Challenges of Blended Learning in the Humanities: Ancient Greek

May 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Earlier this week, I received a query about available resources for teaching Ancient Greek online that would enable a hybrid or blended approach to teaching beginning Greek.  My experience tracking down those resources is a useful demonstration of the challenges still faced by many humanities disciplines in implementing the hybrid or blended approach. In this blog post, I’m going to share my results and reflect on those challenges.

The Next Big Thing for Liberal Arts Colleges: Hybrid or Blended Learning

For the last several  years, I’ve been researching and advocating for digital humanities at small liberal arts colleges. Given the growth of digital humanities at these types of institutions, I would say that NITLE’s Initiative in Digital Humanities has been successful. In our unique position of looking ahead and sharing the future with our network members, we at NITLE are constantly looking for the next big thing, the next big development that will impact the integration of inquiry, pedagogy, and technology at liberal arts colleges.  There are many important developments, but one of them, at least, is an increasing interest in Hybrid or Blended Learning.  This variety of online learning appeals to liberal arts colleges because it acknowledges the value of the high touch pedagogy privileged at these institutions while using technology to bring added value outside of the face-to-face classroom.  As evidence of this growing interest, let me just point to three examples:

Blending Learning in the Humanities

Blended learning has thrived in the sciences, where the flipped classroom got its start. Bryn Mawr’s project focused on STEM courses.  The Open Learning Initiative (OLI)–the gold standard in open educational resources that produces modules with excellent instructional design and immediate  feedback to the learner to promote mastery of  concepts–has clear strengths  in STEM disciplines but fewer humanities courses. So, humanists who want to adapt blended learning approaches face challenges in finding resources to let them do that.

Many humanists at liberal arts colleges will also say that their courses are already flipped; we do the reading outside of class and have discussion in class. While that is true, I think we can do much more, especially in introductory classes.  For example, first year Greek or Latin includes a fair amount of memorization but also requires practice to get used to working with a highly inflected language.  Teaching Latin, for example, I adapted a trick from my colleague at Rhodes College, David Sick who would have his students take vocabulary quizzes online.  They could do the quiz as often as they liked, but had to get a 100% to get full credit. (For a dyslexic student, I made the accommodation of letting her decide when to stop even if she hadn’t gotten to 100%.)  This approach promotes mastery of the material–which is what we need as a foundation for truly learning how to recognize and apply forms and paradigms in context. For my intermediate Latin course this year, I was able to find several online drills for my students who needed to practice forms they had learned in previous semesters:

I’m sure that other humanities disciplines have similar aspects that could be drilled and practiced outside of class to allow for higher level thinking in class.  Katherine Rowe of Bryn Mawr College once described to me the need for a truly effective tutorial that would help students master all the nuances of iambic pentameter. Moving such drills outside of class also makes it possible for students to practice as much or as little as they need or want.  The truth is, however, that in many humanities disciplines it is hard to find the resources needed to allow blended learning, especially resources on the level of those created by the Open Learning Initiative. My search for introductory Greek resources brought that home.

Case Study: Finding Resources for Blended Learning for Ancient Greek

I received this request from a colleague in instructional technology at a small liberal arts college that is looking to move some work online to allow for more interaction in the face-to-face classroom (in other words, blended or hybrid learning):

“I’ve been approached by one of our Classics profs about online tools appropriate for teaching Greek . . . any ideas or places you might point us? She’s got a collaborator in a high school, who already has some material on Quia.com; she also pointed out that our students are already pretty good at finding flash card programs. What she’s looking for, I think, are online grammar lessons and assessments.”

Off the top of my head, I immediately thought of these places to look for answers:

Since I haven’t taught ancient Greek for over ten years, I pinged my network to see what’s out there now.  From the Digital Classicist Mailing List I got these answers in this order:

I’m fortunate that my query found its way to Dr. Rydberg-Cox whose Digital Tutorial comes closest, I think, to providing the types of resources needed to make blended learning possible. After each lesson, there are quizzes with immediate feedback and an ability to retake the quiz with the same or a different set of questions.  For those who want to track their learning in flashcard programs, you can also download data to import into your own flashcard program. And the textbook is designed with mobile display in mind. Future plans include “a spaced-repetition system that tracks what students have learned across chapters and integrates a review of older material into their study of new material” and “a stand-alone study module that allows students to customize a question pool with content from different chapters.” (“A Hybrid Online System for Teaching Ancient Greek“, p. 5). This instant feedback and capacity for mobile display make the Digital Tutorial clearly superior to other available materials because students can use it outside of class and on the go.  They don’t have to wait for instructor feedback to proceed and they get a clear sense of where they need help when they do get instructor time. As Rydberg-Cox writes of other online materials for introductory Greek,

One of the most trafficked sites for beginning students of Greek and Latin [TextKit (http://www.textkit.com/)] provides only PDF scans of public domain textbooks and discussion where students can seek help from their peers. Wilfred Major recently pointed out this surprising lack of resources for beginners, and he noted how poorly these students are served by online approaches that simply replicate the structures of printed pages rather than use technology to focus on the grammar and vocabulary that appears most frequently in the texts that students want to read as well as to provide immediate feedback and correction to students.

This assessment nicely encapsulates the challenge–we don’t need to just put materials online. We need to make them useful for student learning, which means mobile display, instant feedback, tracking of learning, and learning analytics that can be used by an instructor.  Rydberg-Cox also suggests gamification to encourage progress. The Digital Tutorial doesn’t have all of that yet, but it is a step in the right direction. The core vocabulary lists provided by The Dickinson College Commentaries, as well as vocabulary lists at Greek Help at LSU, also help in presenting the most useful vocabulary for students to learn. The user forums on TextKit provide the networked learning support for those trying to learn Greek on their own. The site, Greek Help at LSU (http://www.dramata.com/) offers innumerable resources, but they are designed more for instructors rather than for a student learning on their own outside of the classroom. Many elements are in place, then, but need to come together to truly provide the kind of resource we need for blended learning.

How Do We Get There from Here?

To produce modules like those of the Open Learning Initiative you need help. These modules are designed based on cognitive theory and refined from actual usage data. That requires instructional designers, researchers, and technologists. In other words, we need collaboration.  Let’s take another example from Classical Studies. Dr. Jennifer Ebbeler, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Texas, successfully flipped a 400 person Roman Culture course this year by recording lectures and using class time for ethics case studies. Teaching the course two semesters in a row she refined the structure and materials to ensure its success.  Fortunately she had  support and resources, including a grant and help from the Center for Teaching and Learning, and Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services at the University of Texas to develop this course.  She spent the summer of 2012 recording lectures in the recording studio of the university.  Course assessments and work with instructional designers helped her improve the course in its second iteration. Most small liberal arts colleges don’t have all of those resources, and many Classics programs don’t have access to them even at universities where they exist. So, how do we get there from here?

What if the faculty member whose request prompted my search used  A Digital Tutorial For Ancient Greek Based on White’s First Greek Book and collected data from her students with support from her center for teaching and learning? That data could help refine and develop existing questions in the quiz bank, as well as lesson presentation. What if technologists at her college or at other universities helped implement further technology development.? While we’re dreaming, let’s dream big: what if the game design program at another college took on the idea of gamifying this material and students did the work. What if we all (faculty members, technologists, instructional designers, computer scientists, students) got behind developing one set of resources for introductory Greek? Until then, I’m afraid we’ll be stuck with using the textbook in print and relying on traditional modes of instruction that have, after all, worked well for centuries.  That learning will only happen, however, when Greek is offered and, with its high dependence on instructor time, it will limit the number of Greek courses that can be offered.

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