One of the questions that should be asked when you ’re redesigning a course for blended instruction is “why am I doing this”? This isn’t just a question about the overall worth of blended teaching (though it could be); it’s also, and more importantly, a question that leads you to think about the purposes of course redesign in such a way that you will be able to accomplish it much more effectively. I’m going to use an example of course redesign from one of my own courses to illustrate both the value that I hoped to gain from the process AND the way that I approached the redesign process itself. One of the things that’s interesting about this reflection on my own course redesign is that I actually paused after writing the initial version of this presentation and thought “Gosh, this really worked the way it was supposed to!” For someone trained in systematic skepticism about the world, that’s not always an easy conclusion to reach!
First, a little about the course itself. I really enjoy teaching and doing research on ads and shopping, because I think that cultural anthropology can make a valuable contribution to the way we understand the world around us by emphasizing something we experience daily but almost never examine, our commercial and consumer culture. I first taught this course – Ads and Shopping in American Culture – as a graduate course, so I had to perform a substantial redesign to make it suitable for first-year students. I should emphasize that the Freshman Seminar program in which I taught this course is not an honors program. Its intent is to encourage our first-year students to succeed and remain in college during the year in which they are most at risk by giving them a smaller, intimate setting in which to learn, and by introducing them to scholarly work rather than to basic textbook stuff. Finally, the timeline for this course involved two weeks of face-to-face class meetings followed by one week of online work. The first class meeting following an online assignment was used to “debrief” students from their assignment and to integrate the face-to-face with the online portion of the course for reasons that I return to below.
Before I began my course redesign, I spent some time thinking about my students, trying to see the course from their perspective. I made some assumptions about them, based on my experience with first-year courses at the university – and, as it proved, those assumptions turned out to be mostly correct. On the downside, I figured that most of my students would be from the midWest region, and that they would not have traveled extensively. I expected them to be first-generation college students from a mainly working class or rural background. I didn ’t expect them to be enthusiastic readers or to have a great deal of experience with formal critical thinking. On the upside, I expected that most of the students would be enthusiastic and knowledgeable consumers who would have a lot of experience with mass media advertising. I also anticipated that most of them at some time would have worked in the retail sector in entry-level positions. Finally, since I wanted to use several different teaching technologies in the course, I guessed that the students would be computer literate at a basic level, e.g., familiar with PowerPoint and to a limited extent with digital media. I didn ’t expect that the students would have academic computer skills – for instance, doing Google searches and systematic assessment of Web sites – and again this proved to be the case.
Again as a preliminary to my course redesign, I reviewed the basics of blended learning so that I could match up its advantages with the objectives of the course that I wanted to teach. Blended courses typically move at a pace – especially online – that is different from that of a traditional face-to-face course. In the latter, there is usually a lengthy period of content delivery followed by a brief burst of student assessment, i.e., lots of lecturing with a test at the end. But the online environment, and thereby the blended course, lends itself to a very different framework: frequent, low-stakes assignments in which students receive quick and unambiguous feedback about their performance. In other words, content delivery from the instructor to the student is replaced in the blended by an odd form of collaboration in which the instructor and students together produce the content of the course and demonstrate mastery through active learning. This is an entirely different mode of teaching and learning from completely face-to-face courses, and the instructors who have taught blended courses for the first time almost invariably report that what I ’ll call the “mood” of the classroom is transformed to one that is less restrictive or stultified and much more participatory. Another feature of the blended is that instructors are able to experiment with their students ’ learning, since they are able to observe it more closely and assess it more often than in a traditional face-to-face class. In practice, this means that as an instructor, I can fine-tune the rigor of my assignments, gradually increasing it beyond a level that the students would otherwise have attained. Fourth, a blended course tries to break up and diversify the “voices” in the course. Instead of the instructor and the authorial text as the sole voices to be heard, the students themselves find their own voice, encouraged and guided by the instructor through a range of learning activities that can include reading and lecture, but also far more discussion, small group work or individual projects, role-playing and simulations, case studies or debates, than would be available through a traditional face-to-face regimen. And finally, a blended course takes advantage of the best features of both face-to-face and online learning. If you take care to integrate the two instead of running tandem courses in parallel – one online and one face-to-face – , then each mode of instruction complements, extends, and elaborates the other. It ’s possible, and desirable, to develop peer learning communities both online and in the face-to-face classroom.
The model that I use for course redesign is usually referred to as “backwards design,” developed by Wiggins & McTighe (though Barbara Walvoordt made what I consider a substantive contribution to the theory through her work on student assessment). I use this model for three reasons. First, the backwards design model is practice oriented rather than based on abstract learning theories. For an instructor, like myself, who’s been teaching for 30 or 40 years, that’s very appealing. Second, backwards design is intuitive: it just sounds persuasive that you begin by looking at specific results you want to achieve and then find a way to accomplish them. When I used to “design” a course by choosing a text and giving my students exams to make sure they were reading it, I really had no reason to believe that I was meeting my course goals, or indeed that I even had any! And then finally, I like the way that backwards design links my learning objectives to empirically verifiable outcomes in the way that I’ll shortly describe. This is satisfying for me as an instructor, since I find out whether I taught the course well enough to do what I had set out to do. I think that it’s also important when you teach in a new medium such as blended learning for you to be able to demonstrate to your colleagues that it’s actually a good way to teach, and what better form of persuasion for scholars than offering them empirical data to make my case?
The backwards design process involves three questions. First, the course objectives are determined by asking ‘what do I want my students to be able to do at the end of the course’? The emphasis on “doing” rather than simply “knowing” is deliberate, because it points to the key role of active learning in the design of the course. Second, what evidence or documentation will I accept that demonstrates my students can in fact accomplish what I have identified as the course objectives? The evidence can be of many different sorts – for instance, a score on an examination, a performance or installation, a writing portfolio – but the point is to ensure that each course objective is matched by documentation that shows to any objective third party that the course achieved its ends. And third, what learning activities will produce the evidence I require? Each learning activity, then, is intended to achieve a concrete empirical purpose. Instead of taking the learning activity as an end in itself, as might have been the case with exams and term papers in a traditional face-to-face course, the backwards design model argues that learning activities are of value only when they relate directly to the goals of the course, and when they show that indeed those goals have been met. This provides an instructor with a clear guideline for including or excluding particular learning activities, or for deciding to add new ones to the mix.
I ’ll give you a sample of some of my course goals, and how I turned them into learning activities that would produce evidence that students could accomplish them. First, I wanted students to be able to use typical forms of textual analysis to interpret advertising. “Flat” ads area very different genre from “moving” ads, so I wanted the students to become proficient in each. Second, in order to understand anthropology you must actually do anthropology, which means that my students needed to produce data by engaging in ethnography, the key practice at the core of anthropology. Ethnography involves identifying a site, observing it, interacting with its “inhabitants,” and developing field notes to document findings. In this instance, the students would be using shopping malls as the principal site for their work. And third, since I believe that commercial culture is pervasive in America, I wanted my students to apply the metaphor of the market that is defined by ads and shopping to other domains of American life that are not ostensibly commercial, such as science, religion, and education. This would, I believed, give them a new analytical vocabulary and a fresh way to see their culture that would demonstrate what they had learned in the course.
The sorts of evidence that I ’m willing to accept of students’ performance is principally qualitative, not quantitative. For instance the students must be able to use media analysis techniques such as asymmetry and substitution and must discern the distinction between preferred and resistant readings of ads. To take another example, “thick” description is an ethnographic method that requires students to unpack a given event to identify its cultural rules or components. I provided the students with several theoretical models of shopping, and chose a multidimensional model for them to use in their field study, since it would draw out more of the ethnographic detail available in the site. Finally, once the students had shown their ability to use the language of marketing, terms such as unique selling proposition or brand extension, I required that they apply these terms directly to areas other than the obviously commercial. We spent a couple of class periods, for instance, using small groups to study a complex article about the development of evangelical and charismatic Christian movements in the United States. I should add parenthetically that I used other methods than the ones described above to demonstrate that students could apply accurately the ideas in their readings. This course used both “entrance assignments” – short hardcopy essays handed in at the start of each face-to-face class – and as well, “exit assignments” – three or four sentence feedback given spontaneously in writing at the end of each class – to gauge their progress and to respond to any areas of ambiguity or uncertainty that arose. However, there were no exams in the class, since the students demonstrated their mastery of the course content in other ways that I have sketched above.
To conclude, I ’ve linked several of the assignments I used in this course so that you can see the rigor of the work I expected from the students, and the increasing mastery of the ideas I wished them to apply to real-life cultural situations. The studying up exercise was intended to test students’ use of basic media critique methods. The shopping knowledge assignment was meant to see whether they could discern the cultural rules involved in product classification that allow shoppers to transact their cultural goals. The shop until you drop assignment was the most complex of these three, since the students had to apply both visual critical methods and cultural descriptive methods at a given shopping site of their own choice. And finally, the everything is a brand assignment was an entrée into the use of the marketing metaphor and its associated analytical terminology in ostensibly noncommercial situations. Please notice that in each of these cases, I have used the backwards design model first, to determine what I wanted students to be able to do, second, to decide upon an acceptable level of documentation that would demonstrate their mastery, and third, to define a learning activity that would produce the data or documentation that I required. The process, finally, is cumulative in the sense that each successive assignment presupposes an appropriate level of achievement in its predecessors. My use of the entrance and exit assignments was intended to afford me an independent means to examine and respond to students ’ progress along each step of the way. As I pointed out earlier, the backwards design model is notable for its low-stakes, frequent assessment that entails rapid turnaround and extensive feedback. These assessments are in an important sense the “engine” that drives blended instruction as a mode of teaching independent of traditional face-to-face instruction. I see blended teaching very much as assessment-centered! I would further observe that because these assessments necessarily entail work that is both face-to-face and online (as well as off-site), they help to ensure the integration of the blended through the sequencing and accumulation of analytical and descriptive skills that the students must display.
What advantages should you expect from hybrid course redesign? Matt Russell, Ph.D. & Gerald Bergtrom, Ph.D. Learning Technology Consultants Learning Technology Center University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee