The first blended learning course in the Faculty of Arts and Science at Queen’s University, in Kingston, was offered in academic year 2011-12 to encourage more active learning, especially in first-year and high-enrolment courses. The coordinated approach that Queen’s chose to implement for blended learning is described in the 2012 Pocket of Innovation entitled, Engaging First-Year Students: A Blended Learning Model for Active Learning.
The Blended Learning Initiative has continued, with blended courses being developed that respond to the content and student needs in various disciplines. Pockets of Innovation prepared in 2014 look at distinct applications of blended learning in Classics, Sociology, and Calculus, as well as the broader faculty-wide planning, support, and research context.
The Department of Classics course re-designed for blended delivery is Ancient Humour, a course available to second-year and above students without pre-requisites. Professor Drew Griffith agreed to adapt his course for blended delivery, despite being what he describes as “radically unfamiliar with the technology”, as he felt the course could attract a larger group of students. Enrolment in the face-to-face lecture course was about 400.
As Classics is no longer typically a part of high school curriculum, most students arrive at university unfamiliar with the discipline. The course in Ancient Humour offers an introduction to the Greek and Roman worlds, presenting an enticing and non-threatening focus which may lead students to enrol in more courses in the Department. Offering it in blended format extends its reach; in Fall 2013 there were 680 registrants.
The key objectives in the re-design of the Ancient Humour course were to make it interactive and visual, indicating changes in teaching and learning style, as well as content presentation.
Starting from the textbook: Professor Griffith co-authored a textbook for his course, matching Queen’s 12-week semester with 12 chapters, each with three sections. The textbook continues to be central to information delivery, but the group learning activities and the online content have changed the nature of the delivery and the degree of student engagement.
Online content: As part of the Blended Learning Initiative in the Faculty of Arts and Science, each professor is teamed with an instructional designer to help with the course transition. Dr. Griffith worked with Rick Nigol, who suggested making the course more visual by using narrated PowerPoint slides. The search for visual resources involved not only the professor and instructional designer, but also a librarian who helped with searching and copyright, as well as other Queen’s staff trained to meet other technological and design challenges. The resulting lectures range from 10 to 15 minutes in length, with one lecture per week, and each lecture divided into three parts. Lecture scripts are also available to students.
As part of the content of each lecture, two assignments are outlined, which are then completed in the small group sessions.
Small group sessions: The active learning focuses on the comparison of the humour of the Greeks and Roman with contemporary humour, so that the learning becomes relevant to students’ lives and experiences. These sessions are facilitated by teaching assistants (TAs) guided by a detailed manual. The TAs, both Master’s students and upper-year undergraduates, are particularly effective at weaving in, and being familiar with, references to pop culture, as they are of the same generation as the students. The research comparing the traditional model with the blended model shows higher levels of student engagement in the blended format.
The students are divided into groups of 40 and assigned a weekly time slot for a 75-minute small group session. Students work in sub-groups of eight. As an example of the activities, one assignment was built around two short humorous stories from classical sources. The stories were ripped in half and various parts given to different group members, each of whom had to write the other half of what they had received and then share these first within their sub-groups, and then with the group as a whole. The objective was to demonstrate how difficult it is to write humour, a lesson with implications for both ancient and modern times.
Summation of discussions: Every week, selected students from each group session post a brief description of what was discussed. Professor Griffith then synthesizes these into a summation for the entire class of the key points arising from the 17 small groups of 40.
Face-to-face lectures: When the course was offered in 2013, there were four-hour-long, face-to-face lectures. The first two were held at the beginning of the course, with the first one outlining how the course works and the second providing an introduction to the broad field of Classics with attendance optional for those many students for whom this was their first Classics course. The third one was held at the half-way point, and then there was a final summation. In Fall 2014, only the first two lectures will be given as attendance at the others was very low.
Assessment: The course grade is based 50% on participation in group sessions and 50% on tests. For the group sessions, 20% of the mark is for attendance, with the mark falling to 0% if a student attends 9 or fewer of the 12 sessions. The other 30% is awarded according to a rubric, with points for quantity of interventions and comfort level; demonstrating an understanding of the objectives of the activity; and interpretation and clarity. This is set up so that steady effort and participation are necessary.
There are six multiple choice tests, one every two weeks reviewing the work of the previous two weeks. Each test is online and 40 minutes long, with 10 questions revealed at a time. The use of Internet resources is allowed, even required for some questions as a way of familiarizing students with online resources for Classics. The five best scores on the six tests are added to the final mark.
Sharing of Experience: The sharing of experience with other professors experimenting with blended learning is facilitated by monthly roundtable discussions on experiences, challenges, and solutions, chaired by Brenda Ravenscroft, Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Arts and Science.
Outcomes and Benefits
Both professor and students benefitted from the re-thinking of the content necessary to re-design the course for more active learning. The students became more involved with the content and more collaborative as learners. The professor saw the content in a new way and has greatly increased his familiarity with current cultural and humour-related references.
The matching of the students with the teaching assistants greatly expanded the opportunities for finding the parallels and difference between ancient and current humour, as the two groups share exposure to TV and films, experience, and language that a different-generation professor could never replicate. The group sessions provided essential content and application of learning.
The course became available to a much wider group of students – the last face-to-face course had 400 registrants; the latest blended format offering had 680 students.
The final marks have remained relatively stable, regardless of format.
Challenges and Enhancements
The design and delivery of the course were a challenge, greatly facilitated by the support offered through the Blended Learning Initiative, such as access to an instructional designer and librarian. Creating two assignments per week for the group sessions was particularly difficult.
A number of changes have been made to the initial design based on student feedback, such as extending the time of the group sessions from 50 minutes to 75, reducing the number of face-to-face lectures, and awarding the 30 marks for active participation in the group sessions by 10 mark increments every four weeks rather than all at once at the end of the course.
The course was re-designed for both blended and fully online delivery at the same time. The online course is being offered in Spring 2014 with a different professor. The two versions were set up to be offered for six years, with only minor revisions to the online content.
For Further Information
Dr. R. Drew Griffith
Department of Classics