“It keeps it interesting for me; it’s a new tool in in my arsenal.”

This is what Rick Harnish, associate professor of psychology at Penn State New Kensington, had to say about transitioning from a traditional face-to-face course to a blended face-to-face and online course.

Harnish is one of four Penn State New Kensington faculty members who were part of the second group, or cohort, of the New Kensington Blended Initiative. The Blended Initiative began in March 2014 with a call for proposals to redesign an existing face-to-face course and included a cohort of four faculty members.

The faculty members are being supported by Deborah Sillman, senior instructor in biology and instructional designer at Penn State New Kensington, along with Kathy Jackson and Cindy Decker Raynak of the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.

Harnish and Jeff Roth, assistant professor of administration of justice, were the two instructors from the newest cohort who launched their new blended courses this fall. Two other instructors, Jyotsna (Josi) Kalavar, professor of human development and family studies; and Hal Smith, associate professor of IST; will launch their newly blended courses in the spring semester.

For Harnish, the Blended Initiative was more of a refinement for some ideas he already had for a blended course.

Before redesigning his PSYCH 221 (GS) Introduction to Social Psychology course, Harnish would use class time to show various videos that illustrated theories and ideas in social psychology, such as social cognition and intergroup behavior.

Afterward, students would spend time looking at how the video examples explained theories and how they could relate their own personal experiences to the example.

“Watching the videos really took up a lot of time,” Harnish said. “So, what I’m trying to do this semester by using this blended approach is to push that outside of class so I have the same discussion-type questions, but in addition, I want them to go out and find other kinds of examples — another video clip, news article, or a photograph they find on the internet.”

Harnish said he wants his students to post these examples to the ANGEL discussion board and then explain why they are similar to the concept he presented to them. He is also encouraging his students to comment on other students’ posts. Harnish said his classes are set up so that students have out-of-class assignments on Tuesdays, then meet in class on Thursdays for face-to-face instruction.

According to Harnish, students in his course read a lot about theories and research studies. Often, students have trouble making connections to their own behaviors and experiences, so Harnish said he hopes these blended learning opportunities help them learn how to make these connections better.

In addition, students often like taking blended courses because they like to have courses that revolve around their schedules, according to Harnish.

“This perhaps gives more flexibility in their schedules so that they can watch the video whenever they want, and they can post their comments whenever they want,” Harnish said.

The other faculty member of the cohort who launched his newly blended course this fall, Roth, said a big benefit of the blended teaching approach is the freeing up of class time to be spent in more valuable ways, such as on more difficult material or discussion of contemporary issues of his CRIMJ (CRIM/SOC) 413 Advanced Criminological Theory course.

“I had never taught blended before, and I am always curious to try teaching in new ways to see how it goes,” Roth said. “I liked the possibility of incorporating more active learning activities.”

The Blended Initiative’s meetings helped Roth borrow some ideas for assignments, and the advice on whether to use Yammer or ANGEL for discussion boards helped him choose ANGEL. Roth said he has set up the course, which is polycom for Penn State Beaver, so that students have two days in class each week and use Fridays for out-of-class activities.

“The biggest benefit for me was seeing how people in the same position that I was in, in terms of converting an old course to a new format, getting to see how they were approaching some of the same problems that I was approaching,” Roth said.

For his course, Roth said he is primarily using ANGEL as the platform for the online portion for a class discussion board, and his students will also be watching documentaries or listening to audio clips of interviews that are relevant to the week’s theory. Some other out-of-class activities his students will be working on include locating news articles that describe criminal justice polices based on a particular week’s theory and interviewing an elderly person about changes in social control that are experienced as an individual ages.

Both Harnish and Roth agreed that this semester is more of an experiment in blended learning for them, so how well students take to the additional online option will determine if they will do it again in the future. Roth said if it goes well, he is definitely open to continuing the course as blended or moving other courses to a blended format.

“We will be focusing a lot on assessment of the effectiveness of the blended design,” said Deborah Sillman, senior instructor in biology and instructional designer at Penn State New Kensington. “We’ll use some of the traditional measures of effectiveness of course design (percentage of students completing the course as well as student grades on specific assignments and final grades), and in some cases we will even be able to compare these measures with the same course taught face-to-face previously by the same instructor. 

As part of the blended learning initiative, Sillman is hoping to include student feedback on the new blended format, through the use of online surveys and maybe face-to-face conversations. Another measurement will be the AACU VALUE Rubrics, particularly the Information Literacy and Lifelong Learning Rubrics, which will look at the skills students gain from a blended course. For all instructors designing a blended course, they are also using “A Peer Review Guide for Blended learning at Penn State.”

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