student studying

The idea behind blended learning is that students spend more time on their own reviewing course materials, freeing up more classroom time for discussion.

The human qualities of higher education lie at the heart of blended learning, even though the approach to course delivery is bolstered by a framework of technology.

Faculty who are advancing the format at Northern Arizona University spoke recently about how it promotes personal interaction, freedom to learn and individual responsibility. In addition, the digital space of a blended course produces a “multiplier effect” on classroom capacity and course enrollment.

Such faculty observations were highlighted at the recent President’s Technology Initiative Expo, where President John Haeger, Provost Laura Huenneke and other academic leaders heard about the progress of blended learning on campus. The speakers all had received funding from President’s Technology Initiative grants to design, demonstrate and fully deploy blended courses. In fall 2013, the Provost’s Blended Learning Grant was added.

While students and faculty have been experiencing the benefits—and sometimes challenges—of blended learning, Denise Helm and the Blended Learning Leadership Team worked with departments across campus “trying to understand what they know, what their concerns and fears are, and how we can assist them,” said Helm, special assistant to the Provost.

A clear definition of blended learning—sometimes interchangeably referred to as flipped or hybrid learning—needed to be established to clearly distinguish it from online and traditional classroom learning, Helm said. So the team “came up with something that made sense for NAU.”

In essence, 25 percent or more of the total course consists of learning experiences outside the classroom, The idea is that if students are given the chance to review materials on their own, then classroom time is freed up for discussion.

And as the number of NAU courses that meet the “blended” criteria incrementally increases—about 7 percent of classes scheduled for fall 2014—the university’s emphasis is shifting to improving learning outcomes, Helm said.

“One goal for the coming year is to focus on what students need,” Helm said. “Students need to be prepared to succeed in a blended environment.”

That observation emerged as a theme during the expo, at which faculty from political science, health professions, business, chemistry and other disciplines presented data and offered conclusions about their experiences with traditional courses redesigned for a blended format.

According to several participants, despite the perception of students as digital natives who are highly adept at technology, early numbers and anecdotes from blended learning are revealing an initial period of acclimation, and occasionally discomfort, among some students. Adjusting to the amount of out-of-class preparation can take time.

“Students need to take responsibility for their learning,” Helm said. “It’s a new way of approaching education for some of them.”

Yet most faculty agreed that students not only caught on but relished the opportunity to “dig in” to background material on their own time, and that they welcomed the personal interaction during class, and after, that was made possible.

A blended approach even allows classroom space to be used more effectively—for example, interactive exercises in an engineering class instead of the passive observation of demonstrations—and has expanded enrollment capacity in courses that lend themselves to online enhancement.

“We’re not saying that blended learning is appropriate for every course and every professor,” Helm said. “Anyone who’s done this knows that the initial upfront work is much harder. But now that they have gone through it, they see there’s more time for meaningful discussion and activities that engage students.”