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Spinning Challenges into Increased Impact: The UCF Blended Learning Toolkit

Editor’s Note: This guest blog, written by Kelvin Thompson, assistant director of the Center for Distributed Learning at the University of Central Florida, chronicles UCF’s work introducing faculty to blended learning through The Blended Learning Toolkit, an NGLC Wave I project.  UCF launched its second open online course on blended learning last week. (BlendKit2012 continues for five weeks and participants can dive in at any time.)  Registration, which is free and open to all, is online at: http://bit.ly/blendkit

By Kelvin Thompson, University of Central Florida

The University of Central Florida (UCF), represented by co-principal investigator Dr. Tom Cavanagh, in concert with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), represented by co-principal investigator Dr. George Mahaffey, received a Wave I Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) grant to distribute proven blended learning practices to faculty designing new courses at AASCU institutions; or as one colleague observed wryly, “Ron Popeil (of infomercial Ronco fame) meets the Home Shopping Network.” The project started with 20 partnering AASCU institutions that identified new blended learning courses (particularly English composition and college algebra) targeted at low-income students under the age of 26. The focal point of this effort has been a publicly accessible, web-based resource called The Blended Learning Toolkit containing summaries of blended learning best practices, strategies, models, and course design principles; two open educational resource (OER) prototype blended learning courses in composition and algebra; blended learning faculty development resources; and  assessment and data collection protocols for blended learning, including survey instruments and standards.

Faculty Development Challenges
With the 20 partnering institutions across eleven US states each identifying multiple participating faculty who would develop new blended learning courses, many of them during summer 2011 in time for a fall term 2011 implementation, there were obvious concerns about faculty availability and motivation for participating in faculty development during the summer months. Initially, we relied exclusively on the existing subject matter-specific faculty development courses for blended learning approaches to algebra and composition developed and facilitated by UCF faculty members Dr. Tammy Muhs and Dr. Elizabeth Wardle respectively. However, it became apparent quickly that more than one-third of participating faculty were developing courses other than English composition or college algebra, necessitating a subject matter-neutral faculty development option.

Solution:  BlendKit2011
As part of the Blended Learning Toolkit, we conceptualized a sub-section of the website, dubbed “the BlendKit Course,” which,  as the website says, is “a set of subject matter neutral, open educational resources related to blended learning available for self-study or for group use.”  The goal of the BlendKit Course is to provide faculty with practical assistance in designing and developing blended learning courses from general consideration of design issues through guidance with implementation logistics. The BlendKit Course contains a five-chapter reader (with discussion guide) on blended learning topics; a series of do-it-yourself task guides; recorded interviews with veteran blended learning faculty; and a set of traditional instructional modules. In order to better meet the needs of faculty participating in the UCF/AASCU NGLC project, we formed around the BlendKit Course materials an open, online course with a variety of participation options.  An open, online course allowed us to combine participating project faculty with faculty and designers outside the project who also had an interest in blended learning. As a result, there would be a greater likelihood of project faculty having others with whom to interact and a greater likelihood that the project faculty would engage with the materials in order to develop their blended learning courses. We named this open, online course BlendKit2011.

How It Worked
BlendKit2011 was designed, based upon research findings and best practice literature on previous open, online courses, to provide a low pressure, easy access, supportive environment for potential participants to focus on blended learning. For instance, while social networking and blogging were encouraged as interaction venues, all communications were routed through email as a lowest common denominator technology.  Given reports of mid-course drop-offs in participation in previous open, online courses of even eight weeks in duration (Wendy Drexler, personal communication, May 23, 2011), we decided to limit the course duration to five weeks in an effort to sustain engagement.

While participants were encouraged to “come and go” as needed during the five summer weeks of BlendKit2011, we established a weekly rhythm to provide consistency for those persisting and an easy (re-)orientation for those joining or rejoining while the course was underway. Participants received an email each Monday introducing the theme of the week and pointing to the various ways in which they might wish to engage in the course.  At the end of the week, the topic was wrapped up in a 30 minute webinar featuring a tightly focused practitioner interview and opportunity for live question and answer. (The webinars were archived for access by participants unavailable during the synchronous meeting time.) During the week, participants were encouraged to engage with topical readings, interact with other participants via social networking, and work on hands-on course design/development tasks.  An RSS feed of the interactions was channeled to all registered participants in a “daily digest” email message.

While the total number of faculty participating in the NGLC project from the 20 partnering AASCU institutions was less than 150, and these schools were concentrated in the eastern United States, nearly 200 individuals from throughout the US, Canada, and several other countries registered for BlendKit2011. (Interestingly, in addition to AASCU project faculty developing non-composition/non-algebra courses, several of the composition/algebra faculty participated in both the subject matter-specific faculty development courses and BlendKit2011.) More than half of BlendKit2011 participants were unaffiliated with any of the 20 partnering AASCU institutions.  In responses to a questionnaire at the end of BlendKit2011, 62% of respondents said they had never taught a blended learning course, while 81% noted they were currently developing a blended learning course or would be within the year. Seventy-nine percent of respondents said BlendKit2011 aided in the development of their next blended learning course, and 74% said that BlendKit211 had helped in making them more comfortable with blended learning.

A number of participants indicated that the flexibility of an open, online course allowed them to participate in and benefit from this professional development opportunity:

  • “I would likely have had to postpone [or] defer participation in Blendkit2011 if it was more regimented.”
  • “I liked the opportunity to listen to the podcasted sessions after the fact. Downloading them insured that I could listen on my iPod. They were short enough to keep my attention and thorough enough to provide information.”
  • I missed the live session Mon[day] but the recorded session was great. I got some good ideas for my fall class from the week one readings…. . I have been able to distill my thoughts so far into 6 outcomes/goals for this fall's class. I'm eager to "try them out" with the group. Without your stimulus I would not be here yet.
  • “The access of other's questions and thoughts from around the country was valuable in that it brought about many new ideas for my course design.”
  • “It was tied to real activities, things that I needed to do for my blended course even though I didn't always realize beforehand that I needed to do them.”

Additionally, BlendKit2011 has spun off an occasionally meeting “Blended Learning Support Group” which uses a virtual meeting room to share challenges in blended learning design and teaching and to brainstorm solutions. Also, an ad hoc email list of faculty developers in four countries working on faculty development for blended learning has emerged from the connections made during BlendKit2011.

This ancillary off-shoot of the UCF/AASCU NGLC project has become an unexpected vehicle for rapid scale and impact. Challenges have given rise to opportunities.

What Next?
The OER BlendKit Course materials remain online, licensed for re-mixing under a Creative Commons license and see regular usage. This fall, community members are invited to participate in a free Blendkit Course facilitated by Kelvin and Dr. Linda Futch.  BlendKit2012 adds five weeks of facilitation in the form of regular email communications, weekly webinars with guest presenters, and blogging/social networking interaction opportunities. Registration, which is free and open to all, is online at: http://bit.ly/blendkit

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