Freedom of choice Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2009

As the needs of its students change, the role of the educational institution must change as well. At many institutions, students have the option to learn in the way that best fits their lifestyle or learning style: online, on-campus (in classroom) or a blended approach.

Myra Snipes, a faculty member at University of Phoenix’s Cleveland Campus, says that making these choices available is a key to giving students the education that works for them.

“Historically, education was provided only in the classroom,” says Snipes. “With some online universities, it’s online only. But the more progressive institutions allow the student to choose one of three environments: online, campus or a combination of each. Sometimes they will make that choice based on lifestyle, sometimes they will make that choice based on learning skills. Some students are unfamiliar with an online component. But once they become more comfortable, they may switch to strictly an online environment.”

Smart Business spoke with Snipes about how students can utilize a blended approach to improve their skills.

Why do most universities today blend online and campus education?

Students today have a variety of demands on their time, and they each bring a different set of skills to their educational careers. At some point, they may find the flexibility of online learning fits better with their work or personal lives; at other times, they may opt for the traditional classroom environment. Regardless of their situation, the ability to choose the best environment for the topic or their schedule fits the type of student you see today. They appreciate the ability to move back and forth between both modes of learning throughout their careers.

How does the online portion of the course affect the learning environment?

It puts a lot of responsibility on the students to be engaged with their fellow classmates via the computer. For instance, the instructor may post a critical thinking question and encourage all the students to respond. The ongoing discussion is referred to as a thread. A student is required to respond in at least 150 words. One sentence is not acceptable; he or she has to post a thoughtful reply. So, he or she has to do the research on that particular topic and is graded accordingly. The student is also expected to post a question and the other students must respond to it as well. It allows for dialogue via computer, instead of through the classroom.

How does dialogue and discussion via computer fit into the ‘learning team’ concept?

At the start of a session, the instructor allows the students to form virtual learning teams. They are expected to come up with a team charter, and you also have to have a team leader. On the first night, students may wonder how they are going to interact, and who is going to be on their team for group exercises. So after the first workshop assignment, the learning teams are established. In a large sense, this actually mirrors what takes place in the workplace. People are not always assigned their teammates at work, but they must learn how to work with different, diverse people. There are few jobs today where people don’t interact on a team, often with people remotely in different locations.

Each team is responsible for its own work, and the group has a lot of flexibility in deciding how they’ll operate. A team may decide to meet in a chat room at a certain time to work on its project. The team leader of each learning team is expected to complete a team log, to measure the success of each team member. Then, the instructor can see how well the teams are completing their assigned tasks.

It’s very interesting to watch and observe the different styles of the teams and their various strengths and weaknesses. Students are constantly encouraged to use their conflict resolution skills, which of course is another valuable skill that can be applied to most workplaces.

How does the blended approach of learning apply to the workplace?

Employers expect employees to have good written communication skills, technology skills and oral communication skills. Within this culture, the students are going to see an improvement during the five-week class — even if any of those skills start off as a weakness. By the time they graduate, the students are very comfortable working in a team environment and are prepared for the real world.

How does the blended approach benefit the students?

It’s such a demanding and competitive work environment today that every employee must bring their very best skills to the job in order to be truly valuable to their employer. The traditional classroom goes a long way in helping translate the student’s classroom experience to the job. Other than the course material, of course, the classroom provides the ability to develop and improve public speaking skills via the oral presentations required for every class. In addition, students are able to network with distinguished local faculty, relying on them for in-person advice and counsel on workplace challenges they may be experiencing. Peer-to-peer interactions on campus with other students are very helpful as well.

Myra Snipes is a faculty member at University of Phoenix’s Cleveland Campus, as well as the City of Akron’s training/EEO officer, responsible for the development and implementation of the city’s training, organizational development and diversity initiatives. University of Phoenix, the largest private university in North America, serves a diverse student population, offering associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs from campuses and learning centers across the U.S. as well as online throughout the world. University of Phoenix’s Cleveland Campus serves students online and at locations in Independence, Beachwood and Westlake/Crocker Park. To learn more, contact University of Phoenix at (216) 447-8807 or (800) MY SUCCESS or www.phoenix.edu.