FoTT Conf 2009: Teaching Blended Courses — Ensuring Success by Avoiding Pitfalls

The third presentation of the morning is “Teaching Blended Courses: Ensuring Success by Avoiding Pitfalls”, presented by Barbara Petzall of Maryville University. According to the program blurb, this session will identify problem areas that instructors may encounter when designing blended classes.


Possibly 40% of all courses may be delivered online within the next 6 years. We all need to have this in mind when developing blended or fully online courses.

How do you differentiate between enhanced, blended, and hybrid courses?

Enhanced — Used as an enhancement to the classroom:

  • Syllabi
  • Tests
  • PowerPoint
  • Drop box assignments
  • Class lists

Basically, an enhanced course makes full use of the Blackboard course management system (or similar) while still teaching the lectures in person. Blackboard just simplifies many of the tasks associated with the course. Enhanced courses are great for making the transition to a more fully developed hybrid or online course.

However, be aware of the “I can do anything and everything syndrome”. Don’t over commit to producing content online. Take small steps at first until you develop confidence in delivering content online.

Become best friends with the technology experts (i.e. IT and EdTech), but understand that those resources do have limitations and are not available 24/7.

It is also important to forge professional relationships with more experienced faculty as mentors.

Work load needs to be considered when trying to transition to blended courses. If possible, try to get some release time to work on developing the course content. Initially, it will take a significant amount of time and effort to produce the course, but then it is done and can be recycled from semester to semester, with minor tweaks along the way.

Allow plenty of time for setting up the course, but also allow time for testing the finished product. Don’t spend more time working on the technology for the course than on the content. Don’t lose sight of the objectives–you are the subject matter expert, not the technical expert. Develop positive relationships with IT and other support staff on campus so you don’t have to worry as much about the technology issues.

To fully understand what is involved, talk to someone who has already done it. Try setting up your question library (question pools in Blackboard, if you use Bb’s assessment tools). Can you manipulate the grading system (Blackboard’s Grade Center has a number of options)? At first, the old ways are much faster and easier to understand. Don’t forget the learning curve.

Avoid creating a “course and a half” by introducing too many assignments into your course. It’s very easy to create assignments in Blackboard, but keep in mind you still have to grade them all! If you use automated grading features in Blackboard, this is not too much of an issue, but someone still needs to grade essays and project-based assignments. Remember how long it normally takes to grade assignments in a traditional class.

If you are allowing students to take tests online, then they may need slightly more time than they would need in a traditional class, especially if they have never done it before.

Blended and hybrid courses require that we think in terms of modules or stand-alone “chunks” while enhanced courses can run the gamut from email list only, up to the level of blended and hybrid courses. Consider course content in terms of the individual knowledge elements that must be learned, rather than chapters or weeks. Design your online course elements so they can be broken down into manageable units. This also maximizes the re-usability of knowledge components.

Technology fails! Usually when you need it most! ALWAYS have a Plan B when using technology for your course. When all else fails, a piece of chalk is your best friend (or a dry-erase marker, depending on what classroom you are in).

Be flexible. Be understanding. Technology also fails for students, so be patient when they report problems. Contact IT for assistance, if necessary.

Watch out for navigation issues with respect to online contact. Not every web site owner knows the best way to build a web site. Many sites are constructed organically over time, so can appear to have no organized structure. If you are building your course web site (in Blackboard or somewhere else), keep the user’s navigational needs in mind. Try to navigate your site (or a site you will be using for your course) from the perspective of your students.

Students often interact more online than they do in the classroom. It is often more comfortable for students to interact from the relative anonymity behind a keyboard, rather than expose themselves to embarrassment in front of other students.

When developing tests online, try to develop them as if the students were taking the tests iin a classroom. Test the tests yourself, to make sure that students will be able to activate the test. You can use Adaptive Release rules in Blackboard to control when tests are available and who has access to the tests. Randomized questions from question pools guarantee that students don’t have the same questions, however this can make grading the tests more challenging, depending on the questions on the test. You can also introduce random questions from previous tests to help with retention of the information.

If you want to use multimedia components in your course, you need to familiarize yourself with the challenges of such components. Media comes in a wide variety of audio and video formats. You should use the most common and accessible formats as every student will have different machine specifications. It can also take more time to create or import media into your course. Don’t forget about any copyright issues that may be involved if you use third-party created media.

You also need to take into account the student proficiencies in technology. S&T students are typically very technology savvy, but non-traditional students may not be quite as proficient. If you can, provide some directions on how to access the course content. EdTech also has a number of resources on how to use technology as both an instructor and as a student.

Students perceive that taking an enhanced, blended, or hybrid course is going to require less work and take up less time.

To help students succeed, be upfront with your expectations from your students. Explain what is expected and when.

Use standard motivational and positive feedback mechanisms to keep students engaged in the course.

Remind students that you have a life too, so they should take that into account when they demand instantaneous feedback. Establish reasonable turn-around-times for assignments, quizzes, and emails.