Tales from the coalface: From tragedy to triumph in a blended learning approach to the teaching of 1st year biology

G.K. Ellem, E.A. McLaughlin


In 2004 we made a significant move to blended course delivery in 1st year Biology at the University of Newcastle. Innovations included electronic delivery of course notes, laboratory instructions and other support material including interactive templates, instructional and background videos, step by step guides for data analysis and some online laboratories. Students also submitted reports electronically and used email along with peer review to provide guided feedback to each other. Online discussion boards were used to interact with students and to assist students outside of class time. We also used some automatically marked online assessment. Feedback on the implementation of a blended learning approach in Semester 1 during and after the completion of the semester showed that, although grades were strong, student and staff satisfaction levels were the lowest on record. Key issues identified were workload, quality and quantity of feedback and collusion. In the light of this feedback changes were made to the delivery in Semester 2 to reduce workload, improve feedback and minimise collusion. At the conclusion of Semester 2 overall course grades and the results of student surveys showed that grades and satisfaction were the highest on record. All this with a 40% reduction in part time teaching costs for Semester 2. We believe that our experience shows that the blended learning environment can produce an improved quality learning environment at reduced cost, although only when that environment is matched with skilled and motivated teaching staff.

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