The goal of the University of Ottawa’s blended learning initiative is to offer 20 percent of the university’s courses in hybrid format – both online and face-to-face – by the year 2020, a development eventually impacting the studies of 25,000 of its students.
Professor James Brooke-Smith of the university’s Department of English embraces the blended education format in his Science Fiction (ENG2135) course. Designed for students to explore their relationship to media technologies through the study of science fiction literature, the course also uses technology as the vehicle through which media and technology issues are explored. The course was developed in collaboration with the university’s Centre for e-Learning with funds made available by the university through its blended learning initiative. The Centre for e-Learning (Teaching and Learning Support Service) provides expert consultation and support services to faculty members in the design, development and delivery of technology-based courses (fully online courses, blended courses, and online teaching and learning materials), as well as special projects.
Professor Brooke-Smith’s Science Fiction course is presented as an even mixture of face-to-face and online learning activities. The online classes incorporate digital videos, group discussions, mouseover activities (the use of a mouse or other device to hover over the trigger area of a graphical control element, thereby displaying additional information) and brief written assignments. The face-to face classes usually take the form of brief lectures, followed by group work during which students analyze passages from assigned text. After working in groups, students give feedback to the entire class and then enter into open debate.
Throughout the course, Professor Brooke-Smith uses the Blackboard Discussion Forum to encourage student discussion networks not directed through him, and specifically to facilitate students’ online interactive assessment of novels they are studying, such as H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
The Science Fiction course is described as an experiment in new technologies of learning, relative to both its content and form. Professor Brooke-Smith outlines the content as “the history and theory of new media, from the steam press to moving pictures to radio to television to the internet.” In regard to form, students use a variety of digital technology to present what they’ve learned from the class, which Professor Brooke-Smith says is best exemplified by the final group project.
For this final assignment, each group of students chooses a concept or text covered in the course to teach to an audience outside the university – anything from a novel such as Neuromancer to a media theory term such as “prosthesis” or “ubiquitous simulation.” Part of the exercise is to assess the relationships between different media and the content students wish to communicate. With collaboration and sharing at the forefront, group members research their topic and select an appropriate mix of digital media technology (e.g. podcast, wiki, video, slides) with which they produce an hour-long online learning tool. They also select an efficient platform for publishing their product from options such as iTunes U, YouTube, Vimeo, self-built websites and wiki sites. At intervals, groups present work-in-progress reports on their topic, script, design concept and media tools to their professor and fellow classmates.
Once the final project is finished, students individually write brief reflective essays describing their specific contributions to the project, their assessment of how well or poorly the group worked together, an assessment of their own contribution to the online learning tool, and their assessment of the online learning tool as a whole. Students are graded on their work-in-progress presentations and their individual reports, and the final project is evaluated for research, communication and pedagogy. Professor Brooke-Smith bases this assignment “on the truism you learn something best when you have to teach it to someone else.”
Outcomes and Benefits
Many of Professor Brooke-Smith’s Science Fiction students express appreciation for the opportunity to work to their own schedules and in off-campus locations for the online classes. They also enjoy using technology to reflect upon the history and theories of the media technologies they take for granted in their everyday lives.
With the implementation of blended learning, Professor Brooke-Smith relies less on the traditional essay format for final assignments, choosing instead more creative digital projects.
Challenges and Enhancements
While many students claim to enjoy the online components of the hybrid Science Fiction course, some tell Professor Brooke-Smith they regret these sessions cutting into what they consider more valuable class time, during which discussion, debate and textual analysis often produce unexpected and unplanned insights they couldn’t achieve for themselves as individual online learners. Because Professor Brooke-Smith believes a carefully structured hybrid format can have a positive impact on debate and analysis, he makes a point of planning in-class exercises requiring students to work together in groups and present their findings to each other. He considers this face-to-face, student-centered collaborative work to be “absolutely invaluable.”
While Professor Brooke-Smith believes digital pedagogy is enormously valuable, he doesn't see it as a substitute for face-to-face class time. “I do not believe traditional lectures are inherently passive or alienating. Students actively listen, respond to questions, read excerpts, have discussions, think and critique. My ideal class is 100% face-to-face with a well-designed website and lots of digital project work.”
Professor Brooke-Smith’s wish-list includes a learning management system interface as savvy as his students. “Most students are used to seamless web connectivity and super-slick design. When they come to school, they often feel they’ve travelled back 15 years in time. Design matters.”
For Further Information
Professor James Brooke-Smith
Department of English
University of Ottawa
Director, Centre for e-Learning
Teaching and Learning Support Service
University of Ottawa