Of That

Brandt Redd on Education, Technology, Energy, and Trust

08 May 2020

Did Blended Learning Save My Class from Coronavirus?

A Blender with a Coronavirus Inside

Last week I turned in final grades from teaching my first-ever college course. In December I agreed to teach one section of Information Systems 201 at Brigham Young University. I've been talking and writing about learning technology for a long time; I was overdue for some first-hand experience. Little did I know what an experience we were in for.

The outbreak COVID-19 forced me, along with hundreds of thousands of other professors, to shift teaching to 100% online. The amazing part is how well it worked out.

About the Class

IS201 is required of all undergraduate business school majors at BYU. Nearly 800 took it Winter Semester. Mine was an evening section composed of 75 students. A handful dropped before the deadline. The other 68 stuck with me to the end. Majors in my class included Accounting, Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Management, Finance, Information Systems and a bunch of others. So, this was a very technical class taught to mostly less-technical majors.

The class starts with an lightweight introduction to Information Systems before diving into four technical subjects. First up was databases. We learned how to design a database using ER Diagrams and how to perform queries in SQL. For that segment, Data.world was our platform. Next up was procedural programming. We used Visual Basic for Applications to manipulate Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. We progressed to data analytics and visualization for which we used Tableau and Microsoft Excel. And the final segment was web programming in HTML and CSS.

Blended Learning

My class was blended from the beginning, which turned out to be quite valuable once Coronavirus hit and Physical Distancing began. As I write this I ponder how freaky it would have been to read those words only three months ago.

The course is standardized across all sections. We have a digital textbook hosted on MyEducator that was developed by a couple of the BYU Information Systems professors. The online materials are rich with both text and video explanations and hands-on exercises for the students. All homework and exams are submitted online and either scored automatically or by a set of TAs. Because the course is challenging, and taken by a lot of students, there is a dedicated lab where students can get TA help pretty much any time during school hours.

The online materials are sufficient that dedicated students can succeed on their own. In fact, an online section relies exclusively on the text and videos (that are available to all) and offers online TA support. Students of that section generally do well. However, they also self-select for the online experience.

So, students of IS 201 have available to them the following blending of learning experiences:

  • Live lectures.
  • Video tutorials. These are focused on a single topic and range from 5 to 25 minutes in length.
  • Written text with diagrams and images.
  • Live TA access.
  • Virtual TA access. Via email and text-chat from the beginning and online web conferencing later.
  • Office hours with the professor.

The assignments on which students are graded are consistent regardless of which learning method they choose. There are a few quizzes but most assignments are project-oriented.

The net result of this is that students are given a set of consistent assignments, mostly project-based, with their choice of a variety of learning opportunities for mastering the material.

Enter Coronavirus

On Thursday, March 12, 2020 BYU faculty and students got word that all classes would be cancelled Friday, Monday, and Tuesday. By Wednesday we should resume with everything entirely online. Students were encouraged to return to their homes in order to increase social distancing. Probably 2/3 of my class did so; one returning home to Korea. Yet, they all persisted. I didn't have any student drop out of the class after the switch to online.

Compared to many of my peers, the conversion was relatively easy. All of the learning materials were already online and students were already expected to submit their assignments online. Despite that, it took me about 10 hours to prepare. I adjusted the due dates for two assignments, scheduled the zoom lessons and posted links in the LMS, sent out communications to the students, and responded to their questions. On Monday I hosted an optional practice class so that I and the handful of students that joined could get practice with the online format.

The department leadership gave me the option of teaching live classes using Zoom or recording my classes for viewing whenever students chose. I elected to teach live but to post recordings of the live lectures.

Thursday, March 19 I posted this on LinkedIn:

Wednesday was the first day of online instruction for Brigham Young University. That day we achieved more than 1,200 online classes, with more than 26,000 participants coming in from 60-plus countries. Not bad, considering we only had five days to prepare, many of the students returned to their homes during the suspension of classes, and we had an #earthquake that morning.

As with the in-person classes, attendance was optional. Attendance dropped from a typical 60 in-person to about 20-25 online. One particularly sunny afternoon I only had seven show up. On average, the recordings had about 30 views each but the last couple, with focus on the final project, had nearly 90 which means some of the students were watching them more than once.

Having worked from home for the last seven years, I have a lot of experience with online videoconferencing. Despite that, I felt a huge loss moving to online classes. I never before realized how much feedback I got from eye contact and facial expressions. In-person, students were more ready to raise their hands or interrupt with questions. Online, I often felt like I was talking to empty space. I had to be very deliberate in seeking feedback. Maintaining long pauses when prompting for questions, encouraging them to post in the chat box, and suggesting questions of my own.

About two weeks into the online mode, I read an article that said there should be at least three live interactions per online class. They can be simple polls, a question to the students for which they are to call out or write a response, or a simple thumbs up or thumbs down on how well they are understanding the material. Zoom, like most other systems, has tools that make this pretty easy. And I found that the advice was good. Engagement really improved when I added even one or two interactions.

The biggest change was with the TA labs. The two TAs that served my class had to move their sessions online, again using Zoom and screen-sharing to support the students. They did an excellent job and I'm enormously grateful. My office hours were also virtually hosted. But, to my surprise, I only had three students make use of that in the online portion of the semester.

A Teaching Opportunity

COVID-19 became a threat to the U.S. just as my class was getting into the unit on Data Analytics. I wrote a little program in C# to download the virus data from Johns Hopkins University and reformat it into a table more suitable for analysis with Microsoft Excel or Tableau. On this webpage I posted links to the data, to the downloader program, and getting started videos for doing the analysis.

Graph of US Coronairus Cases

Wherever possible, throughout that unit, I used the COVID-19 data for my in-class examples. It turned out to be an excellent opportunity to show the strength of proper visualization with real-world data. I also showed examples of how rendering correct data in the wrong way can be misleading. Feedback from the students was very positive though it was sobering when we analyzed death rates.

Saved by Blended Learning

There are many models for blended learning. My class started out with a selection of learning modes with students given the freedom to choose among them. The LMS we used gives statistics on the students' modes of learning. Across the class, students only watched 15% of videos to completion. Meanwhile, they read 71% of the reading materials and completed 95% of the assessments. My rough estimate is that about 65% attended or viewed the lectures. I don't have statistics on their use of virtual TA help but I'm sure it was considerable.

This correlates with what I have seen in studies. Video is exciting but most students prefer from reading with still images. That's because they control the pace. Live interactions remain important because a teacher can respond immediately to feedback from the class. Online-live is more challenging because most visual cues are eliminated but there are ways to compensate. Most of them involve deliberate effort on the part of the instructor such as prompting for questions, instant quizzes, votes, and so forth.

Despite the challenges, my class came out with a 3.4 average, considerably better than the expected 3.2. I would love to take credit for that. But I think it has more to do with a subject and format that are well-suited to a blended model, high-quality online materials (prepared by my predecessors), and resilient students who simply hung in there until the end.

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