The inspiration for the Next Generation Learning Challenges grant-funded study of blended learning in a liberal arts college context came from emerging research that suggested that a blended approach -- i.e., one that combined online interactive self-paced learning with classroom instruction -- could significantly improve student learning, engagement, and satisfaction over wholly online or wholly classroom based courses. All of the available studies, however, had focused on large community-college and university settings, and this study was designed to determine whether blended learning could offer comparable benefits in a liberal arts setting. Would we see the same increases in student satisfaction and learning relative to wholly classroom-based courses if the control was a 25-50 person introductory course typical of a liberal arts college, rather than those serving hundreds of students as was the norm in previous studies? Given the emphasis on close faculty-student and student collaboration that is the hallmark of a liberal arts education, would faculty and students find blended learning compatible with the liberal arts college values?
This project was designed to foster faculty experimentation with blended learning, to evaluate those experiments, and share our findings among a community of 40 partner colleges. In 2011-2012 Bryn Mawr College faculty developed and piloted blended approaches to 18 courses in a variety of subjects, with an emphasis on introductory STEM courses. We shared resources, experiences, and findings with partner schools in conferences and webinars throughout that year, and in 2012-2013 faculty from 25 of our partner colleges developed and taught over 40 blended courses on their own campuses.
Our research has found that blended learning can not only improve student learning in this setting as well, but it can also support the meaningful faculty-student interactions and deep, active learning pedagogies that that liberal arts colleges value. The online elements of a blended course can be used to provide students with more opportunities to assess and get feedback on their learning and develop the metacognitive skills needed to be successful lifelong learners. The instructor "dashboards" in online courseware can in turn provide faculty with a "real-time" snapshot of student progress, enabling them to narrow lectures down to the areas where students need additional help, and freeing up remaining class time for discussions, projects, and other activities that promote deep learning. Blended learning also helps faculty meet the needs of a more diverse student body, since online activities can be customized to a student's level of understanding and student learning data helps faculty identify and reach out to students who need additional help or extra challenges.