Over the next few years, engineering students at UW-Madison must prepare themselves for a colossal shift in the teaching methodology used across the College of Engineering. Driven by the current fiscal climate and massive budget cuts, as well as the general competitive nature of elite higher education establishments, the new “Blended Learning” method - also referred to as hybrid learning - will replace traditional classroom lectures with prerecorded, online versions. This change aims to not only give students and professors an added flexibility to their hectic everyday schedules, but also to incorporate face-to-face discussion and problem solving with professors and teaching assistants during regularly scheduled class time.
When Governor Scott Walker put pen to paper, twice, to balance the state budget, he slashed over 100 million dollars of funding allocated to UW-Madison; depleting the university’s funds, as well as putting its academic and research competitiveness in jeopardy. This gave momentum to finding innovative responses to the fiscal uncertainty the school now faced - blended learning is simply a part of the equation to end the financial famine. Cynthia Bachman, VP of Engineering for Kohler Kitchen and Bath, and Chairwoman for the College of Engineering Industrial Advisory Board recommends at least 75 percent of core courses adapt to this new format. She also argues the new methodology has, “gone from emerging opportunity to a must-do to remain relevant and competitive in higher education.”
Steve Cramer, professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, was one of the first pioneers for the program and one of the first professors to pilot the new methodology on campus. I interviewed Assistant Dean Cramer last fall and from his first words, I could sense the enthusiasm he had for the subject; he wanted to use this article as a platform to get more exposure of blended learning and to inform the student body, emphasizing “blended is not the same as online.”
He summarized the blended learning approach (more information can be found in the recordings of six seminar series held on campus in the fall, available online at mediasite.engr.wisc.edu) as, “taking the emphasis off the speaker at the front of the room” and replacing it with “students working together in groups and, in essence, [staff would] work as a consultant to work through problems.” He continued by saying, “[there is] not a lot of value in me repeating a lecture that I’ve repeated ten times; there is value in me answering questions for students… blended learning has a very essential person to person interaction in it.”
Although there have been some faculty in favor of the decision from the beginning, others were, and still are, a little more hesitant to such a change. When asked about his initial reaction to the blended learning methodology, Professor Bill Likos, a civil and environmental engineering professor, said, “Historically, I’ve been skeptical.” Professor Likos taught his first hybrid course this past fall, and after his first ten weeks, his mind shifted, “this experience over the last two months has completely changed [my mind] from skepticism to embracement… there is a big learning curve for both professor and student, but it’s really effective if done right. ”
What is this learning curve Professor Likos speaks of? For the professor, he described, “There is a lot of work that needs to be done at the front end, preparing all the online material, and really sort of changing your mindset; changing not just the format of delivery, but rethinking how you’re educating students. But in the long term our vision… is to have developed a library of online lessons that faculty can pick and choose from.”
For some students, the transition has been smooth, less so for others. From a faculty perspective, Professor Likos said, “Some students are struggling to figure out what their role is. I think students are used to the traditional format where you don’t have to take as much responsibility for your own education. The online portion of the course - and this is a good thing - really requires students to take their own responsibility and take their learning into their own hands, it’s been an adjustment for quite a few students.”
I spoke with concrete enthusiast and senior civil engineering undergraduate Aliena Debelak, who was in Professor Likos’s pilot blended learning course in the fall of 2012. According to Debelak, there are many positives to the blended learning system, “I enjoy being able to pause the videos, or re-wind when I get distracted, or watch a short video one day, then a different video the next, instead of an hour and fifteen minute lecture. I also like being able to pause the video to write down the notes, instead of trying to pay attention and write things down simultaneously.” Although positives can be found, Debelak went on to describe her concerns.
According to my fellow engineering confidant, the main area of concern is the online material. Debelak says, “Online lecture emphasizes different material than the traditional lecture… online homework submissions only work half the time (answers are either too tightly constrained or loose so answers within a very small error aren’t accepted or the reverse, answers within a very large error are accepted, making it difficult to know if you are correct or not)… I feel like a massive amount of content is being thrown at me in a short amount of time, and often this feels overwhelming and I don’t absorb it all. And when I am confused [during online lecture] I can’t ask a question until Wednesday morning and I usually have forgotten what or why I was confused.”
Ultimately, she does not mind the concept of blended learning. However, Debelak warns, “Not all classes would work under blended learning. Many classes are more hands-on and require more than watching a video.”
This new style of teaching will not be off the hook once it convinces the hearts and minds of the undergrads like Ms. Debelak, classroom transformations are also required in order to make this a successful teaching method. Rows of desks are great for densely populating a room full of students with the goal of scribbling as many notes down before the lecturer changes slides; however, when the emphasis is group work and face-to-face discussion, these traditional lecture halls become outdated. With this in mind, a push for friendlier facilities geared toward blended learning has been an emphasis around the engineering campus. Examples such as Wendt Library’s fourth floor or Engineering Hall’s room 2317 have already been converted to more open atmosphere for group study. These classes sacrifice maximum student capacity, but utilize circular or hexagonal tables to promote group work. The redesign significantly opens up the study area so professors and teaching assistants can easily roam about and answer students’ questions. More classrooms will undergo similar transitions as money trickles in to the proper funds, but this will take time because the tight budget constraints UW-Madison is currently under.
Like it or not, the future is the future, and the future brings change. The goal has been set for a 75 percent overhaul of all of the College of Engineering core undergraduate courses to transition from the more than century old, traditional lecture-and-learn methodology to the technology-infused, innovative blended learning system. But fret not young, unconvinced future alum, this change will not be happening overnight; the faculty is aiming for a gradual transition over a five-year span, allowing the college to transform more classrooms as well as the souls that have not been won over by this method of the future.