Call it what you like—blended learning, hybrid learning, technology-mediated instruction—and Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, will tell you it’s the future of higher education.
Caulfield joined the Office of Academic Affairs at WSU Vancouver last March. He supports faculty who want to incorporate greater use of technology to support student learning or to leverage the resources of the Internet in their classes. He also serves as a liaison to the WSU Global Campus.
Caulfield has worked in educational technology since the mid-1990s. He has worked as an instructional designer, as an outreach director at MIT’s OpenCourseWare Consortium and as a programmer on late-1990s efforts to bring Ivy League colleges online.
“Mike’s national reputation as one of the finest thinkers about the impact of technological advances on higher education makes him a critical addition to Academic Affairs,” said Mel Netzhammer, chancellor for WSU Vancouver.
Bringing blended learning to WSU Vancouver
WSU Vancouver has adopted the term blended learning, which refers to any time a student learns—at least in part—at a brick-and-mortar facility and through online delivery, with student control over time, place, path or pace.
“If you do what online can do best online, and you do what face-to-face can do best face-to-face, you are working off the strengths of both modalities. The synergy between them can be very effective,” said Caulfield.
Blended learning may be a good solution for many WSU Vancouver students. At residential campuses being a student is the primary—and maybe only—job for a lot of students. Going to college is one of many priorities for a great number of WSU Vancouver students. The average age of a WSU Vancouver student is 26. They are more likely to be working, married and/or raising a family while attending college than their resident-student counterparts.
The flexibility to work some of their learning around other obligations could help WSU Vancouver students persist to degree. It’s not unusual for a WSU Vancouver student to “stop out” due to a change in work or family schedules. Some come back to earn their degrees, others do not.
But blended learning is not just about flexibility. In fact, flexibility may be just a happy consequence. Blended learning is about making students more engaged learners.
While blended learning is often identified with hybrid classes, “blending” can potentially improve any class, even traditional face-to-face classes.
“We want to challenge the notion that lecture has to take place in the classroom,” said Netzhammer.
Caulfield is a proponent of the “flipped classroom,” an aspect of a blended-learning environment which essentially switches lecture and homework. Students view lessons and lectures online, and time in the classroom is spent on what used to be called homework.
“Lecture is knowledge transfer. It’s a rudimentary skill, even when done well,” said Netzhammer.
Lecture may be rudimentary and a largely passive form of learning, but it is also not a one-size-fits-all solution. If some students don’t understand what is presented in a real-time lecture—too bad. The teacher must pace lessons for the class as a whole—too slow for some, too fast for others.
Online learning gives students the opportunity to rewind and review something they don’t understand, or fast-forward through material they have already mastered. Theoretically, this gives students greater ownership of their learning. “Taking lecture out of the classroom leaves face-to-face time for high-impact instruction like project learning,” said Caulfield.
In a blended-learning environment, class time is used to practice problems, discuss issues or work on specific projects. The classroom becomes an interactive environment that engages students more directly in their education.
The permeable classroom
While “flipping” is often a good choice for skills-based courses, blended learning can also be used to provide authentic contexts for coursework. Students are increasingly doing their work on the open Web where their work can find real audiences and often have real impact.
Caulfield said that at his previous institution, students would often write online reactions or reviews to works they had read in class, and sometimes the author of the work would turn up in the comments of the students’ blog post.
“They’d say, ‘thanks for reading, but I’m not sure I agree with what you said in paragraph two,’” said Caulfield. “It blows the students away. It changes how they think about what they do. When they are engaging with a broader audience, they start to understand the meaning of what they do.”
Blog posts, student wikis and other online work can help connect students with their local and global communities.
“Places like WSU Vancouver have a history of community-engaged learning. The Web multiplies the opportunities for that. It takes the rigid walls of the classroom and makes them a bit more permeable,” said Caulfield.
Connections might also be made with students at other institutions. Caulfield is examining how schools can partner to provide experiences that transcend individual campuses and connect students to their peers across the world.
“We’ve got all these students around the world that are plugging into an issue in their individual classes, like water policy or obesity. What would happen if you got some of those classes to talk to each other? To share resources and ideas? To build off each other’s work?” asked Caulfield.
Caulfield says while the world has gone a bit “MOOC-crazy” at the moment, there is an alternate vision that involves the scale of Massive Open Online Courses, but retains the all-important local experience.
“I call it ‘Small Classes Loosely Joined.’ Rather than using MOOCs to replace small classes, let’s use the Internet to connect those classes to one another and make them more engaging for students. That seems to me a far better use of the Internet than creating classes with 90,000 students,” said Caulfield.
From concept to delivery
A disruptive innovation fundamentally transforms a sector by replacing expensive, complicated and inaccessible products or services with less expensive, simpler and more convenient alternatives. Blended learning is considered a disruptive technology in education by many.
Part of Caulfield’s job is to help professors evolve their practice to accommodate blended learning. He wants to help them work things like Skype, videoconference and collaborative spreadsheets into the way they teach.
One challenge is faculty buy in. “The early adopters are on board. Nationally, probably 10 to 15 percent of faculty are very engaged with the practice,” said Caulfield, “and more faculty are on the edge and becoming interested.”
Digital content creates a bottleneck
Even with faculty buy in, the challenge of creating high-quality digital content looms large. You can’t do the online portion of a blended-learning class without high-quality digital resources.
“We have a cottage-industry model for creating these resources that’s holding us back. It’s creating a bottleneck,” said Caulfield.
Typically in higher education an instructor is asked to redesign his or her course for an online or blended-learning environment. That professor, who usually has no background in developing digital resources, is given a stipend or a course release and spends 40 to 130 hours reworking the entire 15-week course for digital delivery.
That puts higher education way out of line with what businesses invest in e-learning. A typical commercial e-learning team would include a graphic designer, a content expert, quality assurance and project management. The team would spend 80 hours creating just one hour of basic content.
Caulfield argues that higher education needs to throw out the cottage-industry model and find a better way to create high-quality digital content without breaking the bank.
Build it once, use it everywhere
One way to create high-quality digital content is by using cross-institutional collaboration and open course frameworks. Building on the success of open textbooks, multiple people across a number of institutions contribute to writing online coursework. The contributors may be funded by foundations or institutions, and the content is released for free.
“A group of people creates a set of highly integrated digital materials that are key to a specific course, it’s distributed out and used in a bunch of local contexts—you build once and teach everywhere,” said Caulfield.
The beauty of this is the collective.
“When it comes to educational materials, the move away from single-author resources towards resources informed by our collective educational experience is a good thing, increasing the impact of the best ideas we have on how to educate and helping us move past the ‘it worked for me as a student’ school of educational design,” said Caulfield.
Each open course framework looks and feels like an online textbook or online course, but is specifically designed as a starting point for faculty to personalize, customize and tailor for their students. Adapting materials and putting them in a local context creates a more meaningful, enriching and memorable experience for students.
Where is WSU Vancouver headed from here?
Caulfield believes that if we are going to support blended learning, we need more good teaching resources, as in high-quality digital content, and we need to support faculty in using technology creatively in the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, he says we need to foster the culture of creative collaboration around teaching that already exists at WSU Vancouver, but requires support and coordination to thrive. That’s what Caulfield is here to do—to help WSU Vancouver professors excel at what they do.
This article appears in the Fall 2013 issue of NW Crimson & Gray Magazine.
NW Crimson & Gray magazine is a quarterly magazine produced by Washington State University Vancouver that highlights the WSU Vancouver community and higher education in SW Washington. Subscribe for free or download the issue online.