Discussion about Hybrid and Online Course Pilots Turns Sour

In the digital age, the idea of what a classroom is and can be has changed dramatically. (File photo)

In the digital age, the idea of what a classroom is and can be has changed dramatically. (File photo)

By Jamie Welch, Editor-in-Chief

At the December 7, 2017 faculty meeting, Vice Provost Jack Ryan faced a barrage of criticism as he presented regarding online courses.

“The concern is….that this is going to be a bigger thing that is going to impact our departments.”  “Are you going to continue to not let us know you’re applying for these things?” “I don’t think that reaching out to a few humanities faculty is the same thing as getting consensus among faculty from the humanities…” “This undermines our argument of providing a unique educational environment.” “We have in effect been kept in the dark…I was a chair of a humanities department and I knew nothing about this.” “My department unanimously said we would not accept online courses towards the major and as far as I know this was going on at the same time!” “How did we get this far without having a discussion among all of us because as far as I know faculty controls the curriculum?” “We want our students to enroll in our humanities courses here!”

This represents a sampling of the criticism during the meeting as faculty expressed grave consternation after a presentation by Ryan and faculty members including Dr. Christopher Barlett, Assistant Professor of Psychology, and Dr. Timothy Shannon, Professor of History, at the faculty’s previous Nov. 16 meeting on Gettysburg College’s summer blended courses and the Council of Independent College (CIC) hybrid courses.

“Let me be clear…we would not allow any Gettysburg College student to enroll in any of the CIC courses that are equal to courses that we teach here,” Ryan responded.

The summer blended courses are a pilot program undertaken by Gettysburg College in response to the Sustainable Excellence Working Group’s spring 2016 recommendation to experiment with summer online courses. The college has offered several courses under this program over the two years the pilot has been in operation including Social Foundations of Education, Introduction to Computing, Social Psychology and Critical Thinking.

These courses are typically in very high demand during the academic year and, consequently, see a high rate of students transferring in credit from other institutions. The idea of the summer blended courses, Ryan said, was to keep that revenue from leaving Gettysburg College by giving students a chance to enroll in these courses during the summer and earn the credit they require.

The blended courses each have some in-class component and an online component. For some courses, the in-class component involved an intense week-long in class lecture series to get students ready for the online coursework, and for other courses the in-class component was much less intense and the bulk of the course was taught online and over Skype. In total, 29 Gettysburg College students took a blended course last summer.

Barlett cited many benefits of the hybrid learning courses for all of the campus constituencies. For students, Barlett cited the benefits of the convenience the courses offer to allow students to work around their schedules, a decrease in schedule burden if dropping a class, and the quality instruction that is received from the same Gettysburg College professor with whom they would take the course in a traditional classroom setting.

For faculty, Barlett said, hybrid courses represent a way to learn new pedagogies, a chance to earn some summer income, and the ability to allow for flexibility with student leave issues.

At the college level, hybrid courses allow for increased revenue, confidence in instruction and flexibility in courses offered, Barlett said.

The college is also participating in the CIC Online Humanities Consortium II, a consortium of online and hybrid courses that allows students enrolled at one of 21 member colleges the opportunity to enroll in courses on topics not offered at their home institution. This is part of a series of pilot programs by the CIC to investigate teaching humanities courses in online formats.  Consortium I (in which Gettysburg did not participate) ran from 2014-2016 and Consortium II (of which Gettysburg is a part) is taking place from 2016-2018.  

Gettysburg College developed two courses that were offered to members of the consortium last spring:  History 230: “The Native American-European Encounter in North America” and Italian 260: “Italian Culture: Bella Figura, Sprezzatura, La Chiesa and a Whole Lot More.” Three Gettysburg College students enrolled in a CIC Media Course, “Digital Asia in America,” an area not covered in the college’s course offerings.

Assessment of the CIC courses was conducted by Ithaka-S+R, an independent research firm, which compiled data based on student and faculty surveys, interviews, and faculty panel’s evaluation of “course artifacts” from randomly selected courses. 81 percent of students rated the online learning experience as “very good” or “good.” 75 percent rated their online course as “the same,” “better,” or “much better” than a traditional course. Students placed the most value on the flexibility online instruction gave to their schedules.

For the faculty’s part, 37 of 39 faculty members surveyed reported that online courses take “more time” or “much more time” to develop than traditional courses. Additionally, they reported that teaching online led them to rethink their “fundamental assumptions about teaching and learning” employed in traditional format courses and that they were “[dissatisfied] with the level of social engagement and sense of community-building among students.”

The research from the consortium showed that students report increasing familiarity with and desire for online instruction.  They are encountering it in high school, community colleges, and at public universities and colleges. Faculty experience with online instruction is also growing, the study showed, especially among the more recently credentialed. The consortium has found that online instruction appeals especially to students who are not typical for residential colleges such as adult students, working students, part-time students.

Toward the end of the Nov. 16 presentation, Shannon put up a slide featuring a Blockbuster Video store with a “STORE CLOSING” banner stretched across the entire storefront, drawing hearty laughter.

“Like death, taxes and global warming, this is a train that is coming down the tracks,” Shannon said. “Doing nothing is not an option if we want to continue to attract capable and diverse students willing to pay us our tuition dollars … Do we want to be Blockbuster Video in a Netflix world?”

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Author: Jamie Welch

Jamie Welch '18 served as editor-in-chief of The Gettysburgian from May 2016 to May 2018. Jamie also served as the webmaster and as a staff writer for the features and news sections. He graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and a minor in Business. Follow him on Twitter @welchjamesk.

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