By Christine Enowmbi Tambe
Blended learning (BL) incorporates both online and face-to-face activities and has been demonstrated to be beneficial to the learning outcomes of students. However, BL demands more out-of-class preparation time from students as compared to traditional face-to-face courses. Preparation time requirements may become excessive when the blended learning approach is incorporated in multiple concurrent courses. Following a curriculum-wide evaluation, the difficulty of managing multiple online activities was highlighted by students enrolled in a four-year Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where blended learning had been implemented in 14 required lecture-based courses spaced over the first 3 years of the curriculum.
In their paper (1), Margolis, Porter, and Pitterle determined instructional best practice recommendations for the use of blended learning from the perspective of students enrolled at UW-Madison School of Pharmacy to improve their learning experiences. Three focus groups were created, one from each of the first three didactic years of the PharmD program. These focus groups consisted of 8-9 students purposefully selected from each year’s class council. The purpose of the class council was to relay feedback on the learning experiences of their classmates to their course faculty during class council meetings and suggest potential changes. Class council members were exposed to variations of BL and had varying GPAs with a similar average to their class’ overall GPA. An academic advisor and a facilitator met with the focus groups during a class council meeting held within the last month of the Spring semester to review students’ BL experiences over the previous academic year and determine opportunities for quality improvement. Transcriptions from the audio recorded meetings were coded for common themes regarding the students’ perspective of BL best practices. Ten BL best practices were identified and are discussed in the next section.
Students commented that they found the management of out-of-class work easier when the syllabus included a schedule of course activities related to BL, with due dates and grading information so they were aware of the course expectations at the beginning of the semester. Students also wanted to know estimated durations for out-of-class activities.
This is pertinent for courses taught by multiple instructors who used different methods of communication (such as the learning management system or email), gave varying amounts of out-of-class work, and posted online materials at different times in relation to the class session or due date. Students preferred instructors who taught a single course to communicate consistently with students through the same mechanism. If instructors used different formats of BL (i.e., different technologies or activities), students proposed that this should be clarified in the syllabus at the beginning of the semester.
Timeliness encompasses instructors posting online materials with adequate time in relation to class sessions or deadlines giving students sufficient time to complete tasks. The consensus from all three focus groups was that posting online material at least 2 weeks prior to the class or due date was a reasonable amount of time.
Students wanted to be compensated with cancelled face-to-face lectures for the time spent completing online course work expected to take 15 mins or more. Students explained that online lectures took longer than the duration of the recorded audio, as students paused the lecture to take notes. It became even more difficult when students had to manage multiple online activities from multiple courses simultaneously without time compensation. These situations may cause students to fall behind, forgo in-person class time when they don’t feel prepared enough, and prioritize certain activities at the expense of others. Additionally, students were assessed and examined on online module material. On the other hand, one of the focus groups argued against the cancellation of face-to-face sessions and would have preferred additional class time for more in-depth, practical application of the material. Interestingly, students in this focus group had the least amount of BL courses and all of their BL courses used a replacement model, with time off, which may explain the deviation from the other focus groups.
Students were motivated to complete material prior to class when they were held accountable. Examples of how instructors could incorporate accountability in their courses included completion points, quizzes and assignments which encourage students to put in more effort to understand the online lecture material.
Students preferred when active learning discussions during face-to-face class time were structured based on application of online material. Examples shared by students included real-world case discussions, practice problems, think-pair-share and buzz group discussions, clicker questions, and minute papers. These activities enabled them to assess where their knowledge was lacking, encouraged them to engage, and motivated them to do out-of-class work in order to prepare themselves. Students disliked when instructors repeated the online lessons or lectured on a new topic during face-to-face time instead of discussing the application of the material they had studied.
Students in one focus group voiced that their learning experience was enhanced when instructors used the students’ performance from pre-class activities (such as quizzes or assignments) to target the review and application of the material during in-person discussions.
Students appreciated when the faculty incorporated student suggestions into BL courses in real-time where feasible and appropriate. They also appreciated when incorporated changes were reported back to students which motivated them to provide feedback to instructors in the future.
Students suggested that instructors could consider a brief review of complicated topics in the online material at the beginning of in-person sessions but should devote most of the class time to active learning and application of material.
Instructors were encouraged to choose technology that provided flexibility to students such as the ability to change the speed of the audio or move seamlessly between topics. Instructors were advised to obtain technological support when developing and implementing BL activities.
Overall, student participants identified the benefits of BL which included structured active learning, receiving guidance on problem solving, ensuring students were at the same knowledge level prior to the commencement of course activities, reviewing course material at an increased frequency, and increasing the flexibility students had with their schedule. Nonetheless, most of the concerns raised by students about BL revolved around course and time management (i.e., setting the stage, timeliness in uploading material, and time on tasks). If out-of-class time requirements are excessive, Margolis, Porter, and Pitterle (1) suggested that instructors should consider minimizing face-to-face time or increasing the credit hours for the class. The implementation of the best practices determined from this case study may facilitate students’ completion of activities on time, enabling them to attend class prepared which would be expected to enhance their learning outcomes. These best practices are also consistent with other literature regarding student preferences toward BL (2, 3). Finally, Margolis, Porter, and Pitterle (1) suggested school-wide initiatives to improve BL which included faculty engagement regarding the best practices; formal faculty training in BL course design; and a creation of a BL calendar detailing the schedule and duration of online activities, and any time-off from class to help instructors and students manage students’ workload.