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5 Keys to Spreading Blended Learning Across the University

University leaders struggle to spread blended learning institution-wide and deal with the inevitable challenges that come up, but proponents offer five key steps for university leaders who want to see it spread in their institutions.

While blended learning is becoming more popular, universities are trying to figure out how to spread the combination of face-to-face and online learning across their institutions.  

In a survey of 2,121 students in 34 courses, researchers from Toronto, Ontario, Canada's York University found that 48 percent of their students wanted to take blended courses, while 40 percent wanted to take classes in person. These blended courses provide more flexibility for students who work to put themselves through school, helps faculty members get to know them better through online discussions, and saves facility cost and space for universities.

But while many students would choose blended learning, it's difficult for students, faculty and administrators to want to change.

"Blended learning typically involves a more active learning approach, and students aren't used to that, so getting them involved in blended learning is not an easy move for students who are used to a passive mode of learning," said Ron Owston, dean of the faculty of education and founding director of the Institute for Research in Learning Technologies at York University. He spoke in a session at the Online Learning Consortium Blended Learning Conference and Workshop on Thursday, July 8.

study of 214 Brigham Young University - Idaho (BYU-Idaho) faculty showed that technology infrastructure played a huge role in determining whether they would adopt blended learning.

"If faculty are not confident that the infrastructure is going to be able to support their use of online, blended and new technologies, that makes them very nervous," said Charles R. Graham, associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. After all, when the infrastructure is unreliable for them in a face-to-face class that includes technology, he said in another session during the conference and workshop, how much worse would it be with more digital components?

While universities including York have tried incentive plans to entice faculty into blended learning, they haven't attracted many participants. These plans are expensive, and BYU - Idaho faculty responded in the survey that tenure and promotion, financial stipends, and course load reductions are among the least likely reasons that would convince them to try blended learning. 

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Furthermore, faculty members approach technology with different attitudes, yet university leaders often treat them the same when they're trying to get everyone to try something new. For example, the BYU - Idaho survey categorized faculty respondents by their level of innovation and also asked them to self-evaluate their technology innovation.

The "early majority" faculty were willing to change, but needed to see evidence of why blended learning was better than what they were doing. Meanwhile, the "laggards" didn't want to change unless the university forced them to as part of their job responsibilities.

"We can't treat all of the faculty as a conglomerate," Graham said. "We may need to have different approaches to facilitate the adoption of different groups of faculty." 

And that adoption isn't going to happen without the support of deans. As a proponent of blended learning, Owston gets excited about what it could do for students at York University. But as a dean, he's had to deal with a dilemma of whether it's worth the cost. He says yes. However, deans from prestigious law and business schools at the university do not allow blended learning experiments because what they're doing is already working. 

Because deans control the budgets and set priorities for faculty, their support is critical to scaling up blended learning. 

"If the deans aren't on board, then you're not going to get it happening within the faculty," Owston said.

Along with support from deans, universities need top administrators to provide sustainable leadership and financial tools to spread blended learning. That's a challenge when leaders take sabbaticals or move to another campus and when budgets are tight. 

These two blended learning proponents suggested a number of key steps for university leaders who want to see blended learning spread in their institutions.

  1. Make sure that institutional, faculty and student goals match up. 
  2. Provide policies, one-on-one training and technology infrastructure to support faculty.
  3. Bring key deans, provosts and other university leaders on board.
  4. Meet each type of faculty technology adopter where they are and tailor approaches accordingly.
  5. Evaluate blended learning's effect on student outcomes in order to give the "early majority" faculty something concrete to factor into their decision.