Bryn Mawr College has received a $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will help the College continue to build its “blended learning” course offerings and to develop resources for other liberal arts colleges interested in the approach.
“Technology-enabled education is exploding with the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and improvements to traditional online courses,” says Bryn Mawr Interim President Kim Cassidy, who wrote the application for the grant. “The question for us has always been, ‘How do we take the best of those offerings and apply it to make classroom time even more valuable?’”
While individual professors at many colleges have used the blended approach, Bryn Mawr is unique in its institutional emphasis on the model.
“In recent years there’s been this almost hysteria about online education,” says Cassidy. “At Bryn Mawr, we didn’t blindly rush into MOOCs, distance learning, or the adoption of forms of instruction that do not advance our historic strengths. We believe that the blended approach best allows us to use technology in ways that enhance our current academic experience and prepare our students to navigate an increasingly networked world, without compromising the close student-faculty engagement that is a hallmark of a liberal arts education.”
Bryn Mawr started to focus its technology-enabled education strategy on blended learning in 2011, when, through a grant from EDUCAUSE Next Generation Learning Challenges Program, the college looked at improving performance in historically difficult, entry-level science and math courses by incorporating the use of online open source courseware modules into traditional, classroom-based versions of these courses.
Also as part of the NGLC project, the College shared its findings and grant-funded resources—including technical support—with 39 other liberal arts colleges who were partners on the grant. As part of this grant, the College will also give the NGLC institutions the opportunity to continue that collaboration.
Results for the experimental blended biology, chemistry, and geology gateway courses were particularly strong, where the completion with merit rate rose from 83 percent to 93.5 percent overall.
With this new grant, the College hopes to expand its blended offerings more into the humanities and to provide even more support and leadership to other liberal arts colleges interested in the blended approach, particularly through helping with course “start-up costs.”
“Humanist pedagogy often moves very quickly over content mastery and skills to problems of meaning, motivation, and value– and the latter kinds of questions may seem more challenging to frame in a blended learning unit,” says Coordinator for Academic Technology Initiatives Jennifer Spohrer, who has led much of the College’s blended-learning efforts. “Yet as an outcome of the NGLC project, a number of humanists at Bryn Mawr have become eager to test the possibilities of blended learning in their courses.”
As an example of the sort of course that may be developed, Spohrer points to a project Professor of English Katherine Rowe has proposed that would strengthen students’ abilities to hear, name, and make arguments using metrical patterns.
A natural prototype for such a unit, and potentially valuable nationwide in courses at the secondary and post-secondary level, Rowe’s course would focus on helping students learn the core rhythmic units of iambic pentameter, the basic metrical line of English verse from Chaucer to Milton.
“Meter is an aural as well as textual concept and it is an important ‘thresh-hold concept’ for understanding any poetry,” says Rowe. “That is to say, once you can hear and describe it, you can begin to see things happening in a poem that are otherwise invisible to you. A digital teaching unit could engage both our senses of hearing and seeing, helping us learn to hear those patterns more easily – preparing students to read more deeply and with more pleasure from the earliest levels. To design such a resource you’d need to gather a diverse team of experts – poets, linguists, literary scholars, teachers. That’s the kind of cross-disciplinary collaboration that we are particularly good at, at Bryn Mawr.”
A course on research skills is among the possibilities being discussed for development with partner colleges.
“This is an area where suitable online materials really don’t exist at this point,” says Spohrer. “Many liberal arts colleges encourage or require students to complete a thesis or other major research project as part of their major requirements. Mentoring undergraduate researchers is extremely time-intensive, yet much of the faculty-student interaction concerns the more routine elements of the research process: such as how to search bibliographic databases, best practices for managing and securing research data, how to use appropriate style guides like the MLA or Chicago Manual of Style, and special ethical considerations and policies for research involving human participants. We will be partnering with faculty, library staff, and instructional technologists across colleges to develop online tutorials that can help students develop and assess these basic research skills, so that faculty can offer targeted help as needed and spend more time working with students on substantive issues of research design and methodology.”
The College will continue to help Bryn Mawr College faculty overcome “start-up costs” associated with developing blended courses through competitive seed grants and by funding and training several summer and post-graduate instructional technology interns who can assist faculty with learning new instructional technologies, converting paper-based activities or quizzes into digital format and developing new born-digital learning materials and activities.
In addition, technology interns will support faculty who are incorporating digital elements to their scholarship.
“Building faculty expertise and taking advantage of existing faculty expertise in digital tools and questions for the purposes of scholarship is a central component of what we’ll be doing through this grant,” says Spohrer.
The technology intern positions will also provide current Bryn Mawr students and recent grads with opportunities to learn about the pedagogy and learning science research behind instructional design and develop core technological and project management skills.
“These positions will provide students and recent alumnae with substantive skills and experience that will help them tremendously as they look to careers after Bryn Mawr,” says Spohrer.
The Mellon Grant will also help fund Bryn Mawr’s third annual Blended Learning in the Liberal Arts conference, which will be held on May 21-22, 2014.
For more information on the NGLC grant, including a list of blended courses developed and presentations on research findings, go to the Bryn Mawr NGLC website.
Faculty and students interested in blended learning at Bryn Mawr should contact Spohrer for additional information.