Colleges Flip Formats, Give Students More Online Options
Two years ago, Robert Maxwell, a Georgia State University biology instructor, decided to break out of the classroom and take his introductory courses to his students — and the masses — online.
Maxwell created a website called Biology Online Learning Opportunities (BOLO) where not only his students can access the class materials, but anyone with an Internet connection who wants to follow along and earn a badge for completing one of Maxwell’s Georgia State courses can do so. Throughout the semester, Maxwell posts daily newsletters, available to all, on his BOLO blog.
Students who are enrolled at Georgia State experience this class in what experts call a “blended” or “hybrid” format. That means some of the course is completed in a classroom and some takes place online, where Maxwell blogs, moderates discussion boards and posts multimedia tutorials. Maxwell’s website, and his quest for a different approach, was born of frustration with traditional methods of instruction and a desire to find new ways to engage students.
“It’s a labor of love for me,” Maxwell says.
He is far from the only instructor on campus to mix things up in this way. More than 100 classes across five schools of the university were offered online last year, according to the Office of Institutional Effectiveness.
And Georgia State isn’t alone in experimenting with distance learning and looking for ways to accommodate the increasingly plugged-in lifestyle of students. Universities across the United States are offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) — online classes that are typically free and open to anybody, sometimes for credit — and other online offerings.
Earlier this year, the university announced it would grant credit for MOOCs on a case-by-case basis.
Though MOOCs have dominated the headlines, they are only one aspect of the larger trend of higher education moving online. At Georgia State, the “flipped classroom” is more common, allowing teachers to use the Web for lecture-style material and devoting classroom time for more interactive learning.
Associate Professor Jan Ligon uses a blend of live and online coursework for some of his upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in the School of Social Work. This semester, only seven of 14 class meetings will take place in person. On alternate weeks, students complete their work online, whenever it fits into their schedules.
“We’re not wanting to be stuck in the old world of, ‘We don’t do this,’” Ligon says. “We’re learning that there may be some parts of a course that don’t lend themselves to this quite as well, but there’s probably more that you can do than you might think.”
The approach seems to be finding favor with Ligon’s students. Heather Davis, a social work graduate student, says meeting in person every other week not only makes for better class time, but also encourages better study habits.
“I’m more engaged in class because I’ve had more time to do the assignments, so I have more that I’m going to bring to the discussion. In terms of retaining information it’s helpful as well, because we have some time to process it,” Davis says. “I think [working on your own] is a skill you have to learn anyway, so I’m OK with having to manage my time better.”
Yterenickia Bell, another graduate student in social work, adds that not having to transition from commute to class during the online weeks allows her to be more focused and productive.
At the center of this movement at Georgia State is Professor George Pullman, director of the university’s Center for Instructional Innovation. Under his leadership, the center offers a Digital Champions workshop, which brings together 15 faculty per session to learn about online teaching. Pullman counsels the faculty participants along the way, and The Exchange, an on-campus training center, provides them with additional software support.
During the workshop, each faculty member will redesign a course to be taught half online and half in person, or even fully online, and present it to his or her colleagues.
Pullman says the purely online approach of MOOCs — with no face-to-face classroom time — only works well for the most highly motivated, self-disciplined students. In a sense, he says MOOCs aren’t that innovative.
“[MOOCs] are basically old instructional techniques applied on a vast scale,” Pullman says.
Steve Harmon, associate professor and director of the new Learning Technologies Division in the College of Education, agrees.
“Georgia State is taking a very considered approach to online learning,” Harmon says. “What happens with any new technology is that you tend to have bandwagons and people fall into the trap of doing technology for technology’s sake, and MOOCs are a prime example of that.”
Harmon says it’s important to look past the hype and focus on what he calls the “affordances of technology”: What can we do with the technology that we can’t do without it? How engaged are the students in the course content in this format?
Assistant Professor of Special Education Debra McKeown was among the most recent participants in the Digital Champions workshop. This semester, she’s teaching the first hybrid section of Academic Methods for Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders. That’s one of two courses in the master’s degree program to go hybrid this term, and two more will make the switch next semester.
McKeown says the university’s College of Education is looking into making all of its master’s-level courses in special education hybrid. Most of the program’s students are full-time teachers, and getting them on campus after a full day of teaching can be difficult.
“We’re trying to meet students’ demands on multiple levels, with scheduling, with finances and with time,” McKeown says, “and hybridizing the courses made sense to address all of those issues.”
Graphic By Autumn Baskin and Renata Maia Irving