moving toward blended learning

I’m back after a long hiatus. We spent a couple weeks visiting the kids’ grandparents in New Mexico. No Internet to speak of out there. Something they call "dial up" or something like that… it may be Spanglish, I’m not sure.

Anyway, back in central NY, where the weather is surprisingly warmer than what we got in NM, I’m back on task. First order of business is preparing for a brief presentation I’m giving with some colleagues at our pre-semester, all-college meeting in two weeks. Usually these meetings are organized around various vice-presidents giving PowerPoint presentations. This time though, we have a theme; we’re focusing on learning environments, specifically the integration of technology. We even have a guest speaker, Charles Dzuiban, whose work on blended learning I have encountered before.

I’m interested to see where this will go. As I’ve mentioned here before, there are several faculty at Cortland who have been teaching unofficial blended/hybrid courses for some time. Last semester a couple colleagues and I met with the dean about making these courses visible on the schedule. Lo and behold, a well-known scholar in blended learning is now speaking to the faculty. It is a coincidence but it perhaps indicates that there is a more general push in the direction of blended courses going on at Cortland, among both faculty and administrators.

This has me thinking about the following questions:

What can we say about blended learning courses? In general? Not all that much I would think. What can we say, in general, about FTF courses? We can state the definition of blended courses (courses with a network-media component and reduced seat time). We can say students in blended learning courses fare as well as their FTF counterparts in terms of grades and student satisfaction. The significant point though is that there are as many different possible varieties of blended courses as there are varieties of FTF courses, perhaps more since blended courses combine all the permutations of FTF instruction with all the permutations of media networks. In short, I don’t think there is anything that could be said or uncovered about blended courses in general that would allow anyone to make much of an informed decision. You really need to look at the specifics of what is being done.

Should blended learning courses be offered? Might as well ask, should FTF courses be offered? On what basis can the question be answered? Is it a question of assessment statistics? Is it an ethical question? Is it a question of academic capitalism? In terms of assessment, I know of no study that would dissuade against blended learning (again, see the first point). In ethical terms, I would think academic freedom might apply here: I wouldn’t force faculty to teach blended courses, but equally I don’t think one would prevent them. As to the financial issues, I’m not sure. Will it be crucial in the near future for purposes of admissions to offer a fair percentage of blended and online courses as an option for students? Will blended courses be cheaper? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but my guess is if we don’t move forward now we will be playing catch up in the near future.

How do we move forward? The question of the day, really. I think the answer begins with recognizing that the differing needs of disciplines and institutions, as well as the continual development of technology, does not allow for a significant, wide-scope solution. This has always been the error of CMS’s in my view. I could see the need for a certain level of common course management and interface across a college, but we are moving increasingly into a era of tight vertical markets. Institutional flexibility (something colleges are not famous for) will be key.

All the work going on in my field with ANT and related modes of material-cultural-technological investigations seems quite adaptable to studying the learning networks/environments that will emerge across blended courses. Obviously, this is where my primary interest lies, in studying how the techno-material conditions of blended courses will mutate the teaching of rhetoric and composition, particularly in the space of what is now "professional writing," though either the activity of "writing" in that term will need to be understood broadly or that word will need to be replaced (perhaps with a return to the more generic "composition"?).

In any case, it’s back to work for me.

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