Department of Management
Early adopter of blended learning and pedagogical strategies to enhance learning and engage students
The timing is right for an Innovative Teaching Showcase focused on blended learning! The subject matter is directly relevant to so many urgent conversations unfolding within the Academy. Whether it is about the variety and power of new and emerging technologies widely available to all of us, the rapidly evolving expectations and preferences of new generations of students, the rising costs of higher education, the growing competition for students among and between virtual and traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, or the fact that higher education itself has been the subject of intense critical scrutiny in recent years, the conversation will and should soon come around to blended learning.
To fully appreciate the value and promise of blended learning, I think we first have to understand that the idea of blended learning is not really new. I’ll go out on a limb in postulating that every educator in the history of formalized education has technically capitalized on some form of blended instruction, even if it only amounted to writing something on a board or having students read something on their own time as a way of complementing a traditional in-person lecture. Broadly speaking, we all have ample experience—as instructors and as students—working with and within learning environments that blend the technologies and media of the day. My hope is that this observation will help make the notion of blended learning seem more accessible and less faddish.
What’s new and exciting about “blended learning” as a method and a Showcase theme is not the blending itself, but rather the ingredients that comprise the blends and the skill with which they are blended. In the not-very-distant past, educators were relatively limited in terms of ingredients—the modes by which information could be conveyed as well as the various pedagogical tools and techniques—that were available. I say “relatively limited” to emphasize that while there may never have been a dearth of ingredients, the range of possibilities has increased seemingly exponentially in recent years due largely to the explosion of new technologies. You can get a taste of this diversity of ingredients in looking across the remarkable work of the three Featured Faculty in this year’s Showcase—Paula Dagnon, Rebekah Green, and Jerimiah Welch—and you can see much more when you look across all of Western.
Some see this diversity and seem to conclude that an adoption of the new technologies, platforms, media, and methods must come at the expense of more established practices and frameworks. Featured Faculty Rebekah Green even acknowledges in her portfolio that she once looked at it this way. But as she, others, and myself have realized, this is a narrow view. It reduces blended learning to a simplistic, formulaic blend. It fails to appreciate that what blended learning is really all about is the skillfulness and, yes, even artfulness involved in the blending — the choosing of the right mix of ingredients for a particular course and the thoughtful arranging of these ingredients within and throughout the course. I emphasize skill and art to suggest that blending is a pedagogical competency, and Dagnon, Green, and Welch serve as outstanding examples of educators who are leading the way in developing this competency.
As we can see in their examples as well as in the other great work happening across Western, competent blended learning is not about simply replacing traditional methods and tools with new ones, but rather it is about innovatively combining methods and tools in ways that enhance the value of each while also creating exciting new synergies. Competent blending also often enables the incorporation of a range of other cutting-edge approaches not typically associated with “blended learning” per se—approaches that may have previously seemed too cumbersome or impractical, particularly when resources are limited. Examples can be found within this Showcase and across other CIIA Showcases (e.g., Teaching Civic Engagement and Empowering Peer Learning).
What I see in all of this is that with the rise of blended learning comes a fundamental change in how we approach course design. Instead of simply asking “What is it that we want students to learn?” and then defaulting absentmindedly to a limited set of conventional methods, we are now in a better position to ask a second powerful question: “How can we draw on all of the tactics, tools, and technologies available to us to best facilitate and support this learning?” If we are truly open, the asking of this question will lead us to insights that become the building blocks of innovation. Sometimes those insights will lead us to conclude that a traditional method such as a face-to-face lecture is indeed the appropriate method for teaching a certain topic or triggering a particular experience. At other times, however, we will find that an out-of-class video combined with a moderated online discussion and complemented with an in-class hands-on collaborative activity is much more suited to our learning objectives. These insights can help us find new opportunities within familiar constraints such those that come with teaching a large class or working within a condensed timeframe.
I have found that critically rethinking how I teach has not only made teaching more meaningful and enlivening, but it has also led me to rethink what I teach. I see now that I have far more options than I ever previously considered, and my estimation of the potential of a single class in a single quarter has grown considerably. It is these new perspectives that have led me to conclude that our journey—as an institution and as members of the Academy—necessitates an evermore-sophisticated embrace of blended learning. This is how we will open up new possibilities for enhancing the high-quality educational experience we already provide. This is how we will further our ability to deliver inimitable value within a hypercompetitive environment. This is how we will continue to thrive in an era of uncertain and often diminishing resources. And this is how we will continue to breathe new life into our courses, our students, and ourselves.