Su-Yin Tan is the first to acknowledge that the sudden shift to online learning during the pandemic was hard on teachers and students. So, when public health restrictions lift, Tan doesn’t want to lose all the valuable lessons learned.

Tan, a teaching fellow in the Faculty of Environment, is supporting a new Blended Learning Initiative at the University of Waterloo. “The pandemic forced me to try different things and to think differently about all of my assignments,” says Tan. “I do see advantages to offering some activities online and was surprised to get good feedback from students.”

The new initiative will combine the best of digital learning with in-person teaching, an approach that Tan believes will be the future of education. Although elements of blended learning have been around for years, the new initiative at Waterloo is supporting more professors who want to design their courses in a new way.

Donna Ellis, director of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence, says the new blended courses from this initiative, offered for the first time in the fall 2021 term, use a flipped classroom approach to blended learning.  Students get their first exposure to concepts through readings, video recordings and tasks online before they participate in in-class activities designed to help them apply and synthesize their learning, with input from their peers and instructor.

Tan, who teaches blended learning courses in geographic information systems (GIS), is working to flip her Winter 2022 courses to make them 50 per cent online. The reduced face-to-face class time is reserved for project-based group work as Tan checks in on small groups to offer support and answer questions. “The time spent in the classroom is a more intense and productive experience for students,” Tan says.

Blended learning supports talent development

Julie Robson, a lecturer in the School of Accounting and Finance who teaches taxation, is also using a flipped classroom approach to blended learning. All in-class time, whether it be synchronous online or in-person, involves collaborative, problem-based learning, says Robson. All lectures are pre-recorded so students can watch and rewatch lectures on their own time. 

“Assessment techniques have also evolved away from the memory dump, high-stress exam format,” Robson says. “Less in-person class time has allowed for more effective use of instructor time to develop case-based assessments that are better aligned with problem and case-based learning activities used in class.  Students are instead provided with more time and an open-book format that allow for better assessment of their problem solving and communication skills.”

Blended learning will help prepare students for the future of the profession, which is undergoing big changes, Robson says. “Our profession is very forward-thinking, with more emphasis on technology, data analytics, problem solving and strategic planning. We've been incorporating these elements into our coursework.”

Robson says the pandemic shutdown forced her to modernize her course design and, while there are challenges, points out that students appreciate the flexibility. “Student feedback has been positive,” says Robson. “Most appreciate the more practical assessment design and, although they found it challenging, they realized that the experience will better equip them to tackle professional exams post-graduation.”

Ellis points out that blended learning has advantages over traditional classroom instruction, with research showing that students perform better and are more satisfied. Some studies also show blended learning increases faculty-student interaction and student retention, and flipped courses have been shown to increase class attendance. It also aligns with the University’s Strategic Plan which places a priority on preparing students for rapid technological, environmental and economic changes.

Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence is supporting the campus initiative with workshops, and consultations, and the Centre for Extended Learning is supporting online courseware development to help professors design unique, blended courses that work best for their students.