If your memory of college includes trying to stay awake in large lecture halls, Cub Kahn has news for you. When he thinks about the future of higher education, he sees hybrids. Forget the cars that combine gas engines and electric motors. These hybrids are the latest in college courses. They enable students to learn via computer with online videos and activities that can be done at home or in the library or coffee shop. Hybrids meet less often in actual classrooms, but when they do, their sessions resemble hands-on workshops where students solve problems and apply their knowledge. Done well, hybrids can improve learning and help students get more mileage out of education.
Nationally, college faculty have been experimenting with hybrid courses for many years, but they are only now gaining traction in standard curricula, says Kahn, an instructional designer for Oregon State University’s Extended Campus and the Center for Teaching and Learning. Test scores and grades show they are at least as effective as traditional classrooms. Moreover, they appear to help students prepare more effectively for class.
“Think of education as a whole — what is it? Is it just the transfer of information? If that’s the case, then Harvard has a problem, and all other universities have a problem too.”
— Eric Mazur, physicist, Harvard Magazine
“If you walk into classrooms today, you’re likely to see someone reading PowerPoint slides to students. In 10 years, if you walk around the hallways, you’ll see something substantially different,” says Kahn. “Nobody will be talking about hybrid courses. They will be the norm.”
Teaching in this fashion requires a sea change in academia. The hallowed “sage on the stage” tradition — an instructor who lectures uninterrupted for 50 minutes or more, students who sit passively and take notes — is giving way to a more interactive process leavened by Wi-Fi and the Web. The shift pushes against centuries of ingrained pedagogical practice, so Kahn leads OSU faculty members in their own course of study. Through collaborations that he calls Learning Communities, instructors are creating hybrid courses that fit their teaching styles and disciplines.
The move to hybrids is only one example of a broader trend at Oregon State. As one-way information delivery moves online, face-to-face classes are getting recharged. Students are engaging in debates, creating videos, building three-dimensional models, visualizing ideas and even reviewing each other’s exams. Instructors roam the room and vary the pace by challenging students to solve problems or address questions in small groups.
To advance this vision, a new classroom building is on the drawing boards, one that will offer unusual room arrangements and a hub for faculty who want to conduct research on new teaching methods (see “Flexibility to Learn” sidebar).
Jon Dorbolo directs Oregon State’s Technology Across the Curriculum program and was recognized by the Center for Digital Education (an educational research institute in Folsom, California) last fall as one of 50 Top Innovators in Education. He works with faculty members on methods for stimulating student engagement. “Ultimately what we work for academically,” he says, “is for our students to see themselves as scholars. Not as passive recipients of information but as active scholars, researchers.”
Teaching, he adds, is an example of the scientific method in action. “Every lecture is a hypothesis. An instructor goes in there saying, ‘I’m going to communicate in this fashion, with the expectation that what I’m doing — the examples I’m giving, the analogies I’m using, what I’m drawing on the board, the questions I ask — is going to have an effect on the learner. If they (the students) pay attention and follow along with me, by the end of this, they ought to be different than they were before.’”
Measuring student learning is typically done through exams, which Dorbolo calls “this blunt and unsatisfying instrument.” Ultimately, evidence of teaching effectiveness, faculty members say, lies in the ability of students to think creatively and apply new knowledge.
The foundation for this new approach comes down to how people learn. “We have to allow the integration of knowledge,” says Kay Sagmiller, director of the OSU Center for Teaching and Learning. That requires active engagement in an environment in which students feel welcome, safe and confident. “Our challenge is to figure out how to open up the hearts and minds of those in the classroom to integrate what we offer into their existing knowledge,” she adds.
“Many faculty members don’t want to talk to a sea of faces. They prefer to engage with each person,” adds Dedra Demaree, assistant professor of physics who studies instructional methods in introductory courses. In her research, she has focused on how her own teaching affects student engagement. “My general philosophy is that I want to be able to quantify things so I can measure outcomes. But,” she says, “there are a lot of deep things you can’t get to by measurement.”
Classroom as Studio
While Demaree teaches first- and second-year students in lecture halls, she has also designed a classroom — a “physics studio” — that invites student participation. Instead of facing forward in rows, students work together at round tables. They get out of their seats to demonstrate concepts on electronic displays positioned around the room. A low-friction floor enables them to experiment with phenomena such as momentum and inertia.
With her graduate student team, Demaree analyzes videos of activity in class to understand what students actually do as she leads a discussion. She wants to know if they are disconnected or partially or fully engaged and how they are engaging in and interpreting discourse in the classroom. The team complements those analyses with interviews of students to delve deeply into the learning process.
Demaree’s group has shown that even small unintentional cues from the instructor can make a big difference for students. For example, in two separate sections of a class, Demaree gave two different messages about her expectations. “I told one section, ‘Remember this course is for everyone, even if you’ve never had physics before. We should all be able to reason through the process.’” To the other group, she said, “We started this on Friday and you should already know the answer.” Her explanation stimulated engagement in the first group and depressed it in the second. “The difference in engagement was phenomenal,” she says.
Pushing this educational shift, adds Kahn, is communication technology that students already know and trust. From laptops to smart phones to tablets, students have many opportunities to get information and exercise their brains. “Students are quite adept at accessing information. They’re going to use these devices no matter what. Why not try to get them to use those tools to accomplish the learning outcomes of the course? For better or worse,” he says, “they’re going to educate themselves.”
“In general,” says Sagmiller, “we underestimate how complex teaching and learning and assessment are. It’s exceedingly complex. It’s hard. Anybody who thinks it’s easy should stand up in a classroom of 600 undergraduates and give it a go and see how that feels. Or be held captive in a classroom with 35 kindergartners.”
Engagement Across the Curriculum
Many Oregon State faculty members are challenging their students in new ways. Here are a few examples from across campus.
Applets for Algebra. Scott Peterson wants students to think mathematically, not just to memorize formulas. He teaches introductory algebra, a fundamental course for most students. Online, he provides applets, software that allows students to visually perform mathematical tasks. Two of three weekly classes are spent in active exploration of algebraic concepts. In weekly lectures, he prompts students to discuss problems. He monitors conversations and tracks solutions through a rapid response system known as a clicker. He uses the results as a springboard for deeper discussion. About 2,000 OSU students take introductory algebra every year. Next fall, all sections are scheduled to adopt Peterson’s methods.
Roaming with an iPad. Devon Quick typically has 500 to 600 students in her introduction to human anatomy and physiology class. Like Peterson, she uses clickers, and she posts her lectures and other materials online for students to review. During class, she roams the room with an iPad. Using software from Doceri.com, she draws and manipulates images on a screen at the front of the room. She may hand the iPad to a student to demonstrate a concept. In surveys, 88 percent of her students have indicated that they like her use of the iPad and feel it makes the class more interactive.
Hybrid Versus Traditional. In two sections of Introduction to Psychology (300 or more students), Kathy Becker-Blease compared a hybrid to a traditional teaching approach. Each section used the same classroom, time of day, learning objectives, textbook and exam questions. Through quizzes, exams and homework scores, Becker-Blease found that student learning was equivalent. She also works with textbook publishers who offer online “diagnostic quizzing.” Students get immediate feedback as they answer questions, and instructors see how individuals and the class as a whole perform. Becker-Blease says students come to class better prepared. She is planning research to analyze the effectiveness of this approach.
Collaborative Testing. Tests need not be a cause for jitters. Engineering professor John Selker’s high-tech secret: two pens with different colors. After students complete their tests with one pen, he hands out the second and has them work in groups to identify mistakes and come up with the right answers. Students get full credit for their initial work in the first color and partial credit for writing corrections in the second color. By working out solutions with their peers, students fill in knowledge gaps and strengthen peer relationships. “At last,” says Selker, “the smartest student is also the most popular!”
Video Demonstrations. An engineering course, Strength of Materials, focuses on the forces that push, pull, bend and break everything from steel to carbon fiber. To help his 230 students master the mathematics and the concepts, Joseph Zaworski created 35 short online videos. Playable on any device from desktop computer to mobile phone, they allow students to pause and review as often as necessary. Between classes, students review videos and read the textbook. Class meetings include quizzes and team-based problem solving. Zaworski uses software from TopHatMonacle.com to monitor student responses and address common concerns.
A new learning laboratory will be a seedbed for the latest concepts in active teaching and learning to Oregon State.
Listen to a podcast about teaching innovations from the Center for Teaching and Learning.