Blending what? An approach to delivering earth science courses online

Ian Clark, Patrick James

Abstract


A major problem with online instruction in contemporary universities is securing cooperation of academics. Oslington (2005) argues that although the benefits are widely recognized, participation is inhibited by ‘the unverifiability of expertise in online learning, the firm-specific nature of investments in online learning and the team nature of online learning.’ The preparedness of science faculty staff to engage in online and distance learning is further discouraged by the difficulty in presenting the skills and knowledge involving particularly the practical and fieldwork aspects of science courses. Virtual field trips, interactive multimedia computer-aided learning (CAL) packages and practical kits have been used in the past to overcome these perceived difficulties and we have used a range of approaches in trying to deliver geoscience courses online (James, Clark, Hillis and Peterson 1995; James, Peterson and Clark 1996; James, Peterson, Roberts and Clark 1997). The introductory undergraduate geoscience course described here has thus evolved from a completely face-to-face delivered course to one which can be partly taken off-campus. We have experimented with CAL modules, just-in-time teaching (Novak, Gavrin, Christian and Patterson 1999), online readings, discussion forums, question and answer sessions, mail-out practical kits, interactive field simulations using a combination of digital images and real earth materials, and virtual field trips, in an approach that can be described as blended learning. Blended learning (Thorne 2003) is recognized as a way of meeting the challenges of tailoring learning and development to the needs of ndividuals by integrating the innovative and technological advances offered by online learning with the interaction and participation offered in the best of traditional learning. Fisher (2003, p11) describes it as ‘the selection of an optimum mix of instructional delivery strategies that will enable a learner or learner group to achieve desired learning outcomes.’ Blended learning provides all the benefits of online learning including cost reductions, time efficiencies and location convenience for the learner as well as the essential one-on-one personal understanding

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