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Blended Learning: A Design-Based Approach

Recent scholarship on teaching and learning has made a strong case for why we should flip our classrooms. We know that moving some tasks that traditionally take place in class–lectures and demonstrations, for instance–into an online environment can leave more time in class for hands-on, higher order learning tasks, such as applications and problem-solving, and that doing so can create appreciable gains in student learning. But less has been said about how we should flip our classrooms: which learning experiences work best in an online environment, and how can we, as educators, design these online elements to support meaningful learning?


The Kolb Learning Cycle. From http://www.regis.edu.

Mike Winiski, Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Furman University, and Jeremy Donald, Technology Interface and Assessment Coordinator at Trinity University, are exploring this question in their GIS (Geographic Information Systems) courses.  In a recent ACS webinar, Winiski and Donald described their collaborative effort to create online tutorials to help students learn to understand and analyze complex maps. For them, the Kolb Learning Cycle, which emphasizes the importance of building abstract concepts upon the experience and knowledge students bring to the classroom, has been a major inspiration for rethinking their teaching. While a typical lesson on maps might start by introducing important concepts or terms in map-making, a Kolb-informed lesson might instead start with looking at a map itself–a “concrete experience” that leads into conversation about what the map might represent, how we arrived at that particular interpretation (“reflective observation”), and how mapmakers measure and visualize the information they wish to show (“abstract conceptualization”).

lust mapWiniski and Donald demonstrated this learning process firsthand by presenting a map with all its indices removed, then asking the webinar audience not only to guess what was being represented, but to describe the experiences, be it cross-country travel or observation about their local environment, that lead to those guesses. Only after we had engaged in a thoughtful conversation about all that the map could represent (agricultural land holdings and poverty rates were popular guesses) did they reveal the surprising results!  Having practiced making and explaining our observations, we were so much the more ready to grapple with the complex question of how this mysterious index was measured and defined.


Detail from Blended Learning: A Design Based Approach

But what happens when you take this emphasis on experience online, and how do you  know which stages of the learning process work best in an online environment versus a face-to-face environment? Though content-heavy items, such as recorded lectures, may seem like a natural fit for out-of-class study (not unlike a homework assignment from a print textbook), the collaborators have found that using such items for students’ first exposure to a new topic can be counterproductive. Introducing abstract concepts online has all the normal pitfalls of doing so in person, with none of the safeguards of sharing a face-to-face environment–such as instructor supervision, switching to a different mode of teaching, or moving into small groups. Indeed, as Winiski argues in a recent blog post,  The Flipped Classroom: Traps and Before the Lecture,

As we create flipped experiences for students, we’re bound to have a laser-like focus on the quality of the recorded lectures, making it easy to lose sight of the importance of contextualizing those lectures—either within the lecture itself or with activities beforehand. The best pre-lecture activities leave students perplexed and wanting to know more, but also help them situate what’s to come with what they’ve already learned.  Maybe the experience unravels a misconception. Perhaps it oversimplifies a complex topic and encourages the student to develop probing questions.

Accordingly, the collaborators’ GIS tutorials emphasize personal interaction, exploring maps in a conversational way and providing questions for students to answer. These tutorials are then followed by a classroom experience that includes discussion, evaluating the usefulness of the same maps, and working in groups to develop a guideline for mapmaking based on what has been learned so far.  This is followed by an application-based homework assignment that allows students to try their newly-developed guidelines on a new set of maps. The entire cycle is infused with the progression of the Kolb Cycle, and inspired by Dan Meyer’s call to bring the fun and creativity of real-world problem solving into academic learning.


Detail from Blended Learning: A Design-Based Approach.

As compelling as their example is, the Winiski and Donald both underscored the point that each instructor considering a flipped classroom needs to determine for herself what part of the course should be moved online. The flipped classroom is not just a strategy for creating more class time for certain kinds of learning activities; it is also a chance to rethink what it means to effectively engage students in multiple environments.

A few useful resources the presenters shared  for thinking through the flipped classroom are:

Unknown-11Unknown-10Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.  2011 (1997).Unknown-9



Design for How People Learn. Julie Dirksen. 2011.

Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.  John C. Bean. 2011 (1997).

Team-Based Learning: The Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Edited by Larry K. Michaelsen , Arletta Bauman Knight ,  & L. Dee Fink.

Teaching with Your Mouth ShutDonald L. Finkel. 2000.


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