Blended Learning: Using interactive online modules before class to enhance learning in class

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Dan Levy, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Faculty Chair of the Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence (SLATE) Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, developed a series of online modules for Advanced Quantitative Methods I, work made possible by teaching fellow Teddy Svoronos and SLATE staff member Mae Klinger. The modules contain interactive videos, diagrams, and practice problems; an end-of-module quiz; and an anonymous feedback survey.

The benefits: Students learn and practice key concepts at their own pace on the modules, reserving in-class time for more advanced topics and accommodating varied academic backgrounds. “The use of interactive online modules has allowed me to be much more deliberate about what I want students to learn before class and about how I can use class time more effectively to build on what they have learned,” Levy said. Student quiz data helped the team diagnose misconceptions, identify patterns, and adjust their teaching plan in advance of class. 

The challenges: This approach requires time to develop the materials and quiz questions before the semester, and then time to consider the data and adapt class plans throughout the semester. But Levy believes that the return on investment grows once the materials are in place.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Design for interaction to gain insight. Beyond the presentation of key content, an online unit can facilitate learner interaction through questions, surveys, and vignettes, improving student engagement and generating data about any difficulties that students encounter. Instructors can then customize an in-class experience that addresses these difficulties.
  • Online modules allow for rich multimedia visuals. In some cases, the online modules do the best job explaining key concepts. Levy points to an introductory video on sampling distribution:Teddy’s use of visuals to convey this concept is very powerful; I am convinced I could not have done it as well in the classroom.”
  • Experiment with new tools, strategically. Svoronos and Klinger exhibited a “willingness to embrace promising technologies” by learning platforms and collaborating with members of the Teaching and Learning Technologies (TLT) team to find the best tool for the job.
  • Build and review incrementally. Levy already collected teaching team notes after each class meeting, which helped them identify appropriate module topics. They started with three and ultimately developed nine, though Klinger emphasizes that instructors can experiment by flipping as few as 20 minutes of their course. 

Bottom line: Interactive online modules have the potential to help students learn at their own pace before class while allowing instructors to offer in-class sessions better tailored to the learning needs of their students.