How Professor Jeff Robert Uses Blended Teaching in his classes

We sat down with Professor Robert to hear how he structures his classes, how his students have found Blended Teaching, and to discuss the importance of universal design.

1. How did you come to start using Blended Teaching?

I met Phil at the ARES Spring conference in April 2022, and he was very interested in improving student outcomes. What struck me was his passion for changing the current dynamic, where there's a 600 page textbook that nobody cares about, or reads, and we all pretend that students are reading the book and are actually getting some value out of it. 

We know that students are watching videos; they’re shorter, and students can actually learn from them well, so let's throw out what we've been doing for the last 200 years because it's not working anymore.

It’s really exciting to be able to convey to students that, okay this stuff does exist, it does matter and you can learn it in a different way. You can play with it, manipulate it, and have more fun than just going through some dusty textbook that nobody is even going to pay attention to.

2. Did you previously use textbooks in your classes? And how did bringing Blended Teaching into your classroom change things for you?

When I inherited the classroom, we had a 450 page statistics textbook written by somebody who's probably been dead for half a century, and it was very very difficult to engage with. 

I ended up throwing out that textbook after about a year and a half, and I used a smaller textbook that was more in line with real estate and data. It was better, but it wasn't the best medium of exchange for information. I ended up asking students ‘are you even reading this?’, and they'd explain that they’re not, because they don’t have the time or the energy.  

The biggest complaint that I get from students is that the class moves too quickly. I'm in a balancing act between going slowly enough that everyone gets it, versus needing to get them ready for the next course in their degree sequence. The Blended Teaching medium of using a digital textbook with high quality videos allowed me to say ‘we went through this as an example in class, it’s covered in the book, and the videos, and we even have it written out for you.’

As a learner, if you're struggling with the topic, you can go online and watch the material, and stop it, and then re-watch it. That is fantastic from a student's perspective. Video on demand, which is a Netflix model, is exactly what students are used to, and so it's allowed me to offload responsibility for being the only source of information in a classroom. Now I'm no longer the only source. As a learner you now have readily accessible videos, which is less intimidating than a textbook.

A problem that I find with online learning is learners saying ‘I just want somebody to teach me these things, I can't get it from a book’. With Blended Teaching we're blending the learning between directed videos, accompanying text and classroom instruction so all of these things we're able to leverage and from a pedagogy standpoint we're hitting multiple methods and structures, which in my mind enhances the learning.

What I've heard from students now having done this for more than one semester is that they're seeing the content come back in other classes, and they're saying ‘oh yeah I remember this, and it wasn't as scary or challenging because I learned it the first time’

3. How much of the impact you're describing is a result of approaching topics through multiple different mediums, versus giving students a broader set of mediums to select from? 

The reality is that no one learner is all visual, or all tactile. Coming at the material from different ways just helps. It's a layering approach. I build a structure, and the foundational components of that are delivered in a classroom setting, where traditionally, and even today, students seem to do the best.

When there are knowledge gaps, that's where we start to add to it. We traditionally added textbooks - ‘here's a textbook go read it, and figure out where your holes are, and then come back to me and we're going to continue’

Students today have so many different stressors, and ways that they're being pulled. While they might be very well intentioned to say ‘let me sit down with a 600 page book’, the reality is it just doesn't happen. With Blended Teaching, they're going to take a bus to campus, and they’ll have it on their phone. They can watch a video, put their headphones in and actually obtain content with greater flexibility.

We have this archaic system where classrooms were designed to have one podium and a whole fleet of seats. The result is typically a passive learning experience. Now we've shifted those models, and we're trying to be collaborative, we're trying to have conversations, and we’re allowing the students to engage. 

It's very hard to engage with the textbook itself, but when we start using videos, it allows engagement through pausing, rewinding through the application of the material through multiple modes. I think that's what we're going to find - the students that succeed are the ones that can leverage different resources. That's what Blended teaching really is; an additional resource for students to be able to learn from, and to also build their confidence with.

One of the benefits of Blended teaching is that students tend to be too shy in a classroom to actually put their hands up, be vulnerable, and say ‘I don't know what you just did, can you go over that again?’. You probably only have five or ten percent of students that actually do that, and the rest wouldn't ask.

4. I was one of those quiet students. There were many times where I got lost, and had to go back over the notes it all in the library afterwards

I've sat in classes too and I said 'I am so lost', and one of the benefits of the digital textbook is the fact that you don't have to say that you're lost. You just pause it and watch it again. You're making more of a universally designed class by having the resources for a student to be able to stop, pause and rewind. That's what we're seeing right now; about 30 percent of our students have some type of disability accommodation and there is a large push on our campus to design classes universally.

5. What does universal design mean in the context of learning?

It means that a student with a disability does not need any additional accommodation, because the class is designed from a universal standpoint. Part of that would be speed of knowledge transfer; I'm not worried about the speed of a lecture because that lecture is also encapsulated in a video activity, so I know that if you're not following along with the material in the classroom, you can watch the video ahead of time. It's a design framework that allows us to engage different populations of students.

6. Has the option of Blended Teaching enabled you to change the structure of your course in any way? 

The Blended Teaching Classbook has allowed me to say ‘here are the fundamental concepts. We go through them faster in the class. This was all in the video that I'm expecting you should have watched. Now let's apply it - let's pick it up and play with it’. 

For those that are struggling as I walk around the class, when we have a flipped classroom setup, I ask ‘well did you watch the videos?’. If I get a response of ‘oh no, I didn't have time’, I encourage them to take a look. When I go back to them on the following day and check if they did, they respond that I really did help, and so they're now reinforcing that feedback loop. It is bettering their experience in the classroom - they don't feel as lost. That in turn allows me to free up time to hit harder topics; more intensive Excel, statistics, and problems, so we will be able to engage at a deeper level because I don't have to sit back and build knowledge from scratch.

7. You mentioned this idea of playing in the classroom setting, once the fundamentals have been covered. It reminds me of how Richard Feynman talks about the power of tinkering in learning.

As an example, we talk about things like histograms and frequency tables. A lot of that content is built into the Blended Teaching platform. I was able to offload 15 minutes of me describing this at a fundamental level, and I can bring in playing cards and rig the decks. By putting them together in a certain way, I could hand the decks to students so that they can tinker with them.

8. What has the feedback been from students?

I ran a survey of my students and I asked for their thoughts on the textbook. I think out of the 50 or so students that I had, 49 of them expressed that ‘this was the best thing ever, please keep going with it’. It was what they wanted - another opportunity to just slow it down, to revisit. I think that's by far the best aspect of it from a teaching side. It gives me flexibility, especially because it's an online system. 

I had a student come into an office hours session. I could tell from the questions they were asking, that they hadn’t been working through the Blended Teaching material. I could also check this by looking at the dashboard. This enabled me to turn around and say ‘you haven't looked at this stuff, and so you need to put more time into it.’

I asked them to watch it, and come back in three hours. On returning, they said ‘honestly, the videos were really good. I don't have any other questions, and this was a lot easier than I thought it was.’ That was not only a teaching moment for the student about accountability, but it freed up some of the additional office hours time that I was having to use to re-teach students. 

9. I recall you've collected some data on Blended Teaching’s impact on your students. Can you share any interesting findings?

There are some statistical issues associated with things like the small sample size,  but I absolutely will use this as propaganda in the classroom to encourage them to spend more time learning, and to give them more reasons to be doing things outside of class. 

So what I've done is show students exactly the ways that they can help themselves. One of the ways is by investing time in Blended Teaching. Using one of the statistical techniques that we learned in the class I can show students that the more time they spend in Blended Teaching the better they do on the quiz.

The punchline is that for every additional hour of time spent in Blended Teaching, you get three percent more on your grade. So I say to students, ‘all right, do you want to get a full letter grade higher? That's three hours of your time.’