Blended Learning: College Classrooms of the Future

Getting out of bed for an early morning class can be trying after a long night of studying; dreading a long walk across campus, you only wishing you could attend without having to leave your dorm. For some students this is a reality, a result of the Blended Learning Initiative instituted across several campuses, where classes are partially taught outside of the classroom online.

According to the University of Maryland Office of the Provost, a blended learning course combines both face-to-face interaction and online resources for a both individualized and collaborative learning experience.

"Culture is changing. There is a growing recognition that it is a good idea to innovate our class structure, just as we innovate our research and all other things we do," said Ben Bederson, Special Advisor to the Provost on Technology and Educational Transformation at the University of Maryland.

According to Bederson, the University of Maryland chose to initiate blended leaning options for ten courses in 2011, an effort put forth by a group of faculty and administrators who saw the potential Blended Leaning offered, especially in contrast to more ineffective lectures.

"It forces students to demonstrate that they've done the reading, and can use class time for clarifying, activity and discussion rather than introducing material for the first time," said Bederson. "It takes better advantage of the face-to-face time that we have."

Bederson acknowledged that, as the initiative expands, the diversity of experience among different blended learning classes; as a result, student feedback is mixed.

"I liked it because I had more flexibility in choosing when to do my work for the class because it was half online," said Kim Heller, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, who took freshman English as a blended learning class last year.

Sophomore Jessica Blum, who took a blended learning economics class last semester, had a wholly different perspective regarding the hybrid format.

Blum said:

Economics is definitely not a class that should be blended learning because we had this pointless online simulation on Fridays instead of a discussion--even though you didn't actually have to go to class, I feel like everyone would have really benefitted from having an economics discussion. I'm not going to take another one if I can help it because I had such a bad experience.

Overwhelmingly, students believe the blended learning format only works for a certain kind of class and a certain kind of student.

"In order to succeed in this type of class you need to be able to stay organized because there are more due dates than regular classes," said Heller, despite her positive experience with blended learning.

"I would maybe take another blended learning class depending on the subject," said sophomore Mike Siegel, who took an upper-level Spanish class at the University of Maryland last semester. "I'm already good at Spanish, so it wasn't that hard for me, but maybe for a science or economics class I would think twice."

Nonetheless, blending learning-style classes have found success on other campuses.

Data compiled by the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence and Psychology at Penn State University showed 80 percent of students said the hybrid format forced them to learn more independently after being instituted in 2007, while still putting in the same five to six hours of studying each week as a traditionally structured class required.

At Tufts University, an experimental blended learning initiative, called "connected classrooms," goes a step further, allowing students and faculty to take courses with students and faculty at other institutions in the US and abroad, according to Gina M. Siesing, Director of Educational & Scholarly Technology Services at Tufts University.

According to Siesing, Tufts University offered the course "Islam on the Indian Ocean Rim," last year, taught in tandem with a university in Pakistan. "Students worked collaboratively on course projects across the two institutions, and they benefited mutually from hearing cross-cultural perspectives on the course materials throughout the term," Siesing said.

According to Bederson, blended learning is still a relatively new innovation; initiatives as they exist now are merely the equivalent of planting a seed. "In the end, it has the potential for improving the way students learn."