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:
* 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.