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Report Shows ‘Blended’ Learning Still in Experimental Stages

By Ivan B. K. Levingston, Crimson Staff Writer

So-called “blended” courses offered during the spring semester received lower student ratings than earlier, traditional offerings of those courses, according to a recent internal report, which analyzed student feedback for courses in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences integrating traditional and online education.

The report, released in late July by Harvard’s Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, also made recommendations for how to improve the blended format.

Overall course evaluation scores for three of the four courses analyzed were lower than those of previous offerings. However, Robert A. Lue, faculty director of HarvardX and the Bok Center, cautioned that students almost always take time to adjust to major changes.

“We’re seeing right now a remarkable degree of experimentation in new modes of learning,” Lue said. “It takes time to get these things right.”

The report analyzed four courses experimenting with a mix of online and classroom learning. The courses, which included Science of the Physical Universe 27: “Science and Cooking,” Culture and Belief 22: “The Ancient Greek Hero,” History of Science 121: “The Einstein Revolution,” and Societies of the World 12: “China,” were evaluated using a combination of surveys and student focus groups.

The four classes, which were taught to undergraduates last academic year, combine traditional teaching methods with materials from HarvardX, Harvard’s portion of edX, an online education venture it launched with MIT in 2012.

In the report, analysts made several recommendations for improvement, including increased transparency in the grading process, timely feedback for students, and and an earlier start to course planning. The report also recommends experimenting with new ways to physically use classroom space.

Though the report noted the positive aspects of blended learning, it also considered reasons for the lower Q scores, noting in particular the possibility of a higher workload for students and the loss of small discussion sections.

Professors of the blended courses said that they are taking steps to address those concerns raised in the report.

Michael P. Brenner, who co-teaches “ Science and Cooking,” said that next year he is planning to reduce students’ workload by eliminating many of the online requirements for “Science and Cooking. For his part, “China” professor Peter K. Bol said that he will reintroduce discussion sections for the course.

The survey also found a split between underclassmen and upperclassmen in their course evaluations. Underclassman students gave much more positive reviews for the blended model than upperclassmen. According to Bol, this split might illustrate a “cultural issue” in adjusting to new workload expectations.

Despite the room for improvement, both Bol and Brenner said that they feel moving more course material online has been advantageous for their courses.

“It gave students a chance to see the lecture their own time, in a format that made it much easier to follow,” said Bol, who also serves as the University’s vice provost for advances in learning. “[The] model of chunk and test with more visual explanation allows for much greater comprehension, so class time wasn’t for lecture, it was for discussion and interaction.”

Brenner, a Physics professor, agreed that moving lectures online allowed for more efficient and convenient way to communicate course material.

“We have a set of material now because of HarvardX that is of much higher quality than what we had before,” he said. “The flip side is that we are really very much learning ways to use these materials in a way that is effective in a Harvard classroom.”

Along with the report, the Bok Center has created an eight-person “Blended Learning Support Team,” in order to help faculty members adapt their courses for blended learning.

“It’s really left in the hands of the faculty, our hope is that all of this material...will benefit Harvard students,” Lue said. “We want to make it easier for faculty to use these things.”

—Staff writer Ivan B. K. Levingston can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @IvanLevingston.

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