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Blended Learning as Transformational Institutional Learning (Part 2 of 2)
The research about the effectiveness of blended learning provides a powerful jolt for campus members. Of note, a recent Inside Higher Education (2013) survey of faculty attitudes toward technology found large amounts of skepticism among faculty members about the quality of online learning. This finding of high levels of skepticism, taken out of context, raises more questions than answers. What specifically are faculty members skeptical about - the learning outcomes, the pedagogical approaches, and student engagement in online activities? And if faculty members are the instructional designers in most instances, does that mean they are skeptical about their own work as novices or the work of their colleagues? The results become clearer when we keep in mind that most faculty members who were surveyed do not actually teach online. Moreover, the survey revealed that appreciation of the quality of online courses grows with instructors' experiences teaching online. In order to achieve Fink's condition of awareness, it seems necessary to expose and deconstruct this skepticism, perhaps debunking some of the myths while also affirming some of the skepticism through defining what blended learning is and is not. Faculty members need encouragement from others and they need to "celebrate one another's success in trying something new" (Fink, 2013, p. 222). And as the Inside Higher Education survey findings suggest, faculty members who are already engaged in blended learning are critical players in creating awareness, encouraging others, and celebrating success.
Another insight into Fink's (2013) overview of creating significant learning experiences is that they need to be built into the curriculum, not just into individual courses. As mentioned above, examples of blended learning strategies for singular courses abound. In fact, in an analysis of over 200 theses and dissertations on blended learning, Drysdale, Graham, Spring, and Halverson (2013) classified 83% of the studies as being focused on the course level. Less than 1% of the studies were classified as having an institutional focus. Even though the examples of an institutional approach to blended learning are scarce, presenting best practices for blended learning only in the context of individual courses prevents constituents from grasping the larger institutional strategy. Situating all specific course examples within the framework of the larger institutional strategy allows the rationale for blended learning to remain at the forefront of the conversations, as well as at the forefront of any specific processes and support mechanisms the institution puts into place. Delving into specific course strategies should always be preceded by reminding constituents of the larger institutional strategy.
The Role of Institutions. Researchers and scholars consistently stress the importance of providing institutional support in order to achieve a strategy, to change the culture, or to achieve organizational learning (Fink, 2013; Kezar, 2009; Rowley & Sherman, 2001). Institutions need to ensure that they are providing the necessary training on successful blended learning pedagogical approaches. Team-based learning, problem-based learning, and other successful pedagogical approaches may be regular professional development topics, but even at institutions that have achieved the more mature stage of implementation, seldom are professional development opportunities solely focused on team-based learning in blended learning courses. And if courses are offered, they may be offered out of the main-stream and positioned as a chance to learn about using technology rather than presented as an institutional approach to redesigning pedagogy.
When creating the needed support structures, time is an important consideration. Glazer (2011) stated that "one of the unexpected benefits of blended learning is that it has the effect of creating time" (p. 4). The author, however, seems to only be referring to the student perspective rather than the faculty or a larger institutional perspective. For students, Glazer concludes that the time spent online is already excessive and that blended learning may not even feel like they are doing course work. Rather, being online is a way of life for students. In contrast, the National Science Foundation Task Force on Cyberlearning (2008) stated that today's students use computers, phones, and other devices for almost every form of communication except learning.
Students' comfort level online does not make up for the fact that faculty need time to become equally comfortable and to create optimal learning opportunities for students. A perceived downside of blended learning may be the lack of time to effectively redesign courses, particularly as the institution is moving along the stages from awareness and exploration to adoption and mature implementation. Fink (2013) notes that the prevailing view of faculty work (teaching, research, and service) does not provide any "in-load" time for faculty to work on their own professional development around teaching (p. 222). Therefore, a critical condition necessary for the achievement of a blended learning institutional strategy is adequate time.
Blended Learning at Northern Arizona University
Northern Arizona University (NAU) has long been proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to technology integration. NAU entered the realm of distance learning close to 40 years ago. For NAU, blended learning is positioned as an initiative within a larger strategy related to educational excellence. Specifically, the NAU strategic plan states that a key strategy that expands access to higher education and improves student learning is the redesign of curricular protocols while incorporating technology (Northern Arizona University, 2013). Many institutions are similar to NAU in that blended learning is a strategic imperative.
Also, like many institutions, student learning at NAU is certainly at the forefront of the blended learning strategy, but there is also the growing competition from completely online programs and the internal and external pressure to keep up, to not lose ground, and to thrive through institutional efficiencies. These pressures demand short-term solutions, but as discussed above, overestimating the short-term effects will likely lead to disappointing outcomes. Therefore, NAU is taking several steps to ensure long-term benefits through the institutionalization of blended learning, rather than quick fix implementations on a course-by-course basis.
Prior to 2013, the growth of blended learning at NAU was largely due to individual faculty member adoption and the President's Technology Initiative. Support for NAU faculty is an important element in NAU's strategic approach and illuminates the importance of creating a new reward system to foster and support change (Rowley & Sherman, 2001). The President's Technology Initiative pairs faculty members with e-Learning Center instructional designers and offers faculty two important things: an incentive and the time to redesign a course. The goals of the initiative are to serve more students at a lower cost per student, to reduce the number of in-person classes while increasing structured out-of-class learning activities, to focus on innovative course design that emphasizes higher order learning, and to cement NAU's reputation as a leader in student success and the use of technology.
While originally championed by the president and the NAU e-Leaning Center, the blended learning initiative shifted to the Provost's Office in 2013. This move clearly situated blended learning in the larger context of student learning at NAU, rather than as a technology initiative. And explicit evidence of NAU's strategic approach to blended learning is the creation of a full-time position in the Provost's Office to oversee progress toward the implementation of blended learning and to serve as what Rowley and Sherman (2001) refer to as the "change champion" (p. 173). Denise Helm (personal communication, September 4, 2013), a former associate dean of the College of Health and Human Services at NAU and an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow, assumed the position in 2013 and has already seen a cultural shift related to blended learning. Due to her efforts and the creation of a Blended Learning Leadership Team, a shared and clear definition of blended learning at NAU is emerging. A blended learning web page is set to launch and will feature the definition, as well as additional resources. In addition, Helm, along with the director of the e-Learning Center, Don Carter, is meeting with the administrative teams of each of the academic Colleges to identify courses that are primed for a blended learning course redesign. And she also plans to survey faculty about their attitudes and behaviors related to blended learning to identify the structural barriers facing faculty.
Once barriers are identified, Helm in partnership with the Faculty Development Office will take specific steps to support faculty and staff through professional development initiatives. According to Larry Gallagher (personal communication, August 29, 2013), NAU's Director of Faculty Development, blended learning requires intentional and transformational thinking about student learning. Gallagher views the adoption of blended learning from a technological innovation perspective when he states that "the perceived pain of change, in this case the change from traditional face-to-face to blended learning, must be less than the perceived pain of staying the same." And in his efforts in providing faculty professional development, he is focused on the creation of a critical mass of faculty and key individuals to take blended learning from an initiative to a strategy. For example, the Faculty Professional Development Office created a learning community focused specifically on blended learning course redesign. And in the next academic year, new faculty orientation and associated efforts will utilize a blended learning approach offering new faculty the opportunity to experience blended learning firsthand.
NAU has transformed blended learning from being a technology initiative situated on the periphery of the institution to a strategy that is at the epicenter of student learning. While focused on long-term gains, with the creation of a dedicated position out of the Provost's Office, NAU has experienced noticeable shifts in the culture as constituents are focused on intentionally redesigning courses to enhance student learning.
Blended Learning as a Strategy
The implementation of blended learning at colleges and universities needs to be positioned as an institutional strategy that can result in organizational learning. Gallagher and Vaughan (2013) concluded that blended learning has not resulted in organizational change that significantly enhances the effectiveness of the teaching and learning transaction and suggest that institutions need to engage in critical self-reflection about the learning experience. The responsibility of redesigning learning in blended learning courses falls squarely on faculty and instructors. The responsibility of positioning blended learning as an institutional strategy falls squarely on the leadership. Institutional leaders have the opportunity to provide structures and support that allow instructors to transform their courses.
The following list of questions may assist in institutional efforts to approach blended learning as a strategy rather than as a label in the course catalog:
* Has your institution provided a definition of blended learning that is widely known and disseminated?
* What is the rationale for blended learning at your institution? Is the rationale clear and included in the definition? Why is blended learning a priority at your institution?
* Is the rationale for blended learning and message framed consistently by leadership, administrators, and faculty - from the president to instructional designers to department chairs?
* What processes, structures, and support exist at the institution for blended learning? Who is the "change champion" for blended learning?
* What success stories exist in single courses and how does that success translate to institutional success?
* How will the institution know when blended learning is working - not just on a course-by-course basis but as an institution?
* How will the institution assess the impact of blended learning on the institution?
Answers to these questions have the potential to clarify the institutional approach to blended learning beyond what may be happening in individual courses. When done well, blended learning combines the best attributes of face-to-face and online learning (Glazer, 2011). While true for singular courses, much more is required for institutions to be perceived as doing blended learning well. When done well at the institutional level, blended learning implementation is guided by a clear strategy that allows constituents to engage in organizational learning while redesigning and transforming courses for optimal learning.
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