Embracing blended learning

Krzysztof Rybinsk

Krzysztof Rybinski is rector and professor, Narxoz University, Almaty, Kazakhstan. Previously he worked as a rector in Europe, as a partner in a “Big Four” accountancy practice, vice-governor of the National Bank of Poland and chief economist in several banks.

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    Erik Sootla

    Erik Sootla is director of the e-Learning Centre of Narxoz University. Previously he worked as lecturer and researcher at Tallinn University,
    Estonia, and managed a Phare project that created a joint blended MA degree in European integration between Tallinn and Tampere universities.

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    Krzysztof Rybinski and Erik Sootla show how a business school in Kazakhstan learned to embrace innovation in the classroom

    Digital innovations over the past two decades have started a revolution in higher education. Through e-learning platforms students now have access to high-quality online courses at zero or low cost compared to standard university tuition.

    We call it a “celebrity revolution”. People around the globe want to see movies that feature famous actors or productions of famous studios with large production and promotion budgets. These movies become blockbusters. Similar trends are present in higher education.

    Universities and business schools with strong brands, large budgets and world-ranked faculty are developing online programmes with global outreach. Often their MOOC courses attract tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of students from all continents and course leaders becomes globally known “celebrity professors”. This is both a threat and an opportunity for universities and business schools that do not have such strong brands.

    It is a threat because students can now get a degree or certificate from world-leading universities at a fraction of the cost of regular tuition by enrolling in e-learning or blended learning programmes.

    It is an opportunity because faculty and students at universities in less-developed countries can have access to high-quality education content at Coursera or EdX, which allows improved curricula and a richer learning experience for students.

    Narxoz University in Kazakhstan decided to tap this new opportunity and conducted two pilot projects, including the largest-ever experiment in blended learning, with very interesting results.

    We decided to make the transition from a traditional class, where a teacher gives a lecture and students listen, to a flipped classroom. A flipped classroom means that students watch a video lecture or interactive e-learning material at home, and when they come to the class they discuss it or make presentations about what they have learned prior to the class.

    We faced one problem though. We did not know whether it would work.

    The literature on e-learning and blended learning is inconclusive. Some researchers found that learning outcomes are better than in a traditional classroom; some found otherwise.

    So, in February 2015 we launched nine bachelors courses in Finance, Economics and Management in a MOOC-wrapped format. Students watched MOOCs of world top universities at home and then discussed them in class. We then compared learning outcomes of these courses to the same courses taught in the traditional format.

    Using an econometric model we found that both student GPA and student satisfaction measured by their course assessment was better in MOOC-wrapped courses than in traditional ones.

    Focus groups conducted at the end of the semester showed that students in experimental classes were able to acquire more complex competences, including the “soft skills” demanded by the labour market.

    Encouraged by these results we decided to continue the experiment on a much larger scale. Joining the experiment was voluntary for Narxoz faculty. But in order to increase the project participation rate Narxoz management offered two types of financial incentives: small remuneration for preparing the course; and it was also announced that participation in the blended learning project would have positive impact during annual faculty evaluation.

    The new “Moodle platform” was launched in autumn 2015 and proper training was provided to volunteers, including training in Camtasia Studio, Articulate Storyline and assistance by a team of course designers and methodologists. At the end of the preparation process additional rigorous quality verification (as presented in Table 1) was applied as well as the standard quality assurance procedure and only 15 courses out of the 50 initially proposed were approved to be launched on Moodle in February 2016. Other volunteers were asked to improve their courses.

    Out of the 15 courses six were taught in Kazakh and nine in Russian, seven were in blended format and eight were e-learning courses. The total number of students participating in one or more Moodle-based courses was 295, the total number of observations made for Moodle courses was 563, as some students took more than one course. The list of courses that passed the quality test is provided in Table 2 (see PDF) together with their basic characteristics. Each course lasted a full semester.

    When the semester ended we asked the office of the registrar to provide us with a list of all traditional courses that taught the same subjects as the courses selected for the blended learning/e-learning project during the spring semester of 2016. These were our control courses. In total we had data on almost 4,000 students. Then we constructed an econometric model analysing each student GPA (independent variable) and controlling for student characteristics. Independent variables were: student GPA before the course, quality of the teacher as measured by student survey results in the previous semester, student financial situation (was tuition payment delayed or not), course language and class size.

    While course language and class size did not matter, we found that students with higher prior GPA also did better during the experiment (best-in / best-out rule was positively validated). Students with financial problems had worse results and students that were taught by better teachers achieved higher GPA. After controlling for these variables our model showed that students in blended classes did better while students in pure online courses did worse than their colleagues taking traditional classes. All results were highly statistically significant.

    Both experiments confirmed that blended learning leads to better learning outcomes in comparison with traditional classes.

    So Narxoz University management decided to transfer all courses into this format in the coming three years. In September 2016 75 additional courses were launched in a blended learning format on our Moodle platform, and by 2018 all Narxoz courses will be taught in the blended learning / flipped classroom format.

    We also conducted an analysis of what happened in the case of pure e-learning courses. In Kazakhstan, e-learning is considered as an easy way to get a diploma, courses are not subject to strict quality assurance and learning outcomes are not properly verified, students simply take tests verifying whether they memorised the course content. Course discipline is weak.

    When students were exposed to our new strict standards that required regular studying and project completion, many of them could not meet the requirements. Hence their grades were lower than before and many failed to pass. However, those that did gave very positive feedback about course relevance and stated that they learned a lot more than before.

    However, the biggest positive impact of our blended learning experiment was not related to better student learning outcomes. We found that the new class format was truly transformational for our faculty, as confirmed by interviews and class visits. Classes are much more interactive, there are more real life cases being discussed and teaching itself became more fun. Faculty members no longer act as traditional teachers, they become facilitators of the student learning process.

    Another benefit of such an approach is the ability to change smartphones, which are a big attention distractor in the traditional classroom, into learning tools. During the classes students use their devices to access examples available on the internet, can vote for this or that option and watch results live on the screen.

    There are also new challenges. Earlier, wi-fi reliability in the classroom was not crucial, now it has become vital. Earlier, older faculty did not need 21st century digital competences to teach, now they have to embrace them.

    We are convinced that blended and highquality e-learning are the future of higher education. Young generations, who are digital “natives”, expect universities and business schools to use digital technologies effectively to improve the teaching and learning experience. The classroom is no longer the major learning space, the learning process takes place at home, on the bus, any place with access to the internet.

    Our research shows that only those universities and business schools that successfully respond to expectations of 21st century students will continue to thrive.

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