With a growing non-traditional student population, many colleges and universities are looking to blended learning technology and strategy to meet their pedagogical needs. But finding a combination of online and in-person components that match the expectations of both students and faculty can be daunting. Thankfully, higher ed’s collaborative culture makes networking and sharing expertise with other IT professionals easier.
A panel of industry experts spoke at the higher ed IT Professional’s Meetup at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., to discuss how to find the right mix of blended learning offerings. The panel included Eric Palson, director of academic technologies at Babson College; Kristen Palson, director for Simmons Online at Simmons College in Boston; and Gaurav Shah, director of academic technologies at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. Elmore Alexander, the former dean of the Ricciardi College of Business at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass., moderated the discussion.
While blended learning environments may not be as ubiquitous as other programs in higher ed, they are growing in popularity and have proven successful at some institutions. “This is an important topic for schools of all sizes,” said Babson’s Palson. “With so many options for learners, including free education, to be able to create online and blended offerings in an efficient, scalable way that ensures a quality learning experience is critical right now.” Palson has more than 15 years of creating online and blended content and applications; his team at Babson runs six online or blended programs, with nine expected to be live this fall.
Types of blended offerings
Blended programs differ greatly, based on the school’s budget, infrastructure, and stakeholder expectations. At Babson, it’s a combination of face-to-face and fully online time, with the potential for synchronous work as well. Bentley University has a hybrid program, which Shah defines as an in-person classroom with a synchronous online component. Bentley also has an online degree completion course, which relies much more heavily on asynchronous work with some synchronous components. The Simmons team, which offers nine online or blended programs, partners with 2U to help bring their programs online at a larger scale than the programs they design and support in-house.
The experts offered several lessons on how to build, implement, and support a blended learning program that exceeds expectations. Here are some of their major takeaways.
1. Start with a thorough understanding of stakeholder needs and expectations. Shah explained that when Bentley created its hybrid program in 1999, one of the first steps was to survey students to gauge their interest in the program. “They all loved it,” he said. “They jumped at the idea. Without that need, we wouldn’t have even gone there.”
2. Work with faculty and students to ensure that they understand the program’s benefits.
For example, if there is a snow day, suggest to faculty that they could bring the class online instead of canceling. Having the flexibility to attend class remotely is an appealing benefit of blended learning to convey to stakeholders. It is also important to treat your online or blended students as you treat on-campus students. “You’re still selling the school, its culture and flavor, and the school’s programs, even if it’s at a distance; that has to be something that you take into consideration,” said Simmons’ Palson. You don’t need full commitment at the beginning, but you should have at least one champion among faculty from the start.
3. Understand your budget and time frame. Unfortunately, people want to provide more than might be possible. Be careful throughout the buy-in process to guide stakeholder expectations toward what is possible for your team. At Simmons, they did a lot to coach the student behavior to fit what they can support. “Our students don’t do things at 2 AM with high risks because we won’t be there,” says Palson.
4. Ensure that there is a strong support infrastructure in place. A popular sentiment among the panelists was to hire students to help other students and faculty during a course. Providing access to a support line and an academic technology center can also be a significant boon. “The only way you’ll be scalable and able to grow is to make sure that faculty are creating content on their own,” said Palson. This requires exceptional technology and support “so you’re not constantly trying to put fires out.”