Cumberland Times-News

August 23, 2013

College broadens distance learning offerings

For the Cumberland Times-News
Cumberland Times-News

— CUMBERLAND — Allegany College of Maryland is preparing to add courses that mix classroom and online instruction, thus broadening its distance learning offerings.

These “blended” courses, which combine traditional and digital modes of education delivery, offer the best of both worlds, according to Pam Deering, ACM’s director of instructional technologies and multimedia services.

In this hybrid format, students have the flexibility of studying and completing assignments online in addition to the benefits of practicing skills and applying knowledge in the face-to-face classroom.

While online learning continues to be effective — and ACM currently offers more than 100 online courses — blended-learning instruction is well-suited to certain subjects in a wide variety of disciplines, according to Deering.

In these classes, Deering said, blended instruction can serve to heighten student engagement while raising levels of critical thinking for increased student learning.

Underpinning the addition of blended courses are standards upheld by Quality Matters, a faculty-centered, peer-review process that certifies the quality of online education.

“It’s a step in the right direction for us, and it’s a step that focuses on quality,” said Deering, who noted that, depending on the subject, online learning in a blended course could range from 30 to 75 percent.

This summer, 18 faculty members attended two-day training in blended-learning course design that ACM called its “Blended Academy.” Topics ranged from technologies and development to implementation and evaluation of these hybrid courses.

The sessions were led by two leading proponents of the approach, Ivan Shibley Jr., an associate professor at Penn State University-Berks, and Timothy Wilson, an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario. Wilson is recognized as a leader and innovator in pedagogy while Shibley is a presenter on blended learning at numerous professional events and is one of its leading advocates.

The ACM instructors who took the instruction have committed to developing courses that can be offered in the spring or fall semesters of 2014. Their subjects reflect the wide range of the college’s numerous career and transfer programs and include allied health, humanities, social sciences and technology-based curricula.

Kristi Smith, an associate professor in computer technology, is redesigning a course in advanced webpage development that previously had been offered entirely online.

The blended approach, she explained, will “provide students the opportunity to work through the technical issues in a lab setting while the lecture portion of the class would remain online.”

Tom Striplin, professor of respiratory therapy, is re-designing his program’s fourth-semester clinical practice course to include learning via audio and video using multiple technology platforms. “Adaptive education will allow students to learn at different levels and at a pace that best suits them within the same class utilizing technology-guided instruction,” he said. “At the end of the day, blending will provide more opportunity to interact with students to improve retention and application of knowledge and critical thinking skills.”

Next fall, the faculty-driven move to add blended courses to the ACM roster will enter a peer-mentoring phase in which the instructors who are now developing blended courses will assist the next faculty cohort to develop them.

When implemented in January, blended-learning will be of real benefit to students, Deering believes. “It gives them flexibility and helps them become independent learners, which better prepares them to be successful,” she said.

The move to add blended courses to the range of learning delivery modes at ACM has the full support of the college’s Instructional Affairs Office.

“Blended-learning has an underlying philosophy that allows technology to take care of repetitive tasks and allows faculty to take their students further in any given subject area,” said David Hinds, vice president for instructional affairs.

“Technology can help us deliver drills, lectures and exams at a distance,” he said. “And when faculty members meet with students face-to-face, they are able to create a higher quality learning experience, allowing more freedom to create deeper connections and learning in more personalized ways.”