Harvard Students Not Sold On Blended Courses

Harvard University is assessing the use of “blended” courses, which received lower student ratings than previous traditional models of the same courses.

The study, led by Harvard’s Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, compared “blended” courses which take advantage of massive open online course (MOOC) materials to the previous traditional lecture-classroom models by studying student feedback for the courses and looking at student focus groups.

The four courses were taught to undergraduate students, blending together traditional lectures with materials from HarvardX, the university’s online education undertaking through edX which was introduced in partnership with MIT in 2012.

Of the four courses used for the study, three were given lower scores than the previous models.  According to HarvardX faculty director Robert A. Lue, this may simply be a case of the student body getting used to a new way of doing things.

“We’re seeing right now a remarkable degree of experimentation in new modes of learning,” Lue said. “It takes time to get these things right.”

Students did find the online materials helpful and engaging, and enjoyed the flexibility of working on their own, however missed the in-person interactions that traditional classes offer.

The study also offered recommendations for improving the blended format course offerings.  These included increased student feedback, beginning to plan courses earlier, and offering students more information with regards to the grading process.  Also suggested is to find more ways to physically use the classroom.

The report also suggested that students gave blended courses a lower score because of a lack of small group sections, which students said offered them immediate feedback and a chance to discuss their questions, as well as a higher workload.

Interestingly, underclassmen were much more accepting of the blended model than upperclassmen.  Study authors suggest this is due to cultural expectations with regards to workloads.

Professors are taking action to raise the student scores of these blended courses.  A lower amount of online requirements will lessen students’ work levels, and discussion sections will be added.  Despite the results, professors feel the addition of an online component has been positive for their courses.

“It gave students a chance to see the lecture content … in their own time, in a format that made it much easier to follow,” said Peter K. Bol, who also serves as the University’s vice provost for advances in learning. “[The] model of chunk and test with more visual explanation allows for much greater comprehension, so class time wasn’t for lecture, it was for discussion and interaction.”

The Bok Center also has introduced a “Blended Learning Support Team” in an effort to support professors in their endeavor to add an online component to their courses.

“It’s really left in the hands of the faculty, our hope is that all of this material…will benefit Harvard students,” Lue said. “We want to make it easier for faculty to use these things.”