Discovering Our Inner Chefs: Blended Learning Development

Discovering Our Inner Chefs: Blended Learning Development


[NOTE: A version of this article ("Discovering Our Inner Chefs: A Strategy for Advancing Blended Learning") originally appeared in Educational Pathways newsletter (www.edpath.com), May 2004].

Blended learning in higher education continues to progress in promising new directions. Linking faculty's inner motivations with blended learning’s creative possibilities and effective capabilities — call it discovering one’s inner chef if you like - will enable many more faculty to embrace blended learning, expanding its reach and effectiveness and ultimately benefiting more learners in the process...

Blended learning in higher education continues to progress in promising new directions. At a workshop on blended learning held in April 2004 by the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Chicago, about 40 educators from around the country formed a general consensus that blended learning in higher education involves combining elements of online and classroom learning activities and is much more than simply "Web-facilitation," i.e., information and communication functions (syllabus, course announcements, and the like).

Transition Pathway to Blended Not So Clear

This latter point highlights a more critical distinction: it takes a lot more to prepare faculty to teach in a blended learning environment than a Web-facilitated one. The notion of using blended courses as a pathway for transitioning faculty from teaching in the classroom to fully online courses is apparently not as clear-cut as many had thought. Some faculty are going ‘back’ from teaching fully online courses to teaching blended ones; others are reporting that making the transition from classroom to blended is more like a Kirkegaardian leap of faith than a simple steppingstone.

In 2000 while at Northern Virginia Community College, I did a series of presentations on the theme "Online Learning: Now Available in 31+ Flavors." Using the modern ice cream parlor as a metaphor, the presentations highlighted the emerging reality that faculty had an abundance of choices - "flavors," "toppings," etc. - when designing courses. More media and delivery mode options enabled faculty to create their own course concoctions, resulting in a much wider array of course blends that could accommodate different convenience/flexibility needs, interaction/involvement levels and other preferences.

How to Help Faculty Make the Transition

Back then, most higher education faculty were still unfamiliar with course management systems (CMS). Now, using CMSs is commonplace in courses - but as information and communication tools rather than for teaching and learning. They seem open to moving beyond Web-facilitated to teaching blended learning courses, but they’re not entirely certain about taking this next step. How can we help such faculty make this transition and promote the advancement of blended learning in the process?

Here is one suggestion based on another food metaphor: help faculty discover their inner chef. Now, applying food preparation metaphors to designing education is generally not in favor these days; a "cookbook approach" is usually a pejorative term, and the notion of online learning "recipes" engenders skepticism at best. But the idea here is not to slavishly follow a set of prescriptive cookbook recipe-like rules for designing effective blended learning experiences. (Plus, as a Google search with almost 800 results suggests, the notion of "your inner chef" is a not an uncommon one - one corporation [Corning] has even trademarked the term.)

Instead, consider for a moment what professional chefs and serious cooks do:

  • They use their considerable knowledge and expertise in unique and interesting ways to create satisfying experiences.
  • They seek to create something that’s deeply satisfying not just for their customers, but also for themselves.
  • They like to create from scratch, but they’ll gladly use off-the-shelf products when it suits their purposes.
  • Once they create a satisfying recipe, they take great care to make sure that their staff know how to produce it with consistent quality.
  • They use recipes as guidelines, relying on their knowledge and expertise to deviate from a recipe as needed.
  • They experiment and learn from their failures as well as their successes, but they only serve their successes to a wider audience!

Conversely, consider what professional chefs and serious cooks usually don’t do:

  • Push dishes on customers who have expressed no interest in what they create.
  • Talk about how wonderful their creations are compared to everyone else’s or about how lousy others’ concoctions are compared to their own.
  • Describe their creations in terms of percentages ("70% salmon, 5% lemon, 2% dill").

While discussing the topic of getting faculty involved in teaching blended learning courses, the Sloan-C blended learning workshop participants made remarkably similar suggestions (in quotes below):

  • Start with the question, "What would you like to do in your course that you can’t presently do?" (At the Sloan-C workshop, I heard three different practitioners make this point on separate occasions.)
  • Encourage faculty to "dream a little;" find out what excites or motivates them about teaching and demonstrate how blended learning can make their teaching experience more deeply satisfying.
  • "Demystify the process" by creating a clear development process, assuring that faculty know what to do to negotiate that process successfully, and providing ongoing training and support.
  • "Embrace description, avoid prescription" - Describe what works and doesn’t work; use to inform a structured framework that supports individual customization and creativity rather than to create a ‘cookie-cutter’ template for all faculty to follow.
  • If possible, test innovations out on a small-scale to make sure such practices are ready before unleashing them on a wider audience. Many faculty test their innovations in one mode (e.g., classroom) before trying it out in another (e.g, blended).

Likewise, avoid:

  • Going after faculty who aren’t interested in blended learning.
  • "Evangelism" and "casting blame" - faculty don’t want to hear about how wonderful blended learning is or how bad their classroom courses are, even if a blended learning approach would improve their course.
  • Focusing on the percentages (e.g., 67% online vs. 33% classroom) of a blended learning course; how the ingredients interact is more important.

Faculty who care enough to explore the possibilities of blended learning are seeking something to help them create a consistently high quality teaching and learning experience. Creating design recipes for them to follow and tweak as needed will fill their needs quite well in many cases. Other faculty may benefit from having more freedom to create their own design recipes. In either event, linking their inner motivations with blended learning’s creative possibilities and effective capabilities — call it discovering one’s inner chef if you like - will enable many more faculty to embrace blended learning, expanding its reach and effectiveness and ultimately benefiting more learners in the process.

Search