Designing Seminar-Style Courses for a Blended Format: Emphasizing Interpersonal Connection and Dialogue

Concurrent Session 2

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Brief Abstract

This session will explore how the Higher Education Administration and Policy Program at Northwestern University has transitioned seminar-style graduate classes, which emphasize interpersonal connection and dialogue, into a blended format. Strategies to determine program format, activities and tools, faculty development, and student support will be discussed. 


Alyssa Dyar is a Learning Engineer at Northwestern University, providing curriculum and course design services for the Master of Science in Law (MSL) online program at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. She studied Educational Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and completed her master's degree in Educational Technology at Loyola University Chicago. Her goal is to help instructors integrate technology in ways that increase meaningful learning by incorporating principles of cognitive psychology, education, and instructional design.

Extended Abstract

The Higher Education Administration and Policy Program at Northwestern University provides advanced instruction to approximately 70 graduate level students ranging from Career Launchers (straight from their undergraduate experiences), to Career Advancers (already working in higher education and want to be leaders), Career Changers (those with several years of work experience or more in fields other than higher education), and Lifelong Learners (those who already have a terminal degree and many years of professional experience that still want to pursue or refresh their knowledge). In order to broaden its reach to potential students who are working in higher education but either travel extensively for their work or live outside the Chicago area, the Higher Education Administration Program began offering a blended format, alternative schedule graduate certificate in Spring 2016. In approaching the development of a blended curriculum with alternative scheduling, we started with the broad question: How can the Higher Education Administration program maintain or strengthen the high quality, interpersonal learning experiences of graduate level seminar courses when offering them in a blended format?

Blended learning is not simply the creation of an additional online layer to the traditional curriculum; but rather a fundamental redesign that transforms the structure of the class and the approach to teaching and learning. The blended learning courses have been designed to thoughtfully integrate face-to-face and online learning in a way that is multiplicative and not additive. Understanding that a key characteristic of graduate level seminars is an emphasis on learning through dialogue, we have approached each of these components of the course redesign process focusing on meaningful interpersonal connections: (1) program format, (2) activities and tools used, (3) faculty development and ongoing support, and (4) student training.

Program Format

Given that the objective of the seminar style courses is to have students construct meaning and confirm understanding through discourse, the Higher Education Administration program has structured the blended format around two intensive weekends of in person class seminars and a combination of synchronous and asynchronous activities online. The first intensive weekend is typically held at the beginning of the quarter to allow students to engage deeply with the course material and make connections with peers and faculty. The remaining online activities extend these connections throughout the remainder of the quarter and provide opportunities to engage with the content in new ways.

Beyond the classroom, the Higher Education Administration program has provided opportunities  for students to engage with a community of peers and faculty through involvement in an online community space and access to career and academic resources provided by the program.

Activities and Tools

Students in graduate level seminars are pushed to critically analyze, construct, and confirm worthwhile knowledge as well as develop skills to make meaningful connections between peers and each other, between peers and faculty, and between peers and the learning environment. We constructed learning environments in the blended course format using tools and activities which integrate social, cognitive, and teaching elements used to precipitate and sustain critical reflection and discourse. In our presentation, we will discuss breakout rooms, group projects, non-threaded discussions, and use of video, among other tools and activities.

Faculty Development and Ongoing Support

As part of our course redesign process, we emphasize an individualized approach with each faculty and course to determine the best combination of in person and online activities to fit the strengths of each instructor and course content. Additionally, we invest heavily in faculty development and support so that instructors are confident and comfortable when approaching this new format. When faculty take ownership over leading the learning experience in the blended format, students give better feedback and are more engaged with the course.

Student Support

The Higher Education Administration program has implemented procedures to help prepare students for the blended format. Before students begin their first blended format course, they are oriented to the technical platforms they will encounter and provided guidelines for how to interact with the course. We do this to reduce the cognitive load of the new learning environment and to manage the expectations of students new to blended or online learning.

Research and Assessment

Initial assessment of the blended format courses has been completed using a survey instrument designed by the instructional design team and administered to students at the end of each class. The survey is based in part on the Community of Inquiry model developed and proposed by D. Randy Garrison and Norman D. Vaughan (2008) which emphasizes the need for the development and support of social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence.  

The results of this survey, as well as student feedback forms administered by Northwestern University, have been benchmarked against the rigorous learning expectations of the existing master's degree curriculum as a whole and the specific corollary in person courses to the blended/alternative format courses being assessed. In our presentation, we will share our initial findings and how these findings have helped us formulate our structured design process, informed our faculty development strategies, strengthened our use of tools and activities to facility meaningful learning, and guided us in how to be best support students.

Our structured design process can help guide instructional designers, design thinkers, faculty, and technologists through course and faculty development for a blended or online course, particularly  for seminar-style courses. We will also provide suggestions for best practices in structuring online course content providing faculty development, and introducing the blended learning curriculum to students.

Finally, we will lead discussion around some ongoing questions, including: (1) How do we create a positive learning expectation for students who approach a course with reservations or concerns? (2) How can we better facilitate asynchronous discussions online to support an ongoing community of learning throughout the quarter? (3) How can we more seamlessly integrate face-to-face activities on the weekends with ongoing student interaction online? And (4) what methods can we adopt to create more engaging synchronous online sessions to better retain student attention?