By Erica Fleming
As an instructor of Business Writing, I face a daunting task at the beginning of every semester: how can I get my students to “buy in” to the importance of my class content? Can I convince them that my class is worthy of its designation as a General Education Requirement? And most importantly, how can I tailor my class to make it relevant to the way writing is performed in today’s business world? Anyone who regularly teaches Smeal students understands the necessity of addressing these issues in the Business Writing classroom.
These questions led me to reconsider the teaching approaches I use in this particular class. At the Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) Symposium last March (2017), I attended a presentation by faculty who had participated in the BlendLT (Learning Transformation) program: a series of workshops to help faculty apply a “blended” (a.k.a hybrid) structure to their courses. This idea of a blended classroom fascinated me, and I immediately began to imagine ways that I could implement some of these techniques into my Business Writing classroom.
A blended course is one in which some percentage of a residential class – anywhere between 25%-75% of the course content – is taken out of the classroom and performed online instead. This idea initially terrified me, as I had not previously felt confident when teaching online classes.
However, I recognized benefits of this approach that were uniquely suited to my Business Writing students: my class is meant to prepare them for the writing they will inevitably do in the business world. A large percentage of the writing, reviewing, and collaborating they will do professionally is currently done online; companies may require online training; they may be asked to review the work of their peers (everything from 360 degree performance reviews to team-based projects to a co-worker asking for an opinion on a current project); they may even work entirely remotely with domestic or international offices (via video- or tele-conference, or even simply working from home and communicating via phone, email, or text).
As a result of these trends in the business world, I wanted to find a way to structure my class to mimic the modern workplace. This would force my students to work more independently than they are used to in a residential college classroom, but also allow them the freedom to work at their own pace while still meeting deadlines.
After speaking with Gregg Rogers and Bob Burkholder about the workshop and its possibilities, I applied to the BlendLT program and was ultimately accepted. I attended six workshops (two in person, four as video conferences via Zoom) with the team at TLT. During those workshops I learned about the techniques, pedagogy, and research involved in creating a blended class environment. I took the rest of the summer to completely overhaul my course for fall, with a lot of help from an instructional designer in the College of the Liberal Arts (Jessie Driver was a dream to work with, and if you ever have the opportunity to collaborate with someone in the Office of Digital Pedagogy and Scholarship, jump at the chance!).
I decided to change about a third of my class to online content. This meant that for one out of the three classes in a M-W-F schedule, we didn’t actually meet in the classroom. Instead, students were required to work independently on 50 minutes of previously in-class work. I spent much of my summer researching: learning how to take some of my in-class material and not only make it function online, but also be more effective for my students in the online format. My new online content included online lecture videos (filmed prior to the start of the semester – I filmed 16 short videos), online peer review, and other various types of online group work and discussion forums.
The response from my students was almost entirely positive, as evidenced by great feedback on mid- and end-of-semester surveys as well as the highest SRTE’s I have ever received. Students loved the added flexibility of the online coursework, but also mentioned that they enjoyed the in-class time more because we focused entirely on class discussion and active learning rather than passive lectures or working individually on peer reviews.
I also noticed considerably more in-depth and thoughtful peer review comments when the stress of providing feedback face-to-face was removed. Students commented on surveys that they felt less rushed to complete the peer reviews, and that they could be more honest about their suggestions in this online format.
However, this process was not without its challenges. My instructions had to be completely understandable and transparent for online class days, and when they weren’t clear (which happened twice over the course of the semester), I spent a ton of time answering questions via email and finding ways to revise those assignments. In addition, reading through and grading the online peer reviews was far more work than I anticipated.
As I continue to revise and refine my blended course this spring, I have reorganized my schedule so that the online day falls at the same time every week. This avoids confusion concerning the in-class day, and provides some structure and stability that was missing last semester. I revisited all of my assignments and online instructions to ensure clarity and concision, and also incorporated some of the constructive feedback I received from students.
Adapting my course material to a blended format was an incredibly rewarding process. It was (and continues to be) a lot of work, but has been worth it due to both the positive reactions from my students as well as evidence of their improved engagement and performance. This year, the College of the Liberal Arts decided to create their own BlendDLA (Digital Liberal Arts) workshops during Maymester 2018, and I am helping to design and facilitate this new project. In addition, I will be presenting on both my course and adapting a blended format for courses across the university at the TLT Symposium on March 17.
What started as a vague notion to increase the applicability of my course turned into an incredible opportunity for professional development. This blended format allows me to do what I love in the classroom while incorporating proven strategies from online classes. As I continue to work on my class, I look forward to discovering new ways to help my students become better writers in their fields.