I was introduced to the concept of blended learning a year ago while attending a conference on next-generation learning. Blended learning is an approach to education that combines traditional classroom pedagogies with online activities and resources.
In some of my courses (e.g., Sociology of Health and Medicine; Environmental Sociology; Quantitative Research Methods), students regularly work with GIS, a spatial analysis/mapping program, and STATA, a statistics program, to test hypotheses and examine issues of sociological concern. The problem, of course, is that teaching the software programs and other skills, such as accessing and preparing census data, is time-intensive and often repetitive. Throw in high student enrollments and it was difficult to manage the projects without sacrificing considerable class time to technical issues. I was compelled to organize students into small groups — not for pedagogical reasons (of which there may be some on occasion), but simply because of the logistics. Worse yet, I often scaled back my ambitions for such projects given these issues.
With the concept of blended learning in mind, I purchased Camtasia Studio software, a program that allows one to record both audio and screen action, and set about creating tutorial videos for both GIS and STATA. Once completed, the videos were uploaded to YouTube and linked on my department webpage. Each of the videos is designed to capture a particular skill set. This keeps each video short and focused, allowing students to find what they need and process it more quickly.
Importantly, the skills embodied in the videos can be combined and recombined in unique ways to tackle any number of projects in GIS and STATA, not just the project illustrated in the videos. Students need only creatively recombine and adapt the skills demonstrated to the unique demands of their own projects. In this way, the tutorials contribute to the development of students’ troubleshooting skills. They live in a world where they certainly can’t know everything, but the resources to troubleshoot questions and projects are increasingly available online.
The results of this adventure have been quite promising. While I was initially concerned students would use the videos as a crutch, I have found that they very quickly take the training wheels off and begin to operate independently of them. In short order, they “learn to learn” on the software itself. Still, skill atrophy is inevitable, particularly on the Block Plan where students may not revisit something for a very long time. The tutorials have been a resource for students working on independent research months later, even after leaving CC.
The tutorials also allow greater flexibility in student projects during a course. More individual and creative work is possible in many cases. Lastly, and most importantly, I find that I have regained class time that was previously appropriated by software lessons that actually didn’t require our collective attention.
To top it all off, I find that students have been able to acquire a higher level of mastery than they did before — of both the conceptual material and the methods. That has allowed more time for interesting discussions. Not only are we not skimping on discussions we had little time for before, but we also have time to engage in discussions on research design and measurement.
Wade Roberts is associate professor of sociology and winner of the 2013 Ray O. Werner Award for Exemplary Teaching in the Liberal Arts. Read what others say about Roberts’s class.