What We Learned at the Sloan C Blended Learning Conference

Convergence in downtown Milwaukee this week went beyond beer and brats: the tenth-anniversary edition of the Sloan Blended Learning Conference and Workshop brought together faculty members, researchers, administrators, and instructional designers most directly concerned with the ways in which they can integrate face-to-face and online learning environments to improve outcomes for today’s students. NGLC was there, both to learn and to offer a featured session on our December 2012 paper that explored the design and implementation work across the projects seeking to meet the blended learning challenge of NGLC’s Wave I, “Building Blocks for College Completion.”  Linda Futch, University of Central Florida, co-presented with NGLC staff in the session, providing the institutional perspective from one of those projects, UCF’s “Expanding Blended Learning through Tools and Campus Programs.”

Scaling, whether internal to a campus or across multiple institutions, was a theme not only in the NGLC presentation, but in a variety of the other sessions. For instance, in “Learning by Example: Common Challenges and How to Solve Them,” Susan White and Karen Hallows of the University of Maryland discussed their department’s progress from a small pilot of blended courses to a semi-blended model and, this fall, to a full program of blended learning. One key essential in scaling up for them was to expand student support, yet do so affordably: they have hired many undergraduate learning assistants to support the full program launching this fall. Several of the overarching issues they faced in scaling their program internally were similar to those that UCF and other Wave I innovators encountered: identifying the right models for training, engaging faculty, and countering student resistance to self-managed active learning.

Beyond these challenges looms the question of how to measure the effectiveness of a new approach – magnified when multiple campuses are involved. In Scaling Blended Learning Evaluation Beyond the University, Patsy Moskal, also of University of Central Florida, shared the work that she led in collecting outcomes data from 20 member campuses of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) that partnered with UCF and offered new blended courses (217 in all, over the course of the project). Dr. Moskal pointed out the evaluation resources that are part of UCF’s Blended Learning Toolkit. She discussed the support that she provided to the individual assessment coordinators at each campus as they worked with their institutional review boards. While some innovators view IRBs with trepidation, Dr. Moskal sees the IRB staff as facilitators with deep knowledge of evaluation practices and encourages others, such as the coordinators, to adopt a similar attitude in working with their IRBs. Working on the inter-institutional assessment led her to consider the issues of sharing of data more generally. It raises questions of increasing interest and urgency as learning analytics provides more information across institutions and across sectors: how much data should we collect and keep? How, in higher education, can we take better advantage of opportunities to share and utilize all the data that we collect about students?

The plenary panel Research in Blended Learning: Where are we now? and what are the future challenges and needs? saw a lively exchange moderated by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Marc Parry among four contributors to a book that will see publication later this year, Blended Learning: Research Perspectives Volume 2. This session, along with the following session Scholarship Trends in Blended Learning  that presented an analysis of recent scholarship in the field from Brigham Young University, together made it clear that blended learning, as an area of inquiry, does not yet rest on a solid base of theory. Charles R. Graham, Brigham Young University, noted that theory is important because it allows us to give direction to our practice and to our inquiry. Another panelist, George Mehaffy of AASCU, identified himself as a “consumer” of research and said that, for AASCU member institutions, “blended” courses occupy a useful middle ground between each institution creating its own version of the same course and the one-size-fits-all monolith of the MOOC approach. He cited four virtues in the move to blended learning:

  • It requires instructors to think really carefully about what only they can  do and what can be done better by someone else
  • It shifts attention to students and learning, away from the traditional focus on faculty and teaching
  • It enables institutions to get meaningful, detailed data on student progress
  • It provides the first serious and wide-scale opportunity for faculty to collaborate inter-institutionally on course development.

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