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 Faculty of Arts and Science Blended Learning Initiative (BLI) 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 this broader look at the faculty-wide planning, support, and research context.
Two recent documents have set the context for both blended and online learning at Queen’s. The first, the Senate Academic Planning Taskforce on Virtualization and Online Learning, in April 2013, recognizes that “the issue of online learning is far more complex than it had seemed, reaching into areas such as course quality, curriculum planning, staffing, resource allocation, unit autonomy, and academic freedom.” The Taskforce states that the research found that online learning is at least as good as traditional approaches and concludes that: “We would like to see the passion associated with the debate about online learning move away from the technology and move toward promoting evidence-based practices to improve course quality throughout the university.”
Several of the recommendations of the 2014 Teaching and Learning Action Plan, with the mandate of proposing specific sustainable initiatives and processes to enhance the student learning experience, have implications for online and blended learning. A revised Centre for Teaching and Learning would provide “a seamless interface with educational technology to support technology-enhanced learning (including face-to-face, blended, online, and distance education delivery modes).” Particular emphasis would be put on providing university-wide support for online learning, including resources for course development, for professional development, technology enhancements such as a single portal, and encouragement for scholarly development and dissemination.
With a core objective of enhancing student learning, the Blended Learning Initiative has grown significantly since its inception in 2011, and research has shown that it is effective in reaching this goal. There are now 10 high-enrolment first- and second-year courses available in blended format, with 5 more in development. About 9,000 students have taken a blended course, offered in Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, Psychology, Sociology, Geography, Gender Studies, Classics, Drama, and soon, History. Key characteristics include:
Course Design: According to the quality standards for blended learning, course designs are to be student-centred and feature:
- Active learning and small-group activities in the classroom, what Dr. Brenda Ravenscroft, Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Arts and Science, describes as “the heart of the course”;
- Online materials include text, graphics, videos, simulations, interactive media, and other resources appropriate to the subject matter to deliver content, provide guidance through the text, and verify comprehension, so that the classroom time is used for applying, integrating, and synthesizing the information;
- Course design based on pedagogical research; and
- Fewer classroom hours, balanced by online learning hours.
Team Approach to Development: Instructors apply for BLI funding to re-design their course in blended format and, if chosen, are supported by instructional designers, educational technologists who help with getting the content online, a liaison librarian who brings in open source material and deals with copyright issues, and other staff in such areas as the Registrar’s Office.
Department Support: Each department ensures that the course is supported as a sustainable initiative offered over a number of years. In some cases, more than one professor may teach the course to different sections of students or in different years. Each course also goes through the faculty curricular approval process.
Long-term Assessment: The Faculty of Arts and Science designed an assessment study that looks at student engagement and learning in each course – in its traditional format and after it is re-designed. Each course will be researched over a five-year period. The research is based on CLASSE, the Classroom Survey of Student Engagement, a classroom level adaptation of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).
Student Survey Results: One consistent result of student surveys in courses converted to the blended format has been improvement in student engagement and active learning – in every course. In addition, student responses indicate statistically significant increases in faculty-student interactions and activities that promote higher order thinking skills.
Blended, Blended Learning: A blended, and very flexible, Introductory Statistics course, launching in September 2014, combines different Introductory Statistics courses from departments including Biology, Geography, Kinesiology, Sociology, and Nursing. The conceptual information is offered online, along with adaptive learning exercises from Carnegie Mellon’s Acrobatiq. Students from every discipline use these resources and self-tests, with results conveyed to each professor’s learning analytics dashboard. This information can be used to adjust the face-to-face lectures and small group activities, and to provide feedback and support to struggling students. In the Teaching Assistant-led small group sessions, applications and examples related to specific disciplines can be addressed. The lectures are optional, but offer students a review of key concepts and a focus on difficult topics. This model not only changes student learning, but also brings together traditionally separate departments in joint development and delivery.
Outcomes and Benefits
There are indications of a gradual cultural change within the university. When the project started in 2011, a majority of faculty, instructors, staff, and administrators were unfamiliar with blended learning and had little idea of what it might offer. In 2014, there is a much greater awareness of blended, and online, learning. In addition, the variety of models in which technology has been integrated into learning has led to a greater appreciation of its potential.
The inclusion of online and blended learning as core components of strategic documents, such as the Teaching and Learning Action Plan, indicates that technology-enhanced learning is no longer a peripheral activity, but a key contributor to how the university supports student engagement and active learning. At the same time, reports such as the Senate Academic Planning Taskforce on Virtualization and Online Learning, underline the key fact that the medium is not the focus, active learning for students is.
Three classrooms have been modified into active learning spaces, with varying levels of access to technology. A process of applying to use the space is being put in place for the Winter 2015 opening.
Enrolment in each blended course has increased 10-20% due to the change in format, better meeting student demands.
Challenges and Enhancements
Despite increased awareness and acceptance, both blended and online learning still meet with some resistance and misunderstanding.
The Blended Learning Initiative has the capacity to fund course development for one more year. The research study, which gathers five years of data on each course, will continue. Faculty are already using data from these studies as part of their conference presentations and papers, expanding their areas of research from their subject fields to include the field of teaching and learning.
Queen’s University was awarded funding for the development of 13 courses – 12 in Arts and Science and 1 in Engineering – from the recent competition associated with the Ontario Online initiative. This is the highest number of courses from any one institution, among the 60 courses that received funding.
For Further Information
Dr. Brenda Ravenscroft
Teaching and Learning
Associate Professor, Music
Faculty of Arts and Science