Co-present, and Remote and Adventures in Hybrid Teaching: The First Day Is the Hardest. Your courses are, indeed, unique. Still, the fact that you’re in San Francisco and the students are in Michigan tells me that the course is theoretically fully online — and the only major physical difference with other online classes is that the students happen to regularly gather in the same place at the same time, F2F, for sessions. They could just as easily be scattered throughout the world for instruction to occur, with their peer-to-peer interactions occurring virtually instead of F2F. However, I do realize that the students’ in-person interactions on site are qualitatively different from virtual interactions.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Harry Keller, on 26 July 2009, at 1:16 pm, said:

Carrie, I still think you’ve got the right idea. The tools may be incomplete, but the direction is good. The real advantage for young people to go to universities lies in getting away from their home towns, meeting diverse people, making friendships that will be useful in the future, and stuff like that. As our network tools mature, those goals also may be achievable in online settings.

The courses are just an excuse these days because you can learn course content without “being there.” You may even learn it better.

I went to an atypical school and have to carefully avoid using my own experience as a guide most of the time. I did not obtain the advantages I listed above because: I lived at home; everyone was a nerd and most were white males, and I maintained contact with none of my schoolmates. I am ready to be corrected if I have misread the more usual university environment.

Computers in the Classroom Can Be Boring

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

The headline of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week caught my attention: “‘Teach Naked’ Effort Strips Computers from Classrooms.” The article, posted on July 20, 2009, is written by Jeffrey Young and is actually called “When Computers Leave the Classroom, So Does Boredom.”

Young writes that, according to studies, students think lectures and labs depending on computer technology are less interesting than those relying on discussion and interaction. PowerPoint presentations (one of the main areas of complaint), for example, are often used as a replacement for transparencies shown on an overhead projector and make no substantive difference in lesson delivery. An effective use of video technology should be to spark discussion and not be a replacement for a lecture.

Young says students also complain that these interactive classes require more effort than lectures. He says that students who are used to the lecture model are often resistant to this type of participatory learning. I can attest to this from my own computer lab with 1990's computers round a central tableexperience. I teach my face-to-face classes seminar-style with small group and large group activities and discussion. I will never forget one student telling me, “Instead of all this group stuff, why don’t you just tell us what you want us to know.” (Unfortunately, that student is now a teacher who probably lectures to his students.)

Despite its title, the article is not insisting that all technology and all computers should be thrown out of the classroom. It is making the point that the way technology is used in the classroom needs to be reassessed and changed so that it is not just being used to replicate the traditional modes of delivery.

Many of the authors in this journal have advocated just such changes (most recently, Judith Sotir in Two Steps Forward . . . Several Back and Judith McDaniel in What Students Want and How to Design for It: A Reflection on Online Teaching). As McDaniel pointed out, we need to “design for a structure that challenges and rewards.”

I agree that this attention to design is important not only in the online environment McDaniel was referring to but also in the face-to-face classroom with or without technology. As Young says, with stiff competition from online courses, face-to-face courses need to engage students so that they see a reason for being in the classroom.

Needed – A Professional Approach to Teaching

adsit80By John Adsit
Staff Writer

I approach the subject of Rhee and the reactions of the teaching “profession” with a sadness bordering on despair for I enter a battlefield on which I have often fought. My few small victories pale in comparison with my many painful defeats.

I put “profession” in quotations because I am not sure teaching can be called a profession. In what other profession can its members practice with no training whatsoever, as happens frequently at the college level? In what other profession can its members start with basic training and learn nothing new over a 40 year career, as frequently happens at the K-12 level? If a doctor were to start bleeding patients rather than use the results of the latest medical research, he or she would be hauled before a medical tribunal, but in education ignoring research results is the norm.

adsitdec1508Nearly 20 years ago I was a highly regarded teacher. Although I was somewhat innovative, I used a largely traditional approach, imitating the best of those who had in turn taught me. All my graduate work was in my content area so I had little education training beyond my initial certification. One day I was sent to a workshop introducing a very different educational approach. Most of what I heard sounded perfectly wrong, and I was close to dismissing it.

I was intrigued by some points, though, that made me fear some of my practices might be harmful to student learning. I took some of the more interesting ideas back to my classroom and gave them a go. I first completely changed some of my favorite lessons into authentic learning projects, and I started experimenting with a mastery learning assessment process at the same time. (For more on the “mastery learning assessment process,” see my earlier article, “Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes.” In upcoming articles, I’ll delve deeper into these approaches.) The level of immediate success was shocking. I implemented one change after another and watched student achievement soar beyond my wildest dreams until I was a complete convert.

One year I had more students get top scores (5) on the AP exam than all the other AP teachers in the school combined had students pass (3). I also taught a remedial writing class, and its average score on the district writing assessment was higher than most of the regular classes. Despite objective measures of success, my colleagues angrily accused me of lowering standards because so many of my students were getting A’s and B’s! I was not teaching the right way, the way teaching had always been done.

When I was brought into the central administration to help teach these methodologies, I became an education literature junkie, learning many things that the general education community evidently does not wish to know. Longitudinal studies, for example, have shown that some teachers have significantly superior student achievement than their colleagues in the same school, year after year, and some teachers have consistently poorer student achievement, year after year. If an elementary student is blessed with three consecutive years of good teaching, his or her achievement scores will be about 50 percentile points higher than a student cursed by three consecutive years of poor teaching. The most effective and least effective methods of instruction have been identified. Processes by which whole schools can be turned from failure to success are known.

adsitdec1508bNone of this is a secret. All of the nation’s top theorists are largely in agreement. Outline the main concepts before a meeting of district curriculum leaders, and they, too, will nod in agreement.

But talk about it in a meeting at the school level, and you’ll be lucky to get out alive.

Only a few weeks ago I watched a school leader outline the steps her school would take to improve its miserable failure rate, and I saw the same failed ideas that have been used for decades. I asked if they were planning to investigate the latest research on successful schools, and she said no, they were sticking with “tried and true” methods.  I was reminded of how George Washington’s doctors bled about half of the total blood volume from the choking ex-president  (the tried and true cure) and refused to allow another doctor to perform a new procedure, the tracheotomy that might have saved his life[1].

Change can happen. Individual teachers can change instructional methods and vastly improve student achievement. Schools can adopt processes that have been proven successful. This will not happen, though, as long as the majority of educators stick with the “tried and true” methods that have brought us to where we are today. This will not happen until education becomes a true profession, with members who view the educational process as worthy of study in and of itself.

Green Computing: How to Reduce Our Personal Carbon Footprints

thompson80By John Thompson
Staff Writer
22 November 2008

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” That quote sounds quite timely as President-elect Obama made “green energy” part of his vision for America’s future, including using clean energy as an engine to create millions of new “green collar” jobs. So over the course of the 2008 presidential campaign, the general public has heard about his vision for clean energy and should be primed for that issue to be addressed in his new administration. But apart from what government and business can and should do to address the energy situation, what can and should individuals do to support this initiative? Specifically, what can individual computer users do to reduce their personal carbon footprints?

However, it seems somewhat self-defeating to embark on new, costly initiatives to reduce energy costs without also first examining ways in which we can make cost saving adjustments on the personal level. With over 300 million people in the USA, if each person, or even each office or household, made a conscious effort to examine his or her own use of energy, it would seem that the multiplier effect of millions of small daily changes would yield significant results on a national scale. What are some changes that individuals can make to support green computing and reduce their technology carbon footprints? Let’s look at some ways to start making a difference by picking just a few low-hanging fruits.

thompson01Power management. Keep computers and printers turned off unless you’re using them. Or at least set computer and monitor power management controls to enter low power “sleep” mode when your system is not actively in use. And while a PC does use some power in sleep mode, it’s very small—maybe 10% of what’s needed when it’s running at full power. Also, cut down on the time a computer operates unattended before it goes into sleep mode. The US Department of Energy estimates that a PC wastes up to 400 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year just by functioning at full power even though it’s not being used. Dell reportedly has saved almost $2 million and avoided 11,000 tons of CO2 emissions in one year through a global power-management initiative that calls for its employees to say “nighty-night” daily to their PCs by changing the power management setup so their PCS enter sleep mode each night.

E-mail. Look at our use of e-mail, which continues to explode. Personally, a quick count shows that I have sent close to 400 personal and business-related e-mails this month, and there’s still a week left in the month. And that number is a small fraction of the hundreds that I receive each day and of the estimated several hundred billion sent daily worldwide. Use e-mail to minimize paper use, but don’t routinely print them. Add a message at the bottom of your e-mails requesting that recipients save paper by thinking twice before printing them off their screens. I’ve seen administrators who have their administrative assistants print out all e-mails so they can read and maybe reply to them. Suggest outsourcing your organization’s e-mail to Gmail as Google probably runs its data centers much more economically and greener than you do. And switching can generate cost savings and maybe increased e-mail features for users.

Online learning. By clicking to enter your course instead of driving to campus you do away with commuting and parking hassles while also eliminating your car exhaust emissions. A 2005 report on the environmental impact of providing higher education courses found, “on average, the production and provision of the distance learning courses consumed nearly 90% less energy and thompson02produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions” (p. 4). Online courses also typically reduce paper use since traditional classroom courses still use large amounts of paper (e.g., handouts). Unless your instructor assigns a textbook (many of the online courses I teach have not used a print text in years), everything is digital through e-mail or using the Internet. So if you have a choice between taking a college course in a traditional campus setting or accessing your course from work or home, consider the online choice. No campus presence equates to less energy use, but be sure to use the power management settings on your computer system and resist the temptation to print out all your online reading assignments.

All these suggestions sound doable to most folks. In addition, there are many other simple ways to reduce your personal energy use. But we aren’t talking about going totally “green” and parking your car and walking everywhere. We’re simply looking at ways you—the person reading this blog online right now—can start making a small but significant difference.

Then why are most of these simple strategies not being implemented? Why are computer users not seeking to achieve the TBL—triple bottom line (economic, environmental and social)—and save money, help protect the environment, and do what’s right for society? Is it strictly an “I didn’t know” reason, or are there other obvious and not so obvious reasons that individuals are not taking personal responsibility to reduce their own carbon footprints? Is this a nation (world?) of people with little awareness of these small yet effective changes or just plain lazy folks waiting for government and business to light the light and lead us to reduced energy consumption? What do you think?

Oh, that opening quotation? That’s from Thomas Edison—in 1931. One would hope that there is more progress on sustainable energy in the near future than in the past 77 years.  Don’t leave it up to government or your boss. Little things YOU can do can make a big difference. Making small, almost seemingly insignificant changes can yield huge cumulative results. Green computing is just a change of habit.