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Inventing the Future

Blended Learning in a Liberal Arts Setting: Preliminary Findings (Spohrer, Cassidy)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Title: Blended Learning in a Liberal Arts Setting: Preliminary Findings

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Authors: Jennifer Spohrer, Educational Technologist, and Kimberly Cassidy, Provost and Professor of Psychology, Bryn Mawr College

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Bryn Mawr College has been awarded a Next Generation Learning Challenge Grant to study the impact of blended learning approaches within a liberal arts environment, with a focus on introductory science and mathematics (STEM) courses. Blended learning has been widely adopted at large universities and community colleges, and learning sciences research has shown that this approach can increase student engagement, performance and persistence in those settings. Liberal arts colleges have been much slower to explore blended learning, in part due to uncertainty about its value and appropriateness in that smaller and more intimate setting.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Our aim is reducing this uncertainty. Over the 2011-2012 academic year, 14 Bryn Mawr faculty members are experimenting with different ways of integrating interactive, open-license tutorials, quizzes and other “courseware” into 27 courses serving over 700 students. We have been surveying faculty and students in these courses about their perceptions of the impact and value of these different initiatives. We are also collecting and analyzing different types of quantitative data in order to get a clearer picture of the actual impact of these initiatives.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Our preliminary findings, which at this point in the study are based mostly on attitudinal survey data, suggest that the benefits to liberal arts colleges will differ significantly from those afforded larger institutions. In large institutions, the goal of blended learning is often to reduce instructional costs by reducing time students spend in the classroom. Reducing “seat time” is not as clearly cost-effective or desirable for liberal arts colleges, which have fewer faculty and place a high premium on faculty-student interaction. Stakeholders at all levels have been far more interested in the potential to free faculty to use classroom time for activities that foster deep learning or allow students to complete introductory coursework in less time. Both students and faculty value using computer-based components that focus on mastery of basic concepts and skills. Faculty feel such components help to individualize instruction in gateway courses and help them meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Moving forward, we will compare these perceptions against more concrete evidence of impact. Although this is a study of blended learning in real-world, classroom settings and cannot control for variables to the extent an experimental study does, we can collect data that, in the aggregate, reduces uncertainty about the efficacy of blended learning in the liberal arts. At the most basic level, we can contextualize student performance by comparing it to historical data for the same course. In most cases, we can also do value-added assessment, comparing actual performance to performance predicted by placement exams, pre-tests, or SAT math scores. Many of the computer-based materials used for blended learning track individual student usage, which we can compare to performance. Wherever possible, we are giving student participants in the study standardized tests to supplement grades as an indicator of performance, and we will track all students’ future grades, persistence, major, and time to degree. In a few cases, we will be able to conduct semi-controlled tests of retention at intervals beyond course completion.

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