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Blended Learning and the Open Learning Initiative in a Liberal Arts Context: Bryn Mawr’s Next Generation Learning Challenge Grant

by on December 23, 2011
As I noted in my last post, community colleges and research universities seem to be generating much of the attention for their open education work.  But some compelling recent initiatives exploring aspects of open education originate in the liberal arts community. In this post, I will focus on Bryn Mawr’s experiments with blended learning, using interactive content from the Open Learning Initiative(OLI) and other sources.

Open Educational Resources: The Education Ecosystem Comes to Life by opensourceway

Open Educational Resources: The Education Ecosystem Comes to Life by opensourceway

Liberal arts colleges pride themselves on the high quality educational experiences that they offer, which typically feature small classes, rich face-to-face interaction with faculty and peers, a residential experience, civic engagement, and undergraduate research. Indeed, commentators such as Kevin Carey  and Clayton Christiansen and Henry Eyring suggest that elite liberal arts colleges are not as vulnerable to the disruptions of online education as many other universities are. Some see blended and online learning as opposed to what makes liberal arts colleges unique and effective, perhaps fearing that face-to-face learning will be undermined. But blended learning–which Bryn Mawr defines loosely as courses in which students both participate in face-to-face classes and work through computer-based, interactive tutorials and quizzes that provide customized learning and instant feedback–can actually support the goals of liberal education.

Recently Bryn Mawr won a $250,000 grant from the Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC) to explore blended learning from a liberal arts perspective, making use of modules developed by Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI) and other sources. As Bryn Mawr’s provost Kim Cassidy said in introducing the blended learning workshop it hosted this summer, its fundamental goal is to “improve student learning.” To find out more about Bryn Mawr’s initiative, I interviewed Jennifer Spohrer, who is the educational technologist supporting the project, attended Bryn Mawr’s December 15 webinar about the project, and watched the three videos documenting the Blended Learning workshop that Bryn Mawr hosted this summer (I’m including many paraphrases from these sources in this post). Bryn Mawr’s project is only about halfway completed, but already there are some promising results that point to the potential of well-designed, interactive, assessment-based, data-driven educational resources to improve learning.

The Goals

A number of students who enter college aspiring to science, engineering, or medical careers abandon those plans, often because they lack strong pre-college preparation and thus struggle in introductory courses.  As part of its efforts to address the disparities in preparation for college science and math courses, Bryn Mawr is experimenting with blended learning. In particular, Bryn Mawr is focusing on developmental and introductory courses, since students in these courses are often at different levels and need personalized tutoring and support. Essentially Bryn Mawr’s initiative aims to help students progress past gaps in their knowledge, providing targeted opportunities for them to practice and get immediate feedback on their learning. Created by teams of faculty, learning scientists, human-computer interaction specialists, and software engineers, OLI courses focus on specific, “measurable” learning objectives and provide content, interactive exercises, and intelligent tutors to help students to meet these objectives. OLI collects data on how learners perform, enabling instructors to monitor the progress of both individuals and the entire class and tailor their teaching to particular needs. Studies have demonstrated that OLI can accelerate learning (particularly in a blended environment) and increase completion of courses at a large public university. (I will provide a fuller description of OLI in my next post.) By using OLI modules and other blended learning materials, Bryn Mawr hopes to devote more class time to discussion and problem-solving and increase the number of students who complete STEM courses (and, ultimately, majors).  As the project abstract states, “Targeted use of this technology will free up classroom time for more in-depth coverage of complex material and use of creative pedagogical strategies.” Bryn Mawr also seeks to share its findings with other liberal arts colleges and to foster collaborations around blended learning.

Blended Learning and Liberal Arts?

A couple of comments on a recent  Chronicle of Higher Education article describing Bryn Mawr’s project reveal a fear that online learning is “antithetical” to liberal education.  (Perhaps the reaction is in part due to the misleading headline: “Liberal-Arts Colleges Venture Into Unlikely Territory: Online Courses”). However, I think this fear is misplaced, since it ignores Bryn Mawr’s objectives to overcome learning gaps, overlooks the fact that the program focuses not on replacing face-to-face learning but on supplementing and enhancing it, and does not take into account the research demonstrating the effectiveness of OLI. Although blended learning may seem at odds with the face-to-face, place-based learning typically offered by liberal arts colleges, Bryn Mawr is performing important work in testing how it might work in a liberal arts context and sharing its processes and findings. As Cassidy remarked at the summer workshop, the key question is “not what does the technology drive us to do, but what does the learning drive us to do.” Bryn Mawr aims not to replace human interaction, but to “augment what we do well at liberal arts colleges.” Given the high degree of faculty autonomy, diversity of pedagogical approaches, and unique culture at  liberal arts colleges, Bryn Mawr understands that there is no “one size fits all” solution.  Rather, it is working with faculty to determine what approaches will be most appropriate for their classes and what harmonizes with the culture of liberal arts colleges. Where does blended learning work in a liberal arts context, and where is it inappropriate? To what extent can online learning supplement classroom learning and free up class time for more in-depth discussion and problem solving? In what ways does blended learning support liberal education’s goal to help students learn how to learn? Even if Bryn Mawr’s experience points to problems in integrating blended learning into liberal education, failures are just as important to understand as successes are.

Current Approaches

Originally Bryn Mawr proposed to focus on four courses, but faculty interest was so high that it enlarged the program. For the fall of 2011, 11 courses (including multiple sections) in biology, chemistry, computer science, quantitative skills and  economics) are participating in the program. For the spring of 2012, at least 9 courses are planned in environmental science, geology, biology and psychology. Since incorporating blended learning requires faculty to devote significant effort to re-thinking and restructuring their courses, they receive modest stipends. Each professor brings his or her own questions and approaches to the project, so it includes a diversity of courses, instructional approaches and learning resources.

Faculty are turning to blended learning to address a range of pedagogical goals, such as accommodating students’ diverse backgrounds, enabling students to practice key skills, and freeing up class time to delve into more complex issues. Although the participating courses come from a range of disciplines, many share common characteristics, including heterogeneous groups of students, large courses (although some small courses are also participating), and frequent homework assignments and quizzes. Often faculty want to avoid assigning a textbook, and they tend to teach subjects that require frequent review and repetition.

Participating courses include:

  • A half-semester introductory chemistry course designed for students with weak science and math backgrounds. Students work through the OLI chemistry modules prior to coming to class, honing their understanding of key concepts. By having students use OLI to study and practice basic concepts, the instructor can devote class time to focus on problem solving instead of lecturing and target areas where students need the most help, such as developing their problem solving and math skills.
  • In a biology course aimed at post-baccalaureate students, students bring a wide range of backgrounds.  The instructor thus is using open educational resources to enable students to address their own weaknesses as they prepare for class.
  • Likewise, students in a course on biology fundamentals come with a diversity of goals and experiences, but often lack a strong background in biology.  This half-semester class is exploring biology through the lens of cystic fibrosis, investigating genetics, proteins, and ethical issues. The instructor could not find a textbook that addressed these diverse issues, so she is curating her own readings, drawing from open educational resources.  In addition, she uses frequent Moodle quizzes to assess student comprehension, so she can come into class with a better sense of what students need. Students seem to like the quizzes, which help them keep up with the material and determine what they don’t yet comprehend.
  • In a general chemistry class, instructors are testing OLI as an alternative to commercial software. Prior success with the interactive commercial software got the instructors interested in an open alternative, since the price for the proprietary software is increasing and students experienced log-in problems.
  • In a course on computational linguistics, the professor used to spend a lot of class time reviewing homework solutions. Now he has created video tutorials in which he demonstrates the solutions. If students still have questions after going through the tutorials, he can address them in class in a more focused way, but class time is freed up for more advanced work.  In addition, when the professor is away and cannot lecture, students use self-paced tutorials.
  • For a quantitative (developmental math) seminar, no single open course resource was available, so the instructor used a combination of online components, including the Khan Academy, Open University, and the OLI Probability and Statistics modules.
  • In geology, students often struggle with identifying mineralogical specimens. Unfortunately, there are few good hands-on materials that engage students and help them develop this knowledge. Hence a professor who is teaching an introductory course for the major is developing a series of Moodle practice quizzes that draw from a database of images of minerals, enabling students to test and reinforce their knowledge. When students give a wrong answer, the system can give specific feedback, such as information on how to distinguish two commonly confused minerals. Since many students forget what they’ve learned by the end of the semester, the quizzes make students practice and repeat the identifications. By enabling students to develop this basic knowledge at home, the professor can free up class time to explore the more compelling aspects of the field.

The Role of Open Resources

Although OLI is part of Bryn Mawr’s project, the college is asking a larger question about the role of blended learning in liberal education. In some classes, appropriate OLI resources were not available, so instructors either found other open or freely available resources, adopted commercial resources, or developed their own tutorials, primarily using Moodle.  Sources for open educational content include OLI, the Open University, OER Commons, and the Concord Consortium; on Bryn Mawr’s NGLC Moodle site (you can log in as guest), Spohrer is compiling a database of open resources. These resources vary in the approach that they take. For example, whereas OLI learner data can be shared with the faculty member, Open University only makes available that data to the student.

In domains such as in chemistry, excellent commercial resources are already available, which raises the larger question of when it makes sense to go with the commercial option. Commercial content often comes with support, whereas open materials may lack a sufficient user community to keep them up-to-date and bug-free. At the same time, commercial materials can be expensive, or may only be used for part of the course. Open educational resources can be particularly useful for reviewing core concepts, since students may not have textbooks covering prerequisite material. In any case, most faculty begin by using already available content (whether open or commercial), in part because they do not necessarily have the time or technical expertise to create their own materials. But content isn’t necessarily available to support particular courses, especially interdisciplinary, thematic courses, such as the course on cystic fibrosis. Thus some faculty create their own blended learning resources. Developing blended learning materials requires a “significant up-front time investment,” so it is most efficient if course materials can be re-used. Some of these resources are so focused on the particular needs of one course that they may be difficult for other faculty to customize for their own courses.

Initial Results

Although results of Bryn Mawr’s program are still preliminary, they are on the whole positive. Students report appreciating being able to practice until they understand a concept or approach, which enables them to improve without risking their grades. They also like getting immediate feedback on their performance. However, students see a computer-based resource as being a “waste of time” if they need to invest too much time in figuring out the interface, have to wait for content load, or struggle to input data in an appropriate format. In particular, entering chemical symbols and mathematical formulas on a web browser has proven to be a hassle, a problem that Bryn Mawr is addressing by loading a WYSIWG equation editor into Moodle.

Likewise, instructors are on balance enthusiastic about their experiences with blended learning.  On a practical level, moving to automated grading means that teachers can incorporate frequent assessments into their courses without having to spend too much time grading.  Instructors most appreciate the dashboards provided by OLI and some other systems that allow them to monitor how either individual students or the entire class perform on particular projects. By examining data on student performance, instructors can tailor their lectures and assignments to meet student needs, practicing “agile teaching.”  If they see that the whole class is struggling with a particular set of problems, instructors can address the issue during class; likewise, if one student doesn’t get a concept, the faculty member can invite him or her to come to office hours. Instructors say that students ask more sophisticated questions and can be more specific in pointing to where they are confused. It’s easier for students to seek help if both they and their instructors can see from their learning dashboard that they are struggling in a particular area, and the instructor can use the data to understand what is perplexing the student. Unfortunately, dashboards aren’t as robust for older OLI courses. For instructors who develop their own tutorials in Moodle, they can use Moodle Gradebook to see some data on student performance, though it is not as detailed as what OLI and some commercial systems provide.  According to Spohrer, “instructors looking to adopt these resources might want to consider the level of data provided, as this is typically a feature instructors have found most valuable when using the resource in a blended class.”

For faculty, finding appropriate materials to incorporate into their classes can be challenging and time-consuming. Although some content is available through clearinghouses such as MERLOT and OER Commons, it takes substantial time to sort through the abundance of resources and find what works for a particular class, particularly if they are taking innovative, integrated approaches to teaching.  Sometimes appropriate material isn’t available, sometimes it’s aimed more at high school than college students, and sometimes it is isn’t sequenced in the way that instructors have designed their courses or uses examples that aren’t consistent with their pedagogical approaches. Resources such as the online question bank provided by the Journal of Chemistry Education may be useful for instructors.

Ultimately, according to Spohrer, blended learning can support several pedagogical innovations.  For example, by enabling students to watch lectures and learn content on their own time, blended learning fosters the flipped classroom, allowing class time to be used for discussion, experiments, and in-depth problem solving.  OLI and other systems support formative assessment, so that students can detect gaps in their knowledge and instructors can draw on the learner data to improve how they are teaching. Likewise, blended learning materials like OLI can promote mastery, providing low-stakes testing where students can practice until they master material without fearing that they will get a bad grade for making multiple attempts.


An initial start-up investment was necessary to get Bryn Mawr’s program going.To support faculty and classes experimenting with blended learning, Bryn Mawr is pursuing several complementary approaches. It is running workshops: one was held in the summer of 2011 to prepare faculty, a December workshop allowed participants to learn from experiences in the fall and plan for the spring, and one will be held in May to share the broader findings with the liberal arts community.  An instructional technologist, Spohrer, helps faculty and students use these learning approaches and technologies more effectively. She creates basic materials to help faculty think through how they are approaching blended learning, works closely with faculty to identify relevant resources, and helps them create quizzes and other interactive modules in Moodle. She also troubleshoots technical problems students and faculty are encountering, handle issues with publishers (such as making sure that all students have access to commercial resources), shares information about Bryn Mawr’s NGLC program with other institutions, and oversees assessment.


Assessing the blended learning program presents some challenges. Some of the courses are new, so it isn’t possible to compare learning outcomes in courses incorporating OLI materials with courses that did not use them. Given the many variables that influence learning, including how the faculty member uses blended learning materials, it’s difficult to isolate what factors contribute to success. There may be ethical issues with giving some students access to these learning materials and not providing them to others, given the belief that they will improve learning. Thus Bryn Mawr is evaluating what faculty and students think of the resources and how the faculty use them.  Bryn Mawr would like to understand whether blended learning fosters greater retention, so that in a semester or a year it could test students both in this program and in traditional courses to determine the relative level of retention.

Partnership and Dissemination

Bryn Mawr is committed to disseminating its work and building a community to explore blended education in a liberal arts context, so it is partnering with over 30 other colleges to share its program and findings. Indeed, Cassidy believes that Bryn Mawr’s ability to attract partners was key to its success in winning the NGLC grant.  Partners will be invited to the spring conference to find out about the program’s results, and faculty from partner institutions may apply for $1500 stipends to develop blended courses. Bryn Mawr is also sharing syllabi, how-tos, a database of open educational resources, and other handy tools via a Moodle site (you can log in as guest or request an account). Videos from the summer 2011 workshop and December webinar are available to all.

Initial Conclusions

The Bryn Mawr project is an initial and important step toward the larger goals of understanding the significance of blended learning for liberal arts colleges and determining what educational resources are needed. So is blended education consistent with liberal education?  Early indicators suggest it can be. As Spohrer says, liberal education aims to help students learn how to learn and direct their own education. OLI and other assessment-driven learning materials help students reflect on their own knowledge (metacognition), see where they have weaknesses, practice key skills, and grow in their knowledge and abilities. Likewise, these technologies can help faculty deliver the support that students need, eliminating some of the guesswork while retaining, perhaps  even deepening, the human connection. Bryn Mawr is raising some of the key questions about liberal education and blended learning and through its experiments will help to illuminate answers.

Bryn Mawr’s experiences suggest several areas where collaboration makes sense:

  • Perhaps liberal arts colleges could work together to find, evaluate and recommend appropriate OER and online resources, or develop resources where there are gaps.  Many colleges teach similar courses, so partnering to create common resources can help to reduce duplication of effort, bring greater transparency to teaching and share innovations.
  • If liberal arts colleges could collaborate to develop assessment measures and test blended learning across their campuses, the community could have more generalizable results.

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