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University says blended learning will boost student engagement, not stifle it

Photo by Marta Kierkus

As students head back to classes this fall, some will be dividing their time between the laptop and the lecture hall in a new push for more blended learning at the University of Ottawa.

Blended courses are those that mix aspects of a regular lecture with online components that are done outside of class time. They’re meant to create a type of learning where a student can get the benefits of both a classical lecture, and that of a fully online course.

Richard Pinet is the director of the Centre for e-Learning and a key part of the supervision and advancement of the blended learning initiative. The centre, part of the Teaching and Learning Support Service, oversees the development of multimedia-based courses and learning materials.

“Learning is a process of active and social engagement, as opposed to an outcome of delivering content and information to passive note-taking recipients,” said Pinet.

The U of O is one of many schools embracing the shift to online education.

Hybrid learning was a topic of interest in the recent Strategic Mandate Agreements signed by Ontario schools with the provincial government. Thirty-nine of the 44 post-secondary institutions pledged to increase the availability of online education according to Contact North, an online distance and education training network.

The U of O Senate began discussing an increase in blended courses last fall. The university aims to have 20 per cent of courses adopt the hybrid model by 2020.

“It’s part of a broader cultural shift from a lecture-centre model of teaching to a more learner-centred approach,” said Pinet.

“A lot of the responsibilities have shifted to creating active learning environments, rather than passive ones,” he added. “I think that blended learning fosters that kind of critical engagement (students) prefer in their work and in their studies.”

However “research suggests that Canadian post-secondary institutions have been slower than those in many other countries to incorporate significant online components,” wrote the Canadian Council on Learning in a report.

But hybrid learning has its critics. Mark Edmunson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, wrote in the New York Times that blended courses do not meet the various needs of students, including interaction between them with their professors.

“Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor,” Edmunson wrote. “It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.”

Pinet said the U of O’s blended courses will do just the opposite.

“The reason why the blended courses will work so well is because the students still have an opportunity to see the professor face-to-face, or check in with their other students face-to-face and online,” he said.

The Centre for e-Learning has spent much of the past year on workshops and multimedia courses for professors to help them create more inclusive courses that find a balance between lectures and online content.

Now, they want to shift the attention to students to make them aware of alternate methods of instruction.