Monday, May 30, 2011

Science Says Blended Learning Works

The approach to teaching science, computing and engineering at universities is about to change radically, following a paper in the prestigious journal "Science". As reported in "The Economist" ("Teaching methods, An alternative vote: Applying science to the teaching of science", 12 May 2011), tests have shown that using a technique calld "deliberate practice" and getting rid of lectures improves education:

The process described is:
"Class time is spent on problem-solving, discussion and group work, while the absorption of facts and formulae is left for homework. Students were given reading assignments before classes. Once in the classroom they spent their time in small groups, discussing specific problems, with the teacher roaming between groups to offer advice and respond to questions. ..."

From: "Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class", Louis Deslauriers and Ellen Schelew, Karl Wieman, Vol. 332, 13 May 2011, Science 13 May 2011
This is not as radical as it sounds, as "deliberate practice" is in effect going back to the pre-industrial approach to education (and the way education is done now in primary and secondary schools): "Here is an overview of the topic: study the materials, do the exercises and we will get together to see how you go".

The more interactive approach to teaching has been made more efficient by the use of wireless computer technology, "clickers", "iPads" and the like. However, underneath it is an age old method. Resistance to this has come from lecturers who are faced with increasing class sizes and who can't afford to risk using what they see as an untried technique. What will convince those from science is a paper in a prestigious journal with with a statistical analysis of test subjects:
We compared the amounts of learning achieved using two different instructional approaches under controlled conditions.

We measured the learning of a specific set of topics and objectives when taught by 3 hours of traditional lecture given by an experienced highly rated instructor and 3 hours of instruction given by a trained but inexperienced instructor using instruction based on research in cognitive psychology and physics education. The comparison was made between two large sections (N = 267 and N = 271) of an introductory undergraduate physics course. We found increased student attendance, higher engagement, and more than twice the learning in the section taught using research-based instruction.

From: "Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class", Louis Deslauriers and Ellen Schelew, Karl Wieman, Vol. 332, 13 May 2011, Science 13 May 2011
In 2007 about the I attended a talk in Canberra on the MIT iCampus and its implementation at University of Queensland, where similar techniques and research results were presented.

In 2008 the Australian Computer Society, commissioned me to design a course on Green ICT using an approach adapted from the UK Open University for postgraduate teaching. In 2009 I started teaching a version of this at the Australian National University.

The process is reasonably simple: first I give the students some lecture notes (without the lectures). They then read some readings, watch some videos and do some exercises, by themselves. We then meet as a group to answer questions and discuss. The students do a mid and end of semester assignment. Group participation forms part of the assessment, but most is by traditional written assignments.

These techniques can be used with pure e-learning, online with no physical classroom. They can also be used in a "blended" approach, with a physical classroom. Ideally the classrooms should be designed with this in mind, in a "learning commons".

The value of such teaching techniques is now well established. The issue is how to apply what has been learnt widely and routinely. This will require an investment in training of staff and re-equipment of campuses. One small example is the use of iPads and i-boards.

One approach which can be used to accelerate the process is by using the teaching techniques to teach the techniques. The University of Canberra is building the Inspire Centre for ICT Pedagogy, Practice and Research. However, more work is needed on better computer tools for use in such centres.

At present students and teachers are confronted with an array of computer gadgets which do not necessarily work well together: interactive whiteboards, "clickers", tablet computers, learning management systems and video conference systems. Classes may be divided into those in the classroom and those online, full time, part time, domestic and international. It should be feasible to bring these all together, so that the teacher and student can choose the most appropriate gadget and teaching method wherever they are at a particular time.

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