How blended learning encourages self-study and better classroom interactions

Sebastián Pulido
14/06/17
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Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The Middle East has one of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). To counteract this, the United Arab Emirates’ Government has implemented various initiatives, including among them life-skills courses at higher education institutions. Anthony Pollitt has been living in Dubai since he started working at Dubai Men’s College of the Higher Colleges of Technology, 17 years ago. Clinical Nutritionist by training, the New Zealander teaches the Introduction to Nutrition course as part of the general studies program offered system wide to all colleges.

Established in 1988, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) system is the largest higher education institution in the UAE, offering degrees in Business, Computer & Information Science, Media, Health Sciences and Education, Engineering, and Aviation. The institution has a strong focus on guaranteeing work-relevant skills as well as a well-rounded education. The latter includes the Introduction to Nutrition course, as well as other intercultural communication and life and study skills courses. The learning model at HCT, through which this education is delivered, also demands the implementation of innovative practices where Blackboard Learn and other similar products enter the picture.

Anthony instructs 86 students at the Men’s College and has another 420 students through Blackboard Learn across eight of the 17 colleges that exist across the UAE. All the teaching is done in English while all students are Emiratis. In those colleges where Anthony can’t physically be present, lecturers deliver his course with the same content and assessments he has put together.

The blended learning model

Anthony Pollitt. Photo: by Hugues Bouayed.
Anthony Pollitt. Photo: by Hugues Bouayed.

According to Anthony, his subject demanded a different approach to students and blended learning seemed to be the way to go. He wanted them to be engaged and to discover things for themselves, with the teacher serving as a guide. From the onset of the course, two years ago, he took a blended learning approach. In the course design phase, student self-study was intended to enrich classroom interactions, by integrating the online component in an intuitive and accessible manner.

The course lasts 16 weeks and goes through one topic each week. As it is not intended for science majors, the first weeks are dedicated to the body systems and how they are affected by food. Most of the theory focuses on understanding the macro and micronutrients, and practical sessions are used for students to assess their own food by completing a 24-hour diary, as well as measuring their weight and height to calculate their BMI and BMR. One of Anthony’s class projects consists of students cooking a healthy meal after watching a video of him explaining the task, and then have to film themselves while completing the assignment. Doing this type of project at the scale that he wanted to wouldn’t have been possible without the online component.

The purpose of the project is for students to appreciate what is involved in the preparation of their food and, even if they order or eat out, they can be aware of what to look for and what to avoid. As Anthony told E-Learn, even though there’s a grade, students have basic tools they can use for the rest of their lives to help them make changes; a Life Skills course should let them discover about themselves because it makes them more liable to want to change.

Encouraging self-study

The course gives students external motivators to encourage them internally. For example, all students are motivated by grades and they usually want good grades, so the assessments were set up for the students to apply the knowledge to themselves directly. Quizzes were created so that half of them were about class content and the other half about the extra videos and readings that were required. Students can complete the quizzes multiple times and that encourages them to study. In the beginning, they may attempt a quiz without having read any of the material and get four out of 20 questions correct, the second time five, and so on. They eventually realize that they do have to look at the readings and extra material in order to learn the content. A comment Anthony gets from students at the end of the course is that they have learned how to study.

Dubai. Photo: iStock.
Dubai. Photo: iStock.

The importance of the tutor-student interaction

In the traditional classroom, teachers spend a lot of time maintaining students’ attention and keeping them on task, with the blended model, not so much. Anthony attributes this to the students being capable of accessing the information when they are ready to do so. Although they are driven by deadlines, assignments, and quizzes, they can access the information in their time-frame, which makes them more receptive and, if there are any questions, they can message their teacher or raise the question in the next session.

Opposite to what is generally thought of blended learning, for example, that it decreases contact between students and tutors, the interactions actually increase. At HCT, they found out that from the 64 total course hours during the16 week period, the average online time for the students was 108 hours. Not only did interactions with the teacher increase, but the time students spent by themselves also rose. For instance, the weakest group only spent 68 hours and their average grade was C, while the group that spent more time had 140 hours on average and their average grade was B+.

The interactions, along with intuitive and seamless access to the materials, allowed for Anthony’s vision of the teacher as a guide, to be realized. When students are engaged enough, not only with the course but with the content as well, that knowledge can be applied in their daily lives improving their lifestyle, with better performance and grades being almost a by-product.

 

*Anthony Pollitt – Dubai Men’s College, Higher Colleges of Technology

*Photos: Dubai by iStock and Anthony Pollit by Hugues Bouayed

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