The blended (or hybrid) course can pose major obstacles for teachers used to teaching in just one environment or the other. And because students must participate in two different learning environments, it can be difficult to keep them actively involved in the entirety of the course. Practicing some key approaches in the blended course, however, will result in an easier and more enjoyable teaching experience for the instructor and increased engagement, enthusiasm, and quality of learning for the students.
Post a mini-guide to taking a blended course. There are many questions students will have about being in a blended course, and you can offer suggestions, tips, and ideas that not only will answer most of the questions but also will give information that will result in less angst, more enjoyment, and an overall more effective learning experience for them. Don't place this in a standard announcement that students often believe is to be read for that day and then be ignored in lieu of the next one posted. Instead make mention of it in an announcement and an email to all class members, and then post it in a resource area of the course; that way it takes on a role of more course-long importance. (I have a rather comprehensive “Mini-Guide to Taking an Online Course” that I post in any blended course I teach; if you'd like a copy just drop me an email!)
Be a constant presence in the classroom. In a fully online course, this is a given. But a funny thing can happen in a blended course: students in a physical room with an instructor in front of them often look at the online portion as a less important portion of the course. Of course, we know this is not true. Be sure to emphasize, at the beginning of the course, that online participation is crucial, is automatically tracked, and will count toward the final grade. It is crucial for the instructor to be actively involved in the online portion of the course as well. While the students can see your physical presence in a face-to-face class, your words often are the only evidence of your online presence. Make certain they are many and frequent.
Develop students' internal motivation to stay engaged. Of course, ideally, it is much better when internal motivation—the students' wanting to be involved online—occurs, and there are two items that can help achieve this. First, stock the course with resources about the subject that are relevant to students in the course and beyond. Have the online section become a great “go to” source for additional information. And use fun and engaging stuff such as puzzles, YouTube videos, audio messages, cartoons, and pictures—all relating to the subject and the course assignments—to help engage them. Also, ask students to contribute helpful resources—such as websites and articles—to bolster the class material. This can keep them engaged, and they enjoy it.
Tie the subject to the professional/“real” world. Stress the connection with the real world between the course subject and its topics, including either setting up a discussion thread or an assignment for which students are asked to share their working (now or later) connections to the subject. This gets them involved on their own terms.
It is human nature for folks to include snippets of their lives in any online course discussion when the opportunity presents itself. If the right approaches are taken, students will be eager participants in the online portion, and this also helps in the face-to-face classroom, where continued discussions in real time can occur. This connection to their lives also lends well to written and other assignments (i.e., the work becomes more of a real aspect of their lives rather than merely class assignments).
Include a variety of online activities to help students stay engaged. Some additional suggestions: (1) Hold a live chat online with a professional in the field to help link the class to the workplace. (2) Ask students—either in a discussion thread or a one-time assignment (although the discussion thread gets more “action”)—to relate real or possible errors that happened/could happen in the workplace as a result of poor implementation or use of the course subject. (3) Ask students to relate the readings and/or lectures in the course to the workplace (e.g., How is it applicable? Can anything be learned from it? Can students identify with it anywhere in their lives?) (4) Have students take any instance in their lives that presents/presented an opportunity for a story idea. How could they develop this, and/or how might it grow into one or more of the course readings?
Create smooth and vital connections between the online and face-to-face environments. Too often, the instructor teaches the face-to-face and online halves of the same course as if they were two distinct courses. As an example, a large number of instructors post discussion threads in the online portion, then fail to bring the information/activity into the classroom. Likewise, somewhat like the tagline for Vegas, too often what happens in the physical classroom stays in the physical classroom. But for students to see these combined into one course, each half of the course must be brought into the other … and it's crucial that each depends on the other.
A solid approach to this integration is to discuss/present a lesson on a subject in the classroom, then post a series of questions (in one or more discussion threads) for further exploration of what was batted around in class. (Note: Using the Socratic method of questioning pretty much assures students will give in-depth, critically thought-out responses. There are many websites offering a selection of Socratic questions. This is one of the best: http://ed.fnal.gov/trc_new/tutorial/taxonomy.html)
Use group assignments to marry the online and face-to-face portions of the course. Another great way to integrate both course environments is through group assignments. In the online portion, discussion threads can be set up for only each designated group to discuss its project, and you can take the best ideas, problems, and so forth, and post them in a general group discussion thread for all to respond. (Tip: be sure to constantly remind students of both parts of the class, why each is important, and how this blended environment mirrors the workplace environment.) In addition, course-long group projects—where all materials of the face-to-face and online portions must be included—is a great way to keep students interested and involved in the entire course.
REMEMBER: Mayonnaise in a chocolate cake sounds like an improbable blend, but mixed correctly it helps produce an extraordinarily moist and delicious dessert.
Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for nearly 20 years and has a national reputation in the subject, writing and conducting workshops on distance learning, with national recognition in the field of distance education. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his second online teaching text. Please write him at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions and comments—he always responds!