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Blended learning appeals to students, colleges

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Victor DeSantis said it's a lot like the connection you make when you go camping with some friends for the weekend.

Only this “camping” trip is for a class.

You meet with your fellow doctoral students for a class that runs Friday night, all day Saturday and then all day Sunday. The format allows “students to build strong connections and camaraderie with their classmates,” DeSantis said, then sets the stage for conducting the rest of the class online.

He is dean of the College of Graduate Studies and Adult Learning at Millersville University, which is among the institutions seeing a boom in the popularity of “blended learning,” the practice of mixing online with traditional, face-to-face instruction.

The trend represents something of a sea change in higher education, according to Michael Green, vice president of academic affairs and also faculty dean at Lebanon Valley College. After years of eyeing online instruction warily, colleges are experimenting with ways to use blended courses to reach adults seeking advanced degrees as well as undergraduates in their traditional college years.

“I think everyone’s suspicion (in past years) was that, with online, students weren’t going to be able to learn as much as if they were sitting in class,” he said. “But I think if you do it right ... student learning is strong.”

Time saver

Millersville designed its “weekend-intense” class for a pair of university doctoral programs, DeSantis said. It is modeled after the Saturday-morning sessions offered by other MBA programs for busy professionals, except Millersville takes it a step further by making it last a whole weekend. The rest of the course is conducted online, saving busy professionals travel time and other possible hassles.

DeSantis said a blended course is typically made up of anywhere from three to five face-to-face, in-class sessions, with the rest held online. The format works well for working professionals who might have trouble fitting education into busy lives.

“The question in what we do is, how do you remove obstacles? Most people do feel that earning extra degrees is good for their professional development, so it’s not so much the money, it’s the time,” he said.

Millersville also has been experimenting with week-long intensive courses in the summer, meeting for a week daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Teachers, who often need to use summers to work toward advanced degrees, “love that model, because you’re getting three credit hours in one intensive week, which is basically substituting for an entire semester and still leaves you the rest of the summer to do what you need to do,” DeSantis noted.

The doctoral programs featuring the weekend-intensive class began in the past year, “and they are really taking off,” DeSantis noted, having gone from zero to 30-plus students and zero to 50-plus students, respectively. And with Millersville trying to boost its out-of-state enrollment, one course even has two students coming from outside Pennsylvania, DeSantis said.

There is a niche market for fully online courses, he said, but he has found that college-age students “really do enjoy meeting faculty members face to face, meeting their colleague students face to face, but they also don’t really want to come for 15 weeks straight in that three-hour format.”

It’s not just 18-year-olds who love intensive week-long summer classes.

In the business world, DeSantis pointed out, “you might get two, three weeks off for vacation in the summer, and you could bang out one course in one of your weeks and still have your family vacation weeks intact.”

At Lebanon Valley, Green also has watched blended learning grow as a teaching tool.

When online courses first started, he said, it was a case of “just show the lecture,” and that was it.

“Now, it’s becoming much more interactive, the kind of things you can do online,” he said. “Things like project-based learning, when everyone’s working on a particular project, is becoming a little bit more exciting.”

At the same time, “our faculty have really begun to buy into this, that good learning can happen” in a blended class: “They like the idea that some components of online can make some things much more efficient.”

While students do well in both online learning and in the classroom, “blended learning takes them up to the next level,” said Barbara Randazzo, dean of Elizabethtown College’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Elizabethtown has been using online learning since 2001, and it also has become “committed to blended classes, so students can get that mix within their course and within their program,” Randazzo added.

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David O'Connor

David O'Connor

Dave O'Connor covers York County, manufacturing, higher education, nonprofits, and workforce development. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at doconnor@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @DaveOC_CPBJ.

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