At Bryn Mawr, Liberal-Arts Colleges Explore Online Learning as a Tool for Closer Connections

Posted July 8th, 2011 at 2:40 pm.

Liberal-arts colleges pride themselves on students’ personal relationships with professors and intellectual exchange with fellow students. Is there a role for online learning in this model?

At a recent conference on Bryn Mawr’s campus, Candace Thille, the director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative, made the case that integrating the OLI’s sophisticated online courses with traditional classroom teaching can actually strengthen the relationship between students and their human professors.

Read more about the NGLC conference in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required)

The OLI’s open courses, Thille explained, “analyze and distill click-stream data that are automatically collected from the student’s interactions with the OLI system in order to communicate key information on the class’ learning and progress that will help guide instruction in real time. Unlike reports from traditional course management systems, the OLI Learning Dashboard presents instructors with a measure of student learning for each learning objective. The dashboard also provides more detailed information, such as the class’s learning of sub-objectives, learning for individual students, and the types of tasks with which the students are struggling the most.”

A glance at a course dashboard shows the professor which concepts in an assignment were well understood and which provoked trouble. Equipped with this information, the professor can adjust the next class plan to focus on the material that needs more explanation. With precise reporting on how students learn, OLI’s free and open courses can help teachers understand their students better. The learning dashboard is part of the instructional intelligence system that can support a new level of effectiveness for blended mode instruction.

“We’re trying to give students and faculty better tools to support student learning outside of class, so that you, the faculty, can concentrate on classroom interaction,” Thille said.

Liberal Arts: A New Research Frontier

Thille’s data show impressive success rates for professors who use OLI courseware in conjunction with traditional face-to-face interaction – an approach termed “blended learning” – at Carnegie Mellon and at several large public universities.  But there is little evidence about the performance of OLI software at liberal-arts colleges.

That’s where Bryn Mawr comes in. The College has won a $250,000 Next Generation Learning Challenges grant to lead an exploration of the potential benefits of blended learning in a liberal-arts setting, with 35 partner institutions from around the nation.

Representatives of several of those schools were present at the conference, where Bryn Mawr Provost Kimberly Cassidy, the principal investigator of the project, explained its parameters.

Although Thille’s session on OLI’s work opened the discussion, the project’s investigation of blended learning will embrace more than the use of OLI software, Cassidy said.

“We have approached this as an inquiry that welcomes many perspectives and many definitions,” Cassidy said. “We want to find out how blended learning can be adapted to your institution, to your college culture.”

The project focuses on integrating electronic teaching resources into core introductory courses in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines – courses that serve as “gateways” to majors in those disciplines. Faculty members at the conference represented a range of disciplines from economics to physics as well as a range of experience with OLI courseware and similar products.

Reports from Early Adopters

One session of the conference was devoted to a panel discussion with three professors who have made extensive use of blended-learning technologies.

Lisa Dierker, a psychology professor at Wesleyan University, spoke about her use of online statistics courses designed by OLI as a replacement for a standard textbook. Describing herself as a “reformed sage on the stage,” she said that she felt the courseware helped her move beyond entertaining a large, diverse audience of students to ensuring that that each individual genuinely understood key concepts in statistical analysis.

“The diversity of the student population is challenging in an introductory course in statistics,” she said, noting that levels of preparation as well as enthusiasm for the material may be radically different.

“There’s generally about a third of the class that hates statistics and doesn’t want to be there. Before, I didn’t know who those students were or how to support them.” But the continual assessment offered by the OLI software helped her identify students who were struggling, and the interactive tutor adapts to their learning level, she reported.

Dierker said she was surprised that the software not only taught procedures, but helped students understand their possible applications. “It answers the ‘Why do I care?’ question,” she said.

“Using OLI, we’ve developed what we think is a really innovative, inquiry-based approach to teaching stats,” Dierker said.

Bryn Mawr Professor of Biology Peter Brodfuehrer hasn’t used OLI software – his subject area of neurobiology is not yet among the courses OLI offers – but has integrated online learning tools from a variety of other sources into his teaching.

Brodfeuhrer said he has found online tools especially valuable as a way to add variety to classroom lectures.

“I read an article about attention span that suggests that the average adult can focus on a lecture for only about 15 minutes, and I can relate!” Brodfeuhrer said. He has gotten excellent results, he says, by asking students to switch focus to online learning sites during class, to reinforce their listening with activity related to the lecture content.

Jonas Goldsmith, a chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr, described his use of an online tutor offered by the publisher of an introductory textbook on general chemistry. The program, like OLI’s, adapted to individual students’ skill levels, offering more practice for those who needed it.

“I loved the online homework problems,” Goldsmith said. “The immediate feedback to students is invaluable.

“When students hand in homework assignments and I grade them, too much time has passed between the time they are learning the material and the time they get my comments. They may not even read them – by then, we’ve moved on to the next thing. With the online homework, they learn about their mistakes right away, when it is still relevant,” he explained.

From the audience, Bryn Mawr Associate Professor of Psychology Anjali Thapar, who has also used parts of OLI course modules on statistics, said that her students were very enthusiastic about the immediate feedback the software offered, but that she wished that she had more control over its content.

Thille responded that authoring tools allowing professors to create their own courses are on the horizon at OLI.

Next Steps

At the close of the conference, informal reports from afternoon breakout sessions focused on sharing information about the effectiveness of specific tools and methods of integrating them with classroom teaching. Several participants raised the idea of combining forces to commission the creation of new courseware.

Cassidy noted that a website for the project is being created. In addition to public pages, she said, she expects that it will offer private spaces for discussion among participants in the project.

The grant covers the yearlong appointment of an information technologist who will be resident at Bryn Mawr, but who will be available to support faculty members at other participating colleges. Course-development funds are also available for participating institutions.

This summer, Cassidy will work with grant partners to develop assessment tools for participants. The pace of the project, she explained, is a swift one. Bryn Mawr will host at least one more conference of grant participants, and by next year, the group expects to be able add some data from liberal-arts colleges to the storehouse of information about blended learning.

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