Converged Learning

Multi-modal courses that combine online and on-ground (classroom-based, face-to-face) students have been around for more than a decade under a variety of names. Hybrid, hybrid-flexible, HyFlex, blended are all terms used for course designs that allow for some flexibility. 

Most campuses now offer online and on-ground sections of some courses. Some schools offer a hybrid course section that meets on both modes. At New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) their approach has been called "converged learning." Particularly in this time of closed campuses and pandemic response, the transition to fully remote learning has been uneven on many campuses. At NJIT and many other campuses K-20 they are both preparing to welcome students back to campus in the fall and also planning for the possibility of a limited return or remaining fully online.

The goal is to deliver high-quality education in an environment safe for all members of the community. Technology-enhanced learning definitely is part of any of the possible scenarios campuses will find themselves in for the fall 2020 semester and possibly in the years that follow.

I started working at NJIT in 2000 and the university already had almost two decades of experience before the online wave of the 21st century had fully formed. NJIT created the virtual classroom in the 1980s and moved like many other colleges through the correspondence model to instructional television to content on VHS, CDs and DVDs.In 2013, converged learning became their educational model in an attempt to break down the distinction between face-to-face and remote learning.

In true converged learning, students attend the same class at the same time either in person or virtually. It allows faculty to see, interact with, and work synchronously with all students "attending class." Ideally, students have the same educational experience regardless of their physical location. Unlike registering for a course labeled as online, on-ground or hybrid, students can make that choice for any class session.

NJIT did not abandon its more traditional online learning initiatives which can accommodate students at different times and distant locations. New Jersey has been hit very hard by the pandemic and though the situation has improved and we hope to see further improvement throughout the summer, the number of students physically classrooms this fall could be reduced. The converged learning model allows students (perhaps especially those with preexisting conditions or concerns about in-person attendance) to choose when to be in a classroom and when to attend class remotely.

There has long been concern about how the academic standards will be consistent in online versus on-ground versions of a course. Converged courses have course content and learning outcomes that are independent of delivery
mode. Registration is the same way whether they want to attend by coming to the classroom, logging into the class from their dorms or nearby apartments, or joining the class from another city, state or country. Admission, registration procedures, and costs are the same regardless of the location from which they attend the class. Those in the classroom
experience the delivery of the course content as they would in a traditional class — except they are joined via synchronous streaming by other students who are taking the course from a distance, anywhere in the world.

This approach does require additional resources - from video in the classroom to teaching assistants. For example, at NJIT offline digital learning include Computer Assisted Design technology in programs of the College of Architecture and Design, Adaptive Learning software in mathematics, chemistry, and other areas. The university has needed to move further than before into the computer scoring of essays and other written forms, the automated grading of exams, and the asynchronous class management in all classes. (NJIT had been using Moodle earlier as its LMS and has now moved to Canvas.) 

   download free pdf of book

This convergence of the physical campus and the virtual campus seems to be - particularly at this unusual time - to be a logical consequence of the technological transformation in higher education.

Hybrid-flexible course designs have been used successfully for more than a decade at many higher education institutions around the world with a wide variety of courses. Some schools call this “HyFlex,” The initial impetus for developing a Hybrid-Flexible approach is often a need to serve both online and on-ground students with a limited set of resources (time, faculty, space).

It is far better when the multi-modal delivery solution gives students the opportunity to choose which mode to participate in from session to session. Students then do create their own unique hybrid experience.

The free book noted here and materials online at NJIT and other campuses will give you a sense of how these flexible designs are evolving.

The change in pedagogy required of faculty in converged learning is a whole other topic to be explored and certainly builds upon what has been learned in the past decades of online learning and from the more recent use of MOOCs.


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