Bryn Mawr Leads the Way in Introducing Blend of Online and Traditional Classroom Learning to the Liberal Arts

Posted February 23rd, 2012 at 3:59 pm.

What’s the best thing about adding a well-constructed online tutorial to a traditional class?

The breadcrumbs.

No, not the ones that get lodged in your keyboard as you’re having a snack—these breadcrumbs are the electronic footprints students leave behind as they work through problems and answer questions in online lessons or quizzes: the breadcrumb trail.

“The tracking data that online tutorials generate about student understanding and progress is what instructors and students appreciate the most,” says Instructional Technologist Jennifer Spohrer, who is leading Bryn Mawr’s study of the use of blended learning. “Instructors can use this data to better tailor classroom time to meet the needs and abilities of students: clarifying only the concepts students are having difficulty with and getting into deeper and more nuanced conversations about material students have mastered.”

“I liked that the [online] problems give immediate feedback, and show how to solve the problem. I learn very quickly by seeing where I made mistakes and how to correct them,” wrote one student in her course evaluation.

Bryn Mawr’s exploration of blended learning is being funding by a $250,000 grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges to introduce open-source courseware modules into traditional courses to improve course, major, and college completion in fields with significant math or science components.

“Almost all universities are already heavily invested in online learning, but it’s often used either to take the place of or in connection with large lecture-hall courses,” said Provost Kim Cassidy when the grant was announced in April. “If this project is successful, Bryn Mawr will be at the forefront of using this technology to enhance the learning that can take place only through the classroom interactions between faculty and students, which is the hallmark of a liberal-arts education.”

The College began the project in earnest last semester when it offered 12 blended-learning courses that enrolled a total of 317 undergraduate students. Nine additional courses are being offered this semester. The departments taking part in the project are Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, Geology, and Mathematics. A list of all the courses offered is available on Bryn Mawr’s Next Generation Learning website.

“The overall success rate for students in last semester’s classes was very good. However, one of the goals of the Next Generation Learning Challenges initiative is gathering concrete evidence of impact for educational innovations. To this end, we will compare the data we collect on courses in the study to predicted outcomes for this population of students based on their pre-test or SAT scores and to student performance in past iterations of the same courses. Our goal is to determine with greater certainty what role the online component played in student success, given all the variables involved,” says Spohrer.

“In the meantime, though, all of the faculty involved in the first semester’s courses say they plan to continue to use a blended approach no matter what becomes of this program,” she adds.

“What I have seen so far has whetted my appetite,” says Professor of Economics David Ross, who offered his Economics of Local Government course as part of the program in the fall. “I am excited by the opportunities being opened up by the collaboration of computer programmers, cognitive-learning experts, and subject faculty—opportunities that can only enhance the collaboration of faculty and students in the classroom.”

As part of the grant, Bryn Mawr is sharing its program with other liberal-arts colleges from across the United States to promote the use of this technology throughout the liberal-arts sector. Bryn Mawr is assisting its partners in implementing blended learning by sponsoring three workshops (the last of which takes place in May). The College has also established a project website and blog as a forum for the exchange of ideas and best practices and provided individualized on-site curricular and technical support for partner institutions.

Original partner colleges are Amherst, Allegheny, Bard, Barnard, Bates, Bowdoin, Colgate, Connecticut, Franklin and Marshall, Grinnell, Hamilton, Haverford, Hobart and William Smith, Holy Cross, Ithaca, Kalamazoo, Lafayette, Macalester, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke, Oberlin, Pomona, Saint Olaf, Skidmore, Smith, Swarthmore, Trinity, Union, Vassar, Wellesley, Wesleyan, Wheaton, Whitman, Whittier, and Williams. Colorado College joined the project in January.

A number of faculty members involved with the project at Bryn Mawr and the partner schools have already expressed interest in establishing blended courses for the fall semester. Bryn Mawr is offering stipends to instructors at partner institutions who are interested in developing and teaching one or more blended learning courses as part of this grant. Those interested in finding out more can go to this blog post.

Comments are closed.