Editor’s Note: As the responsibility for learning moves from teacher to student, new patterns emerge based on student need and student choice. A hybrid course combines classroom and online instruction. When online instruction is available in the campus teaching and learning center, assistance is available when needed. This paper studies the unique role of these centers in supporting learner needs.
The Chimera Course and Use of the Learning Center
for its Emergency Hybridization
Ruth Robbins, Erin Hodgess,
Merrilee Cunningham, and Deborah Buell
One of the popular concepts about problem-solving and critical theory has to do with destabilizing binaries, destroying the notion that a course is necessarily delivered face-to-face or online. This article depends for its philosophical stance on a university administration and faculty able to admit to the possibility of different levels of contingency hybridization of a course, in relation to the opportunities offered through the proliferation of the teaching and learning center from the major research university to a broader based even urban commuter university. Thus a chimera course would have different students delving into the same course with different percentages of online and f2f elements and would have the teaching and learning center providing backup.
Theoretically, one of the popular notions about problem-solving and critical theory of late has to do with destabilizing binaries -- moving away from simple either / or categories such as categorizing a course as delivered face to face or on-line. This article depends for its philosophical stance on a university administration and faculty able to put away notions of stable binaries and admit to the possibility of different levels of contingency hybridization, not only for disaster recovery, as we have suggested elsewhere in print, but also in relation to the opportunities offered the student and instructor through another relatively new phenomenon -- the proliferation of the teaching and learning center from the major research university to a more broad based university. This chimera course would depend on the aide available from a teaching and learning center.
In 1975 the Danforth Foundation gave grants to 5 universities, including Stanford, to fund such centers, but by 1978 the Danforth Foundation had abandoned the project and only two of those 5 original institutions decided to continue their centers through the pains of internal funding - Stanford and Harvard (Stanford, 2004). Originally, Stanford's Teaching and Learning Center was only open to teaching assistants, but members of the faculty requested that it be opened to them. Harvard, arguably the most mature learning center in America, spans a wider spectrum to catch the needs of a wide audience and we will review some of the virtues of its center, but both the original remaining centers have done outstanding work in this developing field. A comparison of the two surviving learning centers would make an interesting study and there is certainly much to be learned from these models.
While Harvard and Stanford got off to an early start, later teaching and learning centers became site license subscribers of the National Teaching & Learning Forum, a great repository of learning on the subject of learning. For those universities and colleges which do not produce their own publications and videos for sale, as Harvard does, the site licenses for the National Teaching and Learning Forum can be a useful place to begin enriching teaching and bring a university faculty expertise and greater and more pedagogical tools (http://www.nltf.com/restricted). Mentoring handbooks, teaching excellence fellows, roundtable discussions, consultations with the director of the center, Fellows Colloquia, collaboratively planning and delivering presentations on subject-matter derived from the Colloquia are just a few of the practices found in the best centers and a review of these tools as best practice material can yield great results for a university or college starting up a program. Feedback on teaching, orientation of faculty and staff to university policies and procedures manuals, and teaching and learning resources are also addressed in the best centers. Likewise, Training Calendars or Learner Webs can be a great component of the best centers as are Faculty Orientations and transfer student welcomes. Learning Communities access, counseling, and appropriate placement of at-risk students are other subject-matter of interest. Even Writing Successful Grant tips and deadlines and guidelines for Instructional Enhancement Grants (Virginia Tech, 2005) may be included.
In these days when professor evaluations occur at RateYourProf.com and other websites, a major goal of teaching and learning centers is the improvement of learning through the improvement of teaching. While the goals of these centers are multiple, the agendas of the administrations that support them are often complex. The major desire of people associated with these centers is to improve learning partially through improved teacher training, microteaching sessions, a greater teacher understanding of the student and particularly through improved compassing devices to help the student solve problems before those problems negatively affect that student's ability to succeed in a college course or college at large. Using compassing mechanisms such as calendars to announce such events as computer workshops, offering special programs for instructor training in computer enrichment programs for their classes and professorial web pages, the Teaching and Learning Center becomes an excellent matrix for the creation of hybridizations of course offerings.
The value added through enriched resources available to the student as the students collaborate on line, increased socialization and group activities, create new learning cultures particularly for commuter campuses, enhance the disciplines, provide access to study group learning in ways that would have been impossible a decade ago, and provide opportunities to carve out professional linkages by gaining access to primary sources. The instructor, of course, gains in the area of course management as he or she attempts to get the time to create the optimum mix of the hybrid. Isn't that what hybridization is -- the optimum mix of independent learning, on-line discussion and cyber dialogue, F2F interchange and lecture? A cyber dialogue day on a subject can be particularly useful. As the participants discovered at the 2002 Ocotillo Retreat, using certain technologies for certain analytic and problem solving tasks can be predictable, although the creation of a Competency Matrix may take a certain trial and error working out for the instructor of a hybrid course using his or her own website in combination with the Teaching and Learning Center. At the 2005 Ocotella Retreat Craig Jacobsen first used the term “chimera course” to describe the adjustable hybrid course that we had been talking about in print without having created such a useful term.
Perhaps one can attempt to evaluate this for the entire hybrid class too rigorously as some students will use the on-line enrichment material more than others and learning how to match student learning techniques with flexible models may have its advantages as a beginning program. Research has not put to rest the question of whether there is an optimum model mix of "bricks and clicks" even within disciplines. Various subjects within the website and learning center sources will appeal to various students so those areas that are mandatory should be separated from those which are enrichment defined. This becomes simply a part of good course management, but it is a terrifically time consuming area of work for the instructor and relates to strategic planning of hyper-organized, cyber-enriched courses. This is where programs to support hybrids must come in. Course maintenance systems cannot just be the responsibility of the most cyber comfortable instructor. Teaching and Learning Centers must be available to assist in developing some of the enrichment goals of the courses.
The problem with optimizing the contingency hybridization potential of the learning center is that some centers have been used in relation to attempts to retrain professors who have fallen behind in gaining twenty-first century skills or departments that have fallen behind in strategic planning. Should a university reveal those who have not complied with the planning and course management policies? Perhaps the most punitive illustration of this sort of publication comes from the University of Montana, where the departments are listed according to the dates that they have submitted their Self-Study Report, Assessment Plan and Assessment Summary or, if nothing is submitted, the words "not submitted" are placed under the name of the department. Should our reader not believe that this was found in the Teaching and Learning Center web space, one has only to read the following: "Welcome to the Assessment web site. It is our goal to provide informative and useful information whether you are assessing your effectiveness as a teacher, student learning outcomes, or the effectiveness of your department's curriculum." (University of Montana Website, Montana, 2004).
Harvard's Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning
Harvard's famous teaching and learning center -- the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning -- provides four portals -- one for faculty, another for Teaching Fellows, another for Students and a final portal for Visitors (where one can purchase Harvard Press materials on pedagogy). The center is part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Its formal programs include the following: " …fall and winter term conferencing on teaching(September and January), microteaching, a form of supervised practice teaching; videotaping of classes, followed by private conferences; teaching in English for international teaching fellows and faculty; topic-based seminars on discussion leading, writing advanced case studies; seminars for junior faculty and senior teaching fellows; publication of videotapes, handbooks and documents; and other services to improve undergraduate education."(Harvard, 2004)
Perhaps most interesting for our discussion here, is the microteaching practice at Harvard, which is organized practice teaching which allows a group of teachers to work with an experienced teaching consultant before the beginning of fall semester to videotape what they intend to do during the opening of class and review that work. The practice is called "scenario-ing". The practice and then the evaluation of the practice allows for a teacher of access what he or she is planning on doing and make adjustments before it is too late. It also emphasizes the importance of teaching to Harvard, the Harvard community and, of course, the professor who will be teaching there. The practice is intriguingly like virtual flight training in the Air Force and allows for an instructor to make mistakes without harm to the students since that instructor is able to see and correct the mistakes before the first real day of class.
Other Best Practices in Teaching and Learning Centers
Many Learning Centers address compensatory programs designed to aide traditionally definable at-risk student population categories by aggressively providing academic support for students with one of the following status groups: students in economic distress, students of a minority race or ethnic group, transfer students, first semester Freshmen in general, first generation college students, and students who have tested into a class which suggests partial educationally disadvantaged status and potential at-risk status. Sections of Harvard's center that treat the freshman year experience or transfer students through their famous "transfer shock" orientation and special places as late comers to the university as well as commuter students and older or returning students can have their on-line space in the learning center as well as perhaps being invited into the geographical and literal space of those centers. If the physical space allowed the Teaching and Learning Center is attractive and inviting, a picture of the building or offices often accompanies the website home. First, the university's webpage invites those different cohort groups into the on-line center and then the on-line center invites them into the place where their correlative exists perhaps even in a year-by-year format.
Links to educational resources such as The American Council on Education and the Association of American Universities can flush out an Educational Resource Page as can on-line access to The Chronicle of Higher Education or the Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. Tufts University's teaching center has provided a tremendous resource by giving a worldwide listing of all university teaching centers (Tufts, 2002). Would we expect less from the university that gave us the Perseus Digital Library (Lane, 2004)? The Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University organizes website links according to Critical Thinking, Epistemology, and Technology and Teaching (Northwestern, 2004). Despite the fact that these Learning Centers are at major research private universities, Learning Support Centers can promote multicultural pluralism in many ways including additional resources and skills. The Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern makes clear a problem by its highly intellectualized divisions of "critical thinking" and "epistemology." Are these Teaching and Learning Centers not increasing the success rate of the already largely successful at elite universities and thus widening the already wide learning gap between students at wealthy, elite schools and schools unable to support the expense of such centers? The presupposition of knowledge which those Northwestern subheads assume forces us into a series of other questions. If learning centers do not expand into urban public institutions, does not a kind of reverse "catch-up" scenario apply? Did Harvard really need their three decade head start? If Learning Centers do not proliferate into urban public institutions and even open door institutions will there not be a growing disparity between not only the quality of education offered at those institutions that can lead their students out of the quick sands of academia and those that cannot except on an accidental and individual basis, but also the success rate of those students in terms of graduation. If Teaching and Learning Centers are enrichment opportunities largely for the already advantaged, then the training which the privileged receive will continue to be increasingly better than the training that bright students at state and municipal colleges and universities have access to and thus become another excuse for giving some students the second chance of mercy and the learning center tools while other university students are marked for the harsh treatment of what may be a Darwinian jungle of lack of remedy, the rule of law, and a kind of severe justice.
Penn State’s partial solution to some of these issues deals with a student's ability to search out his or her professors and become the exceptions to the anonymous classroom situation. Penn State, with its large undergraduate classes, seems to open up areas that Harvard has not addressed as well. Penn State's outstanding Center for Excellence in Learning & Teaching includes Online Proposal Forms for its grant fund for teaching innovation and, unlike Northwestern and many other centers, separates undergraduate education from graduate. Penn State actually offers a Course in College Teaching available on its website and has two sections meeting once a week. In the spring semester, Penn State offers working luncheons for teachers of large class sections to help those who take gigantic classes with their special problems of anonymity and voicelessness. February through March there is also a "Take Your Professor to Lunch" program aimed at giving students in large class sections a chance to get acquainted with their professor. Obviously, Penn State’s Center for Excellence in Learning & Teaching is brilliantly constructed from the very moment that the title of their center placed learning before teaching. However, in some ways Penn State's on-line Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching has implemented some best practices that could be duplicated at less prestigious universities, even transferred to open door institutions at little cost.
Arizona State University uses its Center for Learning and Teaching Excellence for its Rookie Camp as well as providing an outstanding semester by semester calendar of Workshops, Seminars and Conferences." (ASU, 2004), and runs its program out of the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost. Not all teaching and learning Centers are the purview of the provost and the debate as to whom the learning center director should report to is still just that -- in debate. Arizona State uses its center to plan programs which will allow the first semester freshman to have friends and acquaintances and familiarity with the campus before they ever get to that campus as a freshman by replicating a program known to many teenagers before they get to college -- summer camp.
The invitation to the mainly literal geography of the Teaching and Learning Center does not mean that most students will not mostly depend upon the on-line segments of the Teaching and Learning Center. Literally, the on-line segments function as storage for forms, compassing mechanisms for workshops, symposia, and other events, calendars, and places to download links and materials. In short, the Learning Center is an enrichment program for Academic Support which encompasses programs and services for faculty and students. It backs up orientation for students and it may be useful for developmental courses like developmental math, English, reading, and study skills. Thus it plays a role in supplemental instruction. It may also have testing capabilities, tutoring notification and announcement of services for students with special needs including where to find the Disabled Students Office, the supplemental instruction locations, and other helpful sites such as tutoring projects, service projects, basic skills instruction, academic and personal counseling, and particularly in urban environments, enrichment projects such as field trips to museums, plays, art galleries and musical performances.
The Chimera Classroom Model
With all these responsibilities is it also possible that the center can be made ready to be used as a re-connect point in emergencies, contingencies, and at the beginning of regular and special sessions? The jury is still out on what a Learning Center can do in an emergency, whether the Learning Center is the proper place for a student to go who cannot get to class, or a professor to attempt to pick up information as to how to carry on classes that were face to face but now have to be modified into an emergency or contingency hybridization. So far, Teaching and Learning Centers have generally avoided contingency planning in relation to remedying class stoppages in times of emergency. However, its enhancing role is increasing the capability of class videotaping and other steps that will lead one to be able to continue class in emergencies such as those experienced in Hong Kong with the SARS epidemic, where the University of Hong Kong was able to save its semester through long-range contingency planning that included on-line hybridization. However, the chimera class model was demonstrated at the May 2005 Ocotella Retreat. The chimera class model would have online, hybrid face-to-face students in a single classroom encouraging students to use the model they need(Craig Jacobsen, Mesa Community College; Jacobsen@mailmcmaricopa.edu; Octotella Presentation#40).
Contingencies and the Teaching and Learning Center
There is little doubt that a Learning Center would be an excellent place to train people to get messages as to when and if the physical school is closed, what preparations have been made to move sites or to switch to hybrid capabilities. One doubts that the original plans of the Danforth Foundation in 1975 included such contingency planning, but Stanford, an original member of the five school Danforth group, states in the final words of its Purpose and Goals that the students "should see learning as extending far beyond the classroom to most of what they experience" (Stanford, 2004b). Philosophically anyway, they seem prepared to break down literal classroom walls and consider enrichment and contingency potential of hybridization. Assets like electronic portfolios can be steps which move towards hybridization which would have contingency possibilities. Instructional enhancement programs and instructional enhancement grants could be used to restructure existing courses so that they would be capable of effective implementation of contingency hybridization. These options would not include all contingencies. The kind of power outages that were experienced in New York, the Northeastern part of American and Canada were short-lived and even if they had not been, were not addressable by this plan. We are in the process of redefining teaching and learning spaces. The contingency hybrid course will be one of the new uses of space and it will require tools which create this on-line teaching space.
However, for now, the purpose of the teaching and learning center (TLC) in its contingency hybridization role is to serve as the one point of contact to re-connect all of the participants in the learning process. The participants in the learning process are classified according to their levels of communication and interaction. These levels of interaction include interactions as in virtual conversations between the teacher and student, between students as peers, between students and the learning content and finally between the students and the course delivery technology
Likewise, the Teaching and Learning Center's web site is the gateway, one point of contact and interface for connecting students to online discussion and collaborative sites as well as linking students to learning portals that are repositories of subject/discipline specific learning links, reading materials, simulations, games and learning objects such as Avatars. Professors in the contingency hybridization model use the learning portals and the repository of learning materials as a means to enhance and extend the learning process inside class, outside of class and during periods when events require that the campus shutdown. Given this repository of learning materials, professors have the option of calling upon various learning resources as classroom supplements and demonstrations in much the same way as they might select entrees from a cafeteria.
Saying that the Teaching and Learning Center is the linchpin that connects the parts of the learning process together sums up the Teaching and Learning Center's contingency hybridization role. Without the linchpin, the learning process cannot work during time periods when the campus must be shut down due to natural disasters or due to operational failures such as power outages or other equipment failures. In normal times, the Teaching and Learning Center linchpin can work to enrich the learning process by fostering a more cohesive, collaborative learning dynamic. The professor determines how to use this resource based on the learning requirements for the course or program. Goals and outcomes will forge new partners in teaching and learning and create new tools for both the teacher and the student as the center functions in the capacity of learning assistance. Courses using the chimera model will forge new options, decrease the number of failed courses and encourage greater flexibility thus the Center will augment the departments in learning support. K. V. Lauridien examined the scope of learning centers in 1980 and did not consider contingency hybridization, but as individual centers have grown and the concept has proliferated, new roles are likely to be added and a variable level of computerization of the course can help deal with events which might otherwise destabilize the learning process and its hierarchies. All this makes a grand assumption, however, and that is that high quality Teaching and Learning Centers will continue their proliferation pattern from private universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Northwestern to public universities and large community colleges.
Conclusions and Recommendations
These hybrids can solve many problems. A hybridization of a course might stabilize a course during the illness or absence of a professor or student, the death of a professor, or simply enrich the course with added materials by providing exercises for students who are in need of additional practice sessions to achieve competency in a particular task or in a content area. Thus the teaching and learning center may have an online lab and tutorial capabilities. These centers can be designed to solve many student problems from student transfer shock to student disorientation to celebrating teaching excellence or to solve one major problem over and over again. Perhaps the teaching and learning center is the most effective response that a university or college can make to the challenges of several kinds of hybrid courses. Learning grants support faculty in the difficult task of creating enriched, hybrid courses through state of the art computer software, facilities and training and access to hybrid course resources (Maricopa, 2002).
One immediately notes that these are called "Teaching Centers" and the philosophic implications of leaving learning out of a teaching center implies that learning is not at the center of the teaching and learning center. The best teaching and learning centers seem to focus on the real desired outcome -- learning. When a center focuses on learning as the outcome, it prepares itself for goal-driven remedies to problems in learning. Contingency hybridization can piggyback on the very material already placed in a learning center for the enrichment of students -- online study guides, syllabi, course chat rooms, quizzes which collect data as well as test, lecture notes, discussion groups, interest sections, and research groups. Material with a timed delivery can be simultaneously presented and its return timed precisely. Special symposia or programs related to the curriculum can be announced in the calendar -- compass or crossroads -- a major section of any good learning center.
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About the Authors
Deborah Buell is an Instructional Designer and Technologist with the Cy-Fair College and Corporate Training and Development Center. She holds a doctorate in education from the University of Houston and has published articles on distance education in state and national publications. Her distance learning work includes presentations at national and international distance learning conferences. She has also edited computer information system textbooks.
Merrilee Cunningham is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston Downtown. She holds a PhD. from Vanderbilt University and has published many poems as well as over 20 articles on Renaissance Literature, Popular Culture, South American Educational Systems, and Media in national and international publications as well as having edited textbooks, Humanities in the South and other literary magazines.
Erin Hodgess is an Associate Professor of Statistics at the University of Houston Downtown. She holds a PhD from Temple University and has published journal articles on time series, fuzzy logic, and statistics education.
Ruth Robbins is a Professor of Computer Information Systems at the University of Houston Downtown. She holds a doctorate from University of Houston in Information Technology and has published journal articles on computer literacy, learning communities, and database technology.
Contact: Dr. Ruth Robbins, Professor