July 22, 2014

COHERE conference on blended learning

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A distinguished panel discussed the topic: 'If blended learning is so good, why aren't we all doing it?'

I was privileged to be the key speaker at a conference organized by Canada’s Collaboration for Online Higher Education and Research (COHERE) and the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education (CSSHE), on the topic of blended learning. The conference provided an invaluable insight into the status and direction of online and blended learning in Canada.

My first keynote was entitled ‘Meeting the challenge of technology: are we failing as managers?’ Based mainly on my book with Albert Sangrà, I argued that we needed to do much better in institutional leadership, faculty training and institutional governance if universities and colleges are to leverage technology to improve learning outcomes, to increase flexible access and blended learning, and improve to productivity. I argued that the appropriate management of technology was essential for innovation in teaching and moving towards more blended, flexible and lifelong learning, and suggested some strategies both to improve the management of learning technologies, and to strengthen innovation in teaching.

This was followed by a day of 20 parallel sessions with speakers from 15 different institutions, mainly demonstrating individual blended learning initiatives within these institutions. One of the most interesting sessions was presented by Anastasia Kulpa of Grant MacEwan University, who talked about the design of a game-based approach to teaching Sociology 101. It raised importance issues such as how to engage and assess students in a blended learning environment. This and the many other excellent presentations can all be accessed via the COHERE Dropbox. (You will need an invitation from Stacey Woods: woodss@extended.umanitoba.ca)

On the second day, my second keynote was on the topic: ‘Designing university and college teaching to meet the needs of 21st century students.’ I argued that now all instructors have a decision to make about where on the continuum from face-to-face to fully online teaching they should be, and suggested some criteria for making this decision, and in particular how to decide what should be done online and what face-to-face. I asked also who should make this decision: individual instructors, program teams or the administration? I suggested that these decisions should be made at the program level, involving all instructors in a program. I then looked at how web 2.0 tools are the key to successful blended learning and the pedagogies that should underpin blended learning design. I then suggested two examples of what advanced online learning design might look like, and ended by calling on all participants to go back and make at least one new course design.

This session was followed by a lively panel that discussed the topic: “If blended learning is such a promising practice in higher education why aren’t we all doing it?”.  The conference finished with a brief wrap-up from me where I made the following points:

1. For most institutions, the challenge is not which direction to go with blended and online learning, but implementation. Leadership and incentives for change are often lacking. Faculty themselves (in universities at least) however control the key incentive for change – the criteria for tenure and promotion. Research still dominates over teaching, so the question has to be asked: can universities and colleges make the necessary changes without substantial external pressure for change?

2. As central centres to support faculty teaching with technology grow in size, the question needs to be asked: what is the most cost-effective way to develop quality blended learning: mandatory training in post-secondary teaching at the post-graduate level; or developing a parallel profession of more poorly paid and lower status pedagogical and technology specialists to support subject matter experts who lack modern teaching expertise?

3. It’s the learning, stupid! COHERE and CSSHE are to be commended for focusing on research in blended learning. In particular Canada lacks essential national, provincial and institutional benchmarking data about the extent and direction of blended and online learning; we need better guidelines, criteria or theory about what is best done on campus when students can learn as well online; and we need more case-studies that identify best practices, and the ‘institutional ecology’ that will enable blended and online learning to thrive. The conference helped participants to move forward on all these fronts.

Follow-up

1. The keynote presentations have been video recorded and will eventually be available through the COHERE web site. Watch this site for an announcement when they are available.

2. In the meantime, the slides of my two presentations are available via Dropbox. Just send me an e-mail requesting either: the COHERE management slides and/or the COHERE teaching slides.

3. Contact Stacey Woods woodss@extended.umanitoba.ca for abstracts or slides of the parallel sessions.

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