Mark Jones, Questions Concerning Proposals for Course Redesign (13 February 2013)

From the Arts and Science Faculty Board Agenda for 13 February 2013.  For the  response, see the Minutes, pp. 8-11.

Questions for Dean MacLean, Arts and Science Faculty Board, February 2013

from Mark Jones, Department of English

Units in Arts and Science have received repeated “Calls for Proposals for Course Redesign,” i.e., for conversions to online and “blended” formats (the most recent is posted here).  I have four questions concerning these invitations.

  First, and most generally, rather than promote “course redesign” from the top down, would it not be better policy for Arts and Science simply to facilitate the development of online or blended formats when and where faculty see the need for and initiate them?

Second, if the object is really “to enhance student engagement and improve student learning by providing students with an active learning experience in the classroom” (as the most recent memo claims), then why is “Each blended course . . . expected to accommodate an enrolment increase of between 10 – 15%” (as the same memo also says)?

Third, at other institutions, “blending” of courses does not necessarily entail reducing student-professor contact.  But in Queen’s Arts and Science (as the most recent memo explains, and as other official documents confirm), “blended courses have fewer contact hours than traditional lecture courses.”   Why, if the object is to “improve student learning”?

Fourth, will those responsible for issuing these promotional materials from Arts and Science commit to using research evidence responsibly, so as not to mislead faculty into assuming that “online” or “blended” modes are categorically and qualitatively preferable?  I cite two current cases.

A.  The most recent memo from FAS claims that

The blended initiative is being assessed through a research study. Initial analysis of data from 3 courses shows a statistically significant increase in student engagement in the blended learning format in comparison to the traditional format in areas such as active learning in class, activities that promote higher order thinking skills and student-faculty interactions.

When I wrote (on Jan. 27) to ask for the study on which these claims are based, I was told that the results have yet to be reviewed and the report has yet to be compiled.  To claim research results for promotional purposes before the grounds of the claims are available for public scrutiny is not responsible scholarly procedure.  Moreover, some of the matters for which a “statistically significant increase” is claimed here do not appear to be  sufficiently susceptible to quantification to make statistical comparison possible or at least meaningful.

B. The Arts and Science “blended learning“ webpage claims that

A 2010 meta-analysis of more than a thousand empirical research studies showed that learning outcomes for students taking blended courses were significantly better than those of students receiving purely face-to-face instruction. The mean effect size in studies comparing blended with face-to-face instruction was +0.35, p < .001.

As I have shown elsewhere, the empirical research studies involved were actually 23 in number, not “more than a thousand,” and this claim is misleading in other ways as well.

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