Group approach to blended course redesigns provides effective support, feedback

Mary Janzen
June 26, 2014

By working together as a cohort, four faculty members at Penn State New Kensington provide each other with mutual support to rethink course design, face challenges and devise solutions to effectively redesign face-to-face courses into a blended face-to-face and online format.

Abhinav Aima, instructor of communication; Natacha Bolufer-Laurentie, instructor in Spanish; Marcia Curler, instructor in radiological sciences; and Debra Majetic, instructor in radiological sciences; were selected for the New Kensington Blended Initiative in March, after submitting proposals to campus director of academic affairs Andrea Adolph, who launched the project.

The faculty members will receive a stipend funded by Chancellor Kevin Snider, and are being supported by Deborah Sillman, senior instructor in biology and instructional designer at the campus; Kathy Jackson and Cindy Decker Raynak of the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence; and Brian Young, instructional designer in ITS Teaching and Learning with Technology.

The Schreyer Institute is supporting the initiative in several ways, according to Sillman. She said that Jackson and Raynak jumpstarted training for the group “to get faculty thinking about course design and approaches to redesign.” They will also be providing continued support as needed.

“Brian Young has also been involved from the beginning,” said Sillman, “and has provided support and resources to the group."

Explaining why a blended format is a good fit for students at New Kensington, Adolph said, “I think that students sometimes want more flexibility, but we know that especially for traditional-age freshman and sophomore students, they may not be prepared to be accountable in a fully online format.” The goal for this blended initiative, she said, was “simply to find some folks who have that interest and provide them with the support that they needed to do this well and to see what works for our students at our campus.”

“This initial faculty cohort will then serve as mentors for other campus faculty who choose to explore blended course design,” according to Sillman.

The faculty members discussed their experiences with the initiative so far during their fifth meeting together in late May.

Although they represent several different academic fields, they said that working together on the course redesigns is advantageous in several ways.

“You get to hear different ideas from each other and get to see how proposed objectives and goals are different, but then the ways someone is trying to achieve their objectives or goals might actually have a very good overlay with things that I want to do in my course,” said Aima. “I get very narrow-minded about what I want to do in my course and the best way to do it; having access to, listening to and looking at examples from other people who are also interested in doing this has helped me open up my mind a bit more,” he added.

Majetic had drafted a weekly schedule for her course, but then said, “I made a lot of changes based on some of the input that we had at our last meeting.” She said that having new sets of eyes such as Aima’s and Sillman’s looking at her course, “It’s almost like they’re looking at that as one of my students would look at it, and so when they said, ‘What do you mean by this?’ it made me really take a look. When somebody else looks at it who really isn’t involved with that class, then I think you’re able to make positive changes. We need to bounce ideas off of each other.”

Another way in which the group of faculty is learning from each other is finding the most effective course tools to employ. “I think deciding on what technologies to use,” said Majetic, “because it can be overwhelming. I would have just picked what I was most comfortable with. If I go through this and develop (my course) more, I’ll be able to experiment. I’m also thinking about what would be easiest for the students.”

The faculty cohort is also able to pool and reuse ideas for effective course design. “A thing I think has been really useful is all the resources like example syllabus, articles, all these things that Deborah has provided for us,” said Bolufer-Laurentie, who was able to meet with the group from Spain via Adobe Connect. “It has been really good to kind of poach a little bit of information from all these different places to put together our courses. The syllabus that was shared by Dr. Adolph and other syllabi of other blended classes has also been a good thing,” she said.

The group shares these resources with each other on a website at

Curler noted, “If you’re working on something and you need some feedback right away, this group is providing that for each other. We’re all in the same boat; we’re all in the same spot as far as designing these blended classes.”

Beyond the benefits to the four faculty of being a part of the initiative, the group also underscored the potential benefits to students of designing the courses in blended format.

“What you ideally want to do is give the kind of content that used to be just a straight, one-way directional lecture to the students online to leave face-to-face time for back and forth, interactive stuff,” Sillman explained. “That’s the accepted best practice.”

Majetic concurred, saying, “The boring stuff that we used to do in class, they’ll do out of class now. We’ll leave the face-to-face meetings for actual synthesis of the material. I’ll know that they understood it.”  She said that her course is very content-heavy and in the past required her to spend a lot of class time lecturing. “My goal is to have more in-class exercises and discussions of the material that they’ve already read. So they’ll be prepared for class; they won’t just be sitting there while I drone on and on,” she said.

In her language class, said Bolufer-Laurentie, “I want my students to learn the grammar and vocabulary on their own and use the face-to-face time to do conversation, composition and activities.”

Aima said that when he took a mass communications class around 18 years ago similar to the class he now teaches, it was a straight lecture class. “For a long period, I held onto that as the methodology to use,” he said.

At present, however, he said, “The reality of the fact that there are students across different campuses who need to take this class matches very nicely with the reality of the fact that when most people who are working in mass communications are addressing problems, dealing with controversies or having questions and doubts, they’re no longer doing it in face-to-face meetings; most of those discussions nowadays are taking place across a wide geographic area and now taking place via computers, phone calls and so on. The necessity of having a blended course because there’s students across different campuses is matching nicely with the fact that this is what’s happening in the world right now. This is pretty much what the work environment is like.”

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Last Updated June 26, 2014