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 Sociology, Calculus, and Classics, as well as the broader faculty-wide planning, support, and research context.
Professor Rob Beamish in the Sociology Department has taught first-year Sociology for the past 10 years, and during this time, has moved towards a blended learning approach with the gradual introduction of technology for teaching and learning.
Dr. Beamish’s first integration of technology involved putting his lectures on the website; these later formed the basis of a textbook. His next initiative focused on putting PowerPoint slides on the web, but as the learning management system of the time was not able to integrate music, video, and images, he used these resources in class. With the introduction of the Blended Learning Initiative at Queen’s, he decided to approach the combination of online and face-to-face learning more systematically.
The first-year Sociology course is built around two texts written by Professor Beamish; the one for first-term is available and undergoing revision, while the second-term text has just been completed. The first chapter of the first-term book, The Social Imagination, focuses on the Millennial Generation, talking about the digital skills they have and moving them into understanding the expectations of the university and the new skills that will be necessary. Their capacity for multi-tasking is recognized; at the same time, they are encouraged to slow down and become more sophisticated, selective, and critical information gatherers, as well as more engaged in their learning.
The texts are almost entirely black and white; the images and sounds are in the online content as a way of drawing students into the course and the text.
The key content of the course is online and includes:
- Short, narrated PowerPoint lectures, often with embedded video and additional PowerPoint slides without narration. All slides can have notes added and be printed.
- Linked to the text are a series of systematic reading activity study guides that clearly outline activities and expectations. For example, a requirement to read pages 67 to 92 of the text provides specific instructions such as:
- Pages 67 – 70 to be read as background, for broad themes and key vocabulary.
- Pages 70 – 73 cover German idealism, which can be difficult. Here are three questions to guide your reading.
- Each online module is divided so that the students have three working sessions, concluding with review questions. These can be used as study guides, with the final exam consisting of multiple choice questions based on these reviews.
On a weekly basis, students are expected to do the online work from Monday to Wednesday, so they are prepared for the face-to-face meetings.
In the blended learning model, the small group sessions play an essential role in supporting and extending information learned online. One-hour tutorials engage students in interaction and active learning focused on applications and higher-order understanding of the content. In order to make these sessions as effective as possible, detailed weekly scripts have been developed for the teaching assistants. For example, the students are divided into two groups – one of which takes hand-written notes while the other inputs notes to laptops during a discussion on Millennials and education. The students report on the discussion, at the same time considering the impact of the two forms of note taking on the learning process. In this, they learn not only about Sociology but about their own best practices for learning, a skill with long-term benefits.
Lecture classes used to be held for 450 students; with the blended model, they are divided into groups of 135 who meet once a week on Thursday or Friday for one hour. Student attendance is higher than it was at previous lectures; they are expected to listen actively as Dr. Beamish goes over more difficult concepts in the week’s modules and to respond to his questions. In many cases, when students do not know the answer, he will suggest they Google it.
Outcomes and Benefits
Formalizing the learning objectives in the blended and online learning approaches has led Professor Beamish to “re-think how the learning objects and materials are in tune, which works as a continual refresher on what I want to achieve.”
Throughout the course, the students learn about and practice library skills, research, annotation, and writing, all leading to the completion of a final term paper. They take advantage of tools such as the online library tutorials.
Challenges and Enhancements
To Professor Beamish, the biggest challenge is having the students manage their time effectively in order to be on top of the material.
Although the students often see themselves as “digital sophisticates”, it is still necessary to take them through the course layout and processes, with considerable additional coaching needed. Time and effort is required so the university can capitalize on the skills of the Millennials – and the Miilennials can learn to take advantage of what the university offers.
Getting the assignments right in order to lead the students to the production of a high-quality term paper has been an ongoing challenge for the 10 years he has been teaching the course: Dr. Beamish hopes that “maybe I will have it right after 11 years.”
With the revisions of the first-term text, Dr. Beamish will also revise the PowerPoint slides, making sure each one is linked with the reading activity student guide. This is already in place for the second-term text.
A possible change to the PowerPoint format could be the use of Prezi, presentation software that allows the integration of images, graphs, and videos. A change of format between the modules could be a way of maintaining engagement and high levels of interest.
Offering the course as a fully online option, Dr. Beamish is using BlackBoard Collaborate for online tutorials so that he can understand the experience, and make the online and face-to-face sessions as similar as possible.
For Further Information
Dr. Rob Beamish
Department Head and Associate Professor
Department of Sociology
Faculty of Arts and Science