Monday, October 29, 2012

BlendKit 2012 Week 2


     The readings for Week 2 of BlendKit were provocative in the sensse that they privilege the role of instructor to the neglect of the scholar.  Of course, this is an initial impression from a cursory introduction to the literature on blended learning.  But, the statement from EDUCAUSE may represent the general sense of the literature on interaction: “Even though technology enables greater learner control and autonomy, learners generally value social contact and faculty guidance, especially when entering a new field or course of study.”  This is not consistent with my classroom experience, where in activities such as group discussion student-to-student interaction often falters.  I have been continually surprised to experiment with these interactions, only to receive email and in-person comments asking me to return to lectures.  These students (my sense is that they represent the majority of the class) assert that they “learn more” from a lecture than from their peers, and do not miss the social interaction.  However (!), I have seen something new in the online discussions that I have begun this semester.  The responses have been much more thoughtful and considered than in conventional discussion.  And, students have begun to respond to each other’s comments in an equally considered (and respectful) way.

So, reviewing the questions:
1. Is there value in student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction in all courses regardless of discipline?
    The jury is still out.  But, I find compelling the study by Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) which observes that “minimal guidance is not as effective as guided instruction due to different approaches evident in how experts function.”  I think many students (and I do believe we teach at the margins, employing different tools and techniques to reach different learning styles, hoping that in the end we have reached an entire class) seek certain kinds of interaction.  Most want clear, specific feedback on their work, and this may be the core of effective instruction.  Some want to learn the discourse of a discipline, recognizing that the kinds of questions we raise, how we talk about sources of evidence, how we describe our analysis, how we present our interpretations is an essential aspect of becoming a historian or chemist or marketing professional.  It is an observation that is supported by Gardner (2006) discussion of conceptual networks.  Having seen History constructed as discrete facts to be memorized in the high school classes (and this is a more common complaint since the introduction of state-wide “accountability” testing), many students want to understand how we can situate events in a “more richly connected, nuanced, and diverse” chronology.  As Gardner notes, “But shorn of their connections to one another, to underlying ideas, to a disciplined way of construing this pile of information, facts are simply ‘inert knowledge’”

2. What role does interaction play in courses in which the emphasis is on declarative knowledge (e.g., introductory “survey” courses at the lower-division undergraduate level) or, similarly, in courses that cultivate procedural knowledge (e.g., technical courses requiring the working of problem sets)?
    The overall conclusion that the readings present is that students need opportunities for personal expression and that “personal expression may be leveraged in blended learning”; the challenge is to find the optimal tools for doing so in classes that emphasize either declarative or procedural knowledge.  Because my History classes aim to integrate both forms, teaching both methodology as well as content, the need to create opportunities for students’ personal expression is high.  I want my students to understand that thinking like a historian engages a particular method and calls for a form of discourse that is different from conventional conversation.  For example, “the evidence suggests” rather than “not for nothing, but my opinion is.”  Blended learning has enabled me offer both the classroom and online platforms for student expression, and I have seen some interaction between the two.  That is, some students try out their ideas in online threaded discussions, thereby gaining the confidence to offer their ideas and try out historical discourse in the classroom.  In the classroom, I can model the discourse, but online, I can provide more guided instruction than class time allows.

3. As you consider designing a blended learning course, what kinds of interactions can you envision occurring face-to-face, and how might you use the online environment for interactions? What opportunities are there for you to explore different instructional strategies in the blended course than you have in the past?
    This question reminds me of a point that Bill Gates made time ago: Meetings should never be scheduled simply to disseminate information; this can be done through email.  Rather, meetings optimally create opportunities to answer questions, identify problems or alternative paths to strategy, and make consensual decisions.  Following Gates’ observation, I am experimenting with:
Face-to face
* Lectures are Socratic, interactive, or otherwise participatory. Even in a PowerPoint talk, the slides incorporate questions to stimulate class discussion.  Some lectures may begin with a short in-class writing assignment.
* In-class discussions that enable students respond to questions, and, especially, to raise their own spontaneous questions.
* Asynchronous online discussions that create a more neutral environment and enable all students to feel comfortable in contributing.  This has shown some very promising results.  As noted, it seems to “allow students to enter more deeply into the material or an idea. There is time to look up facts, to draft an outline of what to say, and to revise mistakes before others respond.”  The flexibility extends to my time, also, as I can respond to pieces of the threaded discussion at more convenient times and in pieces, enabling me to offer a considered, thoughtful response to each student.
* Similarly, I have tried a blog in the past and hope to start one up this week for our BlendKit course.  I have used it to pose a question and elicit student responses just as in a threaded discussion, but now see that I can use it in other ways—to ask students to post responses (documents, quotations, images) that they want the group to analyze or that support a point they want to make.

4. What factors might limit the feasibility of robust interaction face-to-face or online?
            There are a number of factors, including student learning styles and preparedness faculty teaching styles, personality and facility in articulation and expression.  As Kirschner, Sweller & Clark conclude, “minimal guidance is not as effective as guided instruction due to different approaches evident in how experts function (epistemology) in a domain and how learners best learn.”
            I was particularly struck by the work of Darken and Sibert (1996) on “wayfinding.”  Although this research “explores a similar theme of the learner-in-control approach to learning,” their ideas challenged, somewhat ironically, my sense of instructional design, particularly if I provide enough “environmental cues” to guide my students’ learning, especially online.  While there are other considerations that the question above raises, this is the issue that I want to consider and explore further in the coming weeks.

BlendKit 2012 Week 1 Refections

     To start off, I am going to post some reflections to the Week 1 readings that are available on the BlendKit site at: Although I am a bit wary, I am somewhat less concerned about the technology than about the vocabulary of pedagogy that frankly seems rather alien to the discourse of historians. The language of Eastern markets—“banyan,” “comprador,” “laq”—seems more accessible than the vocabulary of “outcomes,” “emergence,” or “course delivery.” Of course, in my doctoral program, the emphasis was on acquiring knowledge and mastering analysis and synthesis; we weren’t taught how to teach, except through the “deep-end-of-the-pool experience” of teaching discussion sections and giving occasional lectures. Here we go:

     In reflecting on the reading for Week 1 of BlendKit 2012, both potential benefits and clear challenges present themselves to the course designer. I certainly appreciated the tone of contingency, flexibility, and incremental development that the readings stressed. And, I appreciated how the readings complemented my own classroom experiences, recognizing the opportunities that blended learning offers for addressing each student’s individual learning styles and life circumstances and relaxing the “one best way” approach that seeks to standardize classroom instruction.

Identify the general benefits of blended learning 
     Certainly, a blended approach offers more convenience and flexibility for both students and instructor, but I was more interested in the idea that it offers “a method to infuse new engagement opportunities into established courses or, for some, provide a transitional opportunity between fully face-to-face and fully online instruction.” I have dabbled in blended learning (not always cognizant that that is what I was doing) in a US History course, last year receiving brief papers online and this year adding an asynchronous discussion component. Although I am at a loss to explain it, the quality of the writing in the brief papers was significantly higher than anything I had seen before. In the asynchronous online discussions this year, again, the quality of conversation has been remarkably sophisticated. This experience bears out the U.S. Department of Education’s (2010) “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” particularly in its finding, “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction” (p. xv). In this case, I believe it does so because of the flexibility that the blended approach offers to a variety of student personalities and learning styles. It enables students who feel constrained by a 75-minute period to ask all their questions and offer all their reflections. It enables, as well, the less articulate student and the reticent personality an opportunity to “speak” in a more comfortable environment. The prompt questions that I offer allow for a range of responses, from the strictly historical (description and analysis) to the more personal and reflective. For both, ironically, the technology in this case fosters a personal connection that the constraints of the classroom limit.

 Recognize a range of implementation options possible in developing blended learning courses
     Here, I have much to learn. I don’t consider myself a technological adept, and, honestly, would rather spend my time reading to develop my knowledge than develop new skills in delivering that knowledge. So, I was relieved to see blended learning described as a “controlled process,” and especially, to learn that one begins from a position that “We as teachers usually establish on paper the "ideal" learning experience when you work under a more familiar, traditional style of teaching,” and then proceeds incrementally to design in the technological elements that may foster optimal learning experiences for the range of students in a class. And, I particularly appreciated George Siemens’s observation, “By recognizing learning as a messy, nebulous, informal, chaotic process, we need to rethink how we design our instruction.”

     There is another element to this: The tools that I may incorporate will have to reflect my own personality and teaching style. At this early stage, synchronous events seem a bit daunting, and I am wary of effectively monitoring collaborative exercises. But, self-paced learning, narrative feedback, the inclusion of complementary support materials should be consistent with my teaching.

 Articulate design plans for “blending” one of the courses you teach
     Here, the Course Blueprint was quite useful (although it took some time to learn the techniques of moving boxes around and the result is not aesthetically beautiful). My goal is to take a favorite course that I have taught in the past—The Old China Trade, 1784-1844—and transform it into a hybrid or blended course. At this point, it is decidedly an “emergent process.” But, there are already areas in which I can see opportunities to incorporate the technology to make the history more vicarious and experiential, enhancing the relevance of the episode for my students. The chart (Fig. 31.3) in Case Study 2 was especially useful for organizing my thoughts, and I will continue to refer back to it throughout the weeks (and years) ahead, and I look forward to developing my design for the course.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Blending the "Old China Trade"

     For the next few weeks, we will be taking a different tack in thinking about the "Old China Trade," focusing more on pedagogy. In conjunction with a course on blended learning entitled BlendKit2012 (, offered by Dr. Kelvin Thompson and Dr. Linda Futchhe out of the University of Central Florida (highly recommended), the blog will explore some strategies for teaching the "Old China Trade" in a blended or hybrid course. Some of this will incorporate responses to the BlendKit literature, while other postings will experiment with several technologies and strategies for introducing ideas and prompting reflection. At this point, I imagine that the journey is not unlike the some of the ad hoc voyages in which our China and Indies traders engaged: sailing from port to port, mixing cargoes, searching for resources that might bring some profit, and, overall, constantly adapting to the unknown.