Friday, May 16, 2014

Blended Learning

This summer, I will serve as a teaching assistant for an online course offered through SJMC. The course, J162: Mass Media in Multicultural America, is designed to provide first or second year college students with a cultural and historical overview of minority experiences in the United States, and allow them to investigate how these minorities are portrayed in mainstream mass media. Students will be able to take this course from anywhere in the world, as it is self-paced and wholly online. Speaking with Dr. Hemant Shah about the online version of this course has provided insight into some of its benefits for student learning, such as the time for students to self-reflect on an important and often difficult topic. In fact, Dr. Shah pointed out that student writing over the summer is usually excellent and thoughtful.

In terms of teaching benefits, the online course offers professors the opportunity to convert lecture notes into readable e-text. Although the process of conversion can be onerous and time-consuming, once it is completed, the text can then be used repeatedly with minor tweaks. This is a great way to ensure that the knowledge amassed over the years in the form of handwritten notes and personal musings is now legible to a wider audience.

One of my own concerns for e-learning is its self-paced nature. Remembering my own experiences as an undergraduate, I know it is difficult to feel compelled to complete readings when there are no designated class times and no need to prepare for in-person discussions. Particularly when engaging with a potentially difficult topic such as race, it seems that in-person interaction may provide important opportunities for students to hear different perspectives that are humanized because of face-to-face interactions. 

That is why I am excited for the blended learning, or hybrid, version of the course offered this coming fall. The blended learning approach means the bulk of the course will be offered online, but will be supplemented by several in-person sessions, including an orientation session, office hours with the professor and TAs before papers are due, and potentially, a final exam session. The fall course differs from the summer, because all students will be present on UW-Madison’s campus. This geographical proximity offers interesting teaching opportunities – meeting with students one-on-one during office hours to grapple with difficult concepts and the potential for students to meet with one another face-to-face, which means online discussions could carry over to offline interactions. 

Based on a cursory search for blended learning at UW-Madison, the engineering school seems to embrace the blended approach. This makes sense, because there is often a lot of hands-on group work involved in engineering education. However, a similar approach in the humanities and social sciences may provide students with the same kinds of benefits: more opportunities for student engagement because it is easy to track participation in online discussions. In addition, faculty engagement with the course may also increase, as they have more time to read and reflect on students’ writing. It seems that the blended learning approach provides opportunities to enhance both teaching and learning. I look forward to engaging with this approach in the fall!           

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