August 2014 Features

President’s Column: Blended Learning in the Liberal Arts

Dear Friends,

Cassidy TAFT FINALWhile the frenzy of media attention to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has died down since its peak in 2012, higher education institutions, policymakers, and funders continue to focus on digital strategies as a means to address an array of challenges: rising educational costs; the demand for flexibility from returning and adult students who also hold jobs and/or are raising children; the imperative to expand educational access; providing gifted students with opportunities for accelerated study. Innovation through technology can and should be part of our response to each of these very real challenges. What is missing from this list, however, are the goals of enhancing teaching and learning and improving student outcomes.

At Bryn Mawr, we have been innovating with technology with precisely these latter goals in mind. Building on our historic strengths, Bryn Mawr has become a national leader among liberal arts colleges in tapping the power of technology, specifically through blended learning, to strengthen our fundamental mission.

Blended learning combines online and in-class instruction to improve student learning. Faculty use online open-source modules as a means for students to acquire information or practice core skills, to review challenging material, and to prepare for exams. Faculty see the results of students’ online work and can thus tailor classroom time to focus on topics with which students are struggling or to move on to higher-order discussion.

We owe Bryn Mawr’s growing expertise and success to faculty and academic staff who have embraced opportunities to innovate. They have tested concepts and modules through voluntary pilots and systematic assessment. Pilot results have demonstrated that tools such as blended learning can improve student outcomes and enhance faculty-student interaction, thus generating interest in using technology beyond the “early adopters.” We have also learned that sufficient support for “start-up costs”—finding or creating appropriate digital resources, redesigning courses to use online materials effectively—is the key to expanding adoption.

Our first systematic foray into blended learning began in 2011, when Bryn Mawr was the lead institution among 40 liberal arts colleges in a project funded by the Next Generation Learning Challenges program to improve performance in historically difficult, entry-level science and math courses. The percentage of students who completed the blended gateway biology, chemistry, and geology courses with a merit grade increased from 83 percent to 93.5 percent overall (and to 95.1 percent among low-income students). Faculty interest surpassed our expectations: 14 faculty at Bryn Mawr and 40 faculty from 25 of our partner institutions taught blended courses as part of the study.

We are building on the success of this early work, led by the vision of our faculty and our superb coordinator of academic technology initiatives, Dr. Jennifer Spohrer. In fall 2013 Bryn Mawr received an $800,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop blended courses in the humanities and to integrate tools to enhance digital fluency throughout the curriculum. In spring 2014 the College was the lead institution in a proposal that has been funded by the Teagle Foundation with a new goal: to create modules for introductory statistics, a course taught by most liberal arts institutions, and thus to model a collaborative and scalable approach to courseware development. Most recently we have led yet another group of colleges in a proposal to the U.S. Department of Education to create modules that will help students with weak mathematics backgrounds to succeed in gateway science courses. Personalized, self-paced, and combined with in-person coaching, this blended approach is designed to increase the percentage of students who persist in a STEM major and to be adaptable by a wide range of colleges and universities.

Bryn Mawr has become a blended learning resource. We now host an annual Blended Learning in the Liberal Arts conference, and have recently launched a website to share materials and guidance to any interested faculty or institutions. Dr. Spohrer has also become a sought-after consultant and presenter across the country.

Our investment in blended learning is not about technology. It is instead about seizing a new means to deliver on the promise of a residential liberal arts education where faculty-student interaction is paramount. I am proud of our commitment to that promise and of the creativity and effort that our faculty and staff have brought to this work.


Kimberly Wright Cassidy


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