Blended learning design advice for collaboration & retention

7 case studies reveal best practices for tech, learning support when combining face-to-face and online students

blended-learning-designAccording to a new roundup of case studies spanning multiple universities in Australia, blended synchronous learning can improve student retention rates and ease the concern that online students aren’t getting the same education as on-campus students. However, that’s only if blended learning is done right.

Researchers from Macquarie University, Charles Stuart University, and the University of Melbourne identified seven recent case studies from leading universities using diverse technologies in blended synchronous learning to enhance student and faculty collaboration, ultimately leading to better retention rates for online students and more effective learning.

The case studies are part of a project funded by the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching as a way to see if blended synchronous learning designs could help online students receive “an equivalent education to their on-campus counterparts,” an issue identified by Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

And though this concern is presented from Australia, it’s also a concern cited by many U.S. colleges and universities.

“To date, remote students tended to be supported in their learning primarily through asynchronous activities and resources such as recorded lectures, electronic documents, and discussion forums provided within a LMS,” explains the report. “However, these asynchronous methods may not provide effective support for learning in cases where students need to engage in real-time conversations, where they need to rapidly share audio and visual content, or where presence and community are important elements of the learning episode.”

Overall, blended synchronous learning can enable equity of learning by allowing participants to experience an instructor’s lesson, ask and answer questions, and offer comments in class; and generally allow engagement in a similar manner to on-campus students, notes the report.

It’s about creating “an enhanced sense of community between remote and face-to-face participants,” said the authors.

Therefore, these university case studies sought to use a variety of blended learning technologies to provide best practices for blended synchronous learning.

(Next page: 7 case studies and what each reveals)

The methodology of the comprehensive research can be found in the report, but here’s an overview of the seven chosen universities:

1. Web conferencing at the Department of Applied Finance and Actuarial Studies at Macquarie University

Activity: Remote and face-to-face students were randomly grouped into two breakout rooms where they had to evaluate the written responses to an exam question.

Main technology: Adobe Connect web conferencing system.

Support technology: Text chat and notes pod.

Problem: Student lack of understanding of how to use the technology.

Solution: Have a teaching aide, either in-class or online provide operational assistance.

2. Room-based video conferencing at the University of Western Sydney

Activity: Combination of lecture and small group activity with a report back to the whole group. Video conferencing was used to bring together students on three campuses of the University.

Main technology: Access Grid.

Support technology: Multiple screens, area for presentation slides, and an interactive whiteboard.

Problem: An inability to hear the questions asked by students at remote sites and difficulty in making out the details of the material shared through the whiteboard.

Solution: Better technology support through bandwidth.

3. Web conferencing at Charles Stuart University

Activity: An interactive review of medical science material for an upcoming exam; Q&A sessions with the teacher, summaries presented graphically, group work of identification and labeling tasks. Students were paired both on-campus with on-campus and remote with remote, then later paired on-campus with remote.

Main technology: Adobe Connect.

Support technology: Teacher wearing a microphone, built-in response tools, and text chat.

Problem: Communication between on-campus students was noticeably smoother than that between remote students, with the absence of an audio channel apparently making it difficult to coordinate the labeling task.

Solution: Better support tools for remote students.

4. Web conferencing at Southern Cross University’s Gold Coast campus

Activity: Remote student participation in introductory statistics tutorials; Q&A and group work with on-campus students working individually or in groups with other on-campus students, and remote students using breakout rooms online.

Main technology: Blackboard Collaborate.

Support technology: Teacher tablet loaded with Collaborate, projection screen, and lectern microphone.

Problem: The teacher having to repeat spoken conversations from the face-to-face classroom into the microphone so that the remote students could have a sense of the on-campus discussion.

Solution: A non-stationary microphone.

5. Virtual worlds for Chinese language learning at Monash University

Activity: Mandarin language students were allocated into groups and were tasked with making soup in the kitchen of a restaurant within the virtual world. Students had to ask where to find ingredients, interact with outdoor market vendors, et cetera. Face-to-face students were paired with remote students.

Main technology: Second Life.

Support technology: A pre-constructed role-playing learning scenario within Second Life, and voice and text chat.

Problem: Initial communication was difficult between on-campus and remote students.

Solution: More prompts by the teacher.

6. Web conferencing at Curtin University

Activity: An interactive lecture with the teacher on the topic of sexology; material presentation and Q&A sessions.

Main technology: Blackboard Collaborate.

Support technology: iPads for on-campus students, text chat, and an interactive whiteboard.

Problem: None noted.

7. Virtual worlds for teacher education at Macquarie University

Activity: To become familiar with virtual worlds for the purpose of learning; incorporated teacher presentations, whole-class discussions, and group-based brainstorming and design activities with groups of face-to-face students working with remote students.

Main technology: AvayaLive Engage.

Support technology: Video stream from on-campus into the virtual world and virtual world note pods.

Problem: Network and system issues affected the quality of the student experience.

Solution: Better technology infrastructure.

[The full case studies can be read in the report.]

(Next page: Key takeaways)

According to the report, the main concern noted by teachers in blended synchronous learning was related to communication—through inadequate infrastructure, trouble in speaking to remote students, trouble in getting remote students to participate, and trouble in getting remote students to hear or see the in-class materials and discussion.

Other problems noted were:

  • Performance of the technology support tools
  • Remote students’ internet connections
  • Maintaining simultaneous awareness of both groups of students (face-to-face and online)
  • Adequately recording sessions

Strategies for success included:

  • Asking students to pre-load software and make sure they’re comfortable using the technology (pre-loading instructions, etc.)
  • Having a teacher aide for technical assistance
  • Being well-prepared by putting everything needed for the course on an LMS beforehand for students to copy and browse
  • Setting up breakout rooms just for questions
  • Making sure teachers know how to encourage participation across multiple platforms and between remote and on-campus students
  • Having smooth and seamless bandwidth
  • Incorporating the best support technology possible that allows for easy communication between face-to-face and online students
  • A teacher’s ability to maintain composure if the technology does not work properly or fails
  • Preparing and managing student expectations of a blended synchronous learning experience
  • A teacher’s awareness of body position and voice for both online and face-to-face students

Technology and bandwidth continue to improve, concludes the report; however, “Until that time, teachers will need to leverage the potentials of the available media-rich technologies to unite remote and face-to-face students, employing appropriate strategies in an attempt to mitigate or overcome the constraints,” and hopefully this research report is one step in optimizing blended learning design.

For the full report, click here.

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