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Over the past few years, McMaster has steadily worked on efforts to improve its course delivery. By implementing animations, social media and online modules, McMaster is gradually bringing university education into the 21st century.

This new approach to course structure, called blended learning, aims to flip the classroom. Lecture content is made available online so instructors can use actual class time to explore specific elements in more detail. While McMaster is not currently considered a leader in the development of this method of teaching, Zafar Syed explained that this is starting to change. Syed is the Associate Director of Digital Technology at the McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching & Learning, the institution that has been the main driver of this change.

“For the past three to four years there’s been a concentrated effort to increase the digital footprint that McMaster has, whether that means setting up and supporting an institute like ours here to help faculty with technology integration, or funding courses to be redesigned for blended or online delivery,” he said.

The cost of redesigning a course ranges from $12,000 to $75,000. “That’s not to say that one course is better than the other. It just depends on how much media production is necessary,” explained Syed. He added that a course that uses social media or Avenue to Learn in a unique way are additional ways courses can be technology-infused.

Instructors have approached blended learning in a variety of ways. As a cohort, the Biology Department decided to revisit two courses: the first year cellular and molecular biology class as well as its second-year continuation with a greater focus on cell biology. The former was launched in the spring of 2014, while the previous fall saw the beginning of the cell biology modules. According to Prof. Rosa da Silva, the department worked together to update the curriculum by creating a type of narrative structure for the course to follow. “We thought how can we make our first year experience better, how can we add more to the classroom without taking away, and we thought going blended would be the best way, so that we could offer core material online, and then really bring in class the opportunity to diversify material,” she explained.

The blended learning approach is being explored in other faculties as well. Prof. Emad Mohammad, who bridges the faculties of Commerce and Engineering, has worked to make his course Commerce 1AA3, an introductory financial accounting class, customizable. He has implemented a strategy where students read the course material on weekends and explore it through animations and videos. They are quizzed on the material and based on the results, Mohammad tailors his in-class lectures to focus on the areas students struggled with.

“Blended learning works best not because you put some content online, but because of what happens during the face-to-face component.”

Both da Silva and Mohammad agreed that the blended approach has helped boost marks in their respective courses. While Mohammad admitted that not all students like the blended approach, he has noticed more A+ grades and fewer failing marks. “The results are indisputable,” he said. Da Silva was also enthusiastic about the effect of modules in her biology courses. “We’re seeing that student grades are going up with blended learning, which is great.”

Both professors also mentioned the fact that despite the improvements in grades, not all students are satisfied with the new approach to lecture content. Da Silva explained that frequently, students in her courses who do not enjoy the mix of modules and lectures have a more difficult time focusing. “Students who have a harder time managing time… are the students that are hating it, they’re not scheduling it in as part of their week to week classes that they should be watching,” she explained.

Despite the enthusiasm faculty have for blended learning, they seem to be moving forward without a concrete plan. Syed and da Silva both mentioned long-term studies of the lasting effect of blended learning courses at McMaster, but neither offered specific ways in which the content will continue to develop beyond constantly improving modules. Syed is looking forward to the opening of the LR Wilson building as a way to encourage more active and blended learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences. “Blended learning works best not because you put some content online, but because of what happens during the face-to-face component. That people are able to engage in content in a deeper and more personal way and not just passively sit and listen to lecture, which they can do in their own time,” he explained.

Although there is more room for the assessment of blended learning’s overall impact, it is clear that McMaster is determined to continue implementing learning technologies into a greater variety of courses.

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