Vincent T. Gawronski is associate professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. He received his B.A. in history and Spanish from the University of Texas at Austin (1987) and his M.A. (1993) and Ph.D. (1998) in political science from Arizona State University. He is currently the coordinator of the Latin American Studies program at Birmingham-Southern and chair of the Teaching Committee of the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs. Dr. Gawronski’s area of expertise is Mexico and Central America, where he has maintained primarily four research tracks: 1) political and socioeconomic development, 2) disaster risk reduction, 3) “politics of disaster,” and 4) push-pull migration factors. Dr. Gawronski has contributed to several sponsored projects focusing on disasters and political change in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Dr. Gawronski has authored or co-authored publications in International Studies Perspectives, Peace Review, Hemisphere, International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, Cambridge Journal of International Affairs, and Latin American Politics and Society. firstname.lastname@example.org
William G. Holt, Ph.D./J.D., is coordinator of the Urban Environmental Studies Program at Birmingham-Southern College. Holt received his B.A. in geography from the University of Georgia where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Holt has a Master’s in city planning from Georgia Tech where he worked on the 1996 Summer Olympics planning efforts. Holt was a community planner with the National Capital Planning Commission in Washington, D.C., working on the 2050 Monumental Core Plan update of the 1791 L’Enfant Plan. Holt received his Ph.D. in sociology from Yale University and his J.D. from Vermont Law School specializing in energy law. He edited two books: Urban Areas and Global Climate Change (Emerald 2012) and From Sustainable to Resilient Cities: Urban Efforts/Global Solutions (Emerald, forthcoming 2014).
Birmingham-Southern College (BSC)’s Exploration Term in January affords instructors and students opportunities to create innovative projects that might be developed into semester-long courses. Drawing on BSC’s Urban Environmental Studies Program (UES), we planned this course to cross our traditional subject boundaries in political science and sociology with the natural sciences. The course focused on environmental hazards (tectonic-earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, weather extremes, hydrological flood and droughts as well as disease epidemics) and urban social risks (poverty, war, starvation, and crime). We employed blended and flipped learning strategies as well as games and simulations. We conducted several field activities in the Birmingham metropolitan area as well as a three-night trip to New Orleans to examine post-Katrina redevelopment. The project drew upon academic publications, resources from local, national, and international governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and guest experts; we also relied heavily on Internet resources. The compressed January Exploration Term created some scheduling and pedagogical challenges. For example, it was not always possible to schedule remote class visits. Students had shorter times for class preparation and reflections, and we had little time to overcome technological problems. We realized our goals were too ambitious for a four-week session. We plan to offer the course again as full-summer term course to address time constraints and make use of better weather for field excursions. Indeed, there was a learning curve for both the professors and the students, but we are confident we successfully introduced and reinforced the course learning outcomes.
I would definitely take a blended learning course again. I learn best by watching, listening, and interacting. Blended learning almost seemed to cater to my ability to focus and learn.
This course was different from many other classes that I have taken so far since our learning came from many different sources, trips, guest speakers, simulations, and lectures.
Defining the Problem
BSC was exploring ways blending learning could fit into a liberal arts model as well as the types of technology needed for the campus. The idea for the development of this course emerged out of conversations about how we can best deliver course content to students increasingly connected to, and dependent on, information technologies. Instead of trying to pry students away from their smart phones, hand-held devices, tablets, and/or laptops, we wanted to explore how we could incorporate some of these technologies into the classroom. There have been generational shifts in student attitudes and opinions, and there have been new developments in pedagogy and information technologies. Although we should not assume all college students are technologically savvy, they have spent their entire lives connected. A Blended Learning Grant from the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) prompted BSC to convert an existing auditorium into an electronic classroom in order for classes like ours to serve as a pilot for future classroom conversions.
Moreover, we wanted to merge our overlapping interests in environmental hazards, disasters, urban planning, and politics and policymaking to create and teach Environmental Hazards and Urban Social Risks (thus the play on words of the title of this case study). The course content, we surmised, would be engaging enough to attract undergraduate students and would be appropriate for applying blended and flipped learning strategies, especially since so many new information and mapping technologies are used in the environmental hazards and risk management fields. We decided to develop a blended learning course following a liberal arts college model—that is, an interdisciplinary, student focused, and “authentic” learning experience, which means a learning experience that it is real even if it is not always face-to-face. Building on BSC’s UES Program, the team-taught course would follow a replacement model of blended learning—that is, a course approach that would supplement some in-class time with out-of-class interactive online activities and restructuring of in-class times to include off-site students. While we have been using many of these strategies for many years, we had not been doing so with great intentionality and focus on the technological possibilities. Following the ACS’s developing blended learning continuum model of traditional online course content with very little or no face-to-face interactions to mostly face-to-face learning with a very small percentage of flipped or blended course content, we were somewhat conservative. Therefore, our course fits a “hybrid” model of decreased face-to-face time in the classroom and increased dependence on technologies and learning activities outside the classroom (Caulfield 2011). We are not comfortable at this stage to offer fully online courses. That is, we opted for a mix of approximately one-third of the course content to depend on blended learning technologies because we wanted to stay as true as possible to the liberal arts college mission.
Historically one of the strengths of liberal arts colleges—their small size—has also been one of their weaknesses: They are limited in the number of classes they can offer, and courses with small numbers may not have the critical mass to justify the expense of offering them. Despite these challenges, however, small colleges can expand their course offerings while retaining their “high-touch,” personal approach to education through shared academics, which are academic experiences that transcend the borders of a single campus by connecting students, faculty, and staff in pursuit of common academic goals. By partnering with other institutions and leveraging technologies such as high definition video conferencing and collaborative software, colleges can connect students to learning experiences beyond their local contexts and faculty to larger educational communities. Furthermore, by strategically pooling resources, small colleges can collectively develop a shared academic program with the depth and breadth needed to meet the needs of today’s students.
The ACS’s Blended Learning Grant Program awarded us $4,000 to develop the course, Environmental Hazards and Urban Social Risks. Working with the BSC Information Technology staff and faculty committee, we used $1,300 for classroom equipment upgrades for speakers, microphones, cameras, and recording equipment to create a blended learning auditorium classroom for future courses and webinars. These funds also supported one instructor to attend “The Teaching Professor Technology Conference” in Atlanta (October, 2013). The conference helped us understand nuances between blended and flipped learning as well as what is possible and fruitful to apply both in and outside the classroom.
We taught during BSC’s January Term, a four-week session in which students take only one course, permitting special travel opportunities. We held three-hour class sessions that met three times a week. The course also included a four-day trip to New Orleans during the second week. We created a course in PBWorks (an online team collaboration website) in addition to the BSC Moodle System class page. Because we viewed this course as a pilot and we have never taught together before, we established seven learning outcomes for the course that could be adapted as the course progressed. We wanted the learning outcomes to be broad enough to attract students from many disciplines, and we wanted to let some of the course develop organically. From past experiences teaching this material from our individual disciplines, inevitably some real-world event occurs to be used as a teaching “hook” or moment in the classroom. The Haiti 2010 earthquake occurred when one of us was teaching a special course on The Politics of Disaster, and the “snowpocalypse” of 2014 gave us teaching material but it also forced us to cancel classes. The first learning outcome was intentional and the students were informed they would be participating partners in the process:
- Understand the value of blended learning and adeptly use blended learning technologies and tools to collaborate with other students and the instructors.
- Elaborate upon the concepts of human security and safe communities.
- Distinguish between environmental hazards and urban social risks and understand how they may interact.
- Identify trends in urbanization, demographics, and climate change.
- Access information resources for identifying hazards and reducing risks.
- Employ the tools and technologies for hazard identification, risk mapping, and assessing urban risks.
- Become familiar with potential career tracks in environmental hazards research, disaster management, and urban planning and the required education and training.
From class participation, student projects, and performance assessments, it was evident the learning outcomes were not evenly attained. As a cross-listed and team-taught course, the students came from different preparations and the professors approached the topics somewhat differently. Indeed, the students thoroughly enjoyed using innovative technologies, but they never became truly adept at it. Several exhibited some frustration when things did not go smoothly right away. We are confident that most of the students can speak authoritatively when it comes to the basic concepts and trends in human security, environmental hazards, urban social risk, urbanization, demographics, and climate change. Moreover, every student has a much better grasp how risk is socially constructed and how disasters result from the interaction of biophysical and social worlds. They came to understand that no disaster is a natural disaster. Tellingly, several students expressed interest in pursuing graduate education and potential careers in environmental hazards and/or disaster risk management. One student is now a BSC Vail Research Fellow working on a project with one of us: “Learning (and Teaching) From Extreme Events.”
The course included four parts: 1) Hazards and Risks (Introduction, Field Work, Poverty and Crime, and Environmental Connections), 2) New Orleans Trip (City Tours, Lower Ninth Ward Tour, Risk Assessment), 3) Natural and Unnatural Disasters (Local Disasters, Disaster Simulation, Risk Mapping, Natural Disasters), and 4) Apocalypse Then and Now (Pandemics and Zombies). Each part incorporated some element of technology.
We drew extensively upon online resources from local, national, and international governmental and non-governmental organizations involved in risk reduction to both develop and teach the course: FEMA/DHS, Alabama Emergency Management Agency, FBI, CDC, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, PreventionWeb, ReliefWeb, Global Risk Data Platform, Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster (EM-DAT), USGS, NOAA, Near Earth Object Program, USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, Natural Hazards Research Center, and World Bank Urban Development. The course also introduced students to several important indices, many of which have interactive analytics: Human Development Index, Failed States Index, World Bank Data, Corruption Perceptions Index, Climate Risk Index, World Disaster Risk Index, Transformation Index, and Most Disaster Prone Cities.
We incorporated games and simulation activities—both online and in the classroom—into our pedagogy. For example, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s (UNISDR) simulation game Stop Disasters worked very well in the classroom on the Mondoboard (essentially a giant touch screen tablet with interactive features) and on students’ laptops. Originally designed for children, the game can be challenging even for adults to play, especially at the most difficult of three levels. We intended to utilize the popular cooperative board game Pandemic, in which students collaborate in teams while meeting later online and in class to discuss these experiences, but we simply could not fit it into our compressed January Term schedule. We introduced several online self-paced seminars and learning modules from The World Bank and U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Furthermore, we relied heavily on the UNISDR’s PreventionWeb, which is an online resource for disseminating information about disaster risk reduction, including educational materials and other resources. We required students to use PreventionWeb to identify a specific urban risk in a specific locale and then develop a short risk reduction proposal for dealing with the risk or hazard. The professional international disaster management community relies heavily on PreventionWeb. Students who preferred to do a risk reduction proposal in the United States were directed to the FEMA website.
We did risk and hazard mapping with GPS coordinates and photo journals, subsequently entering GPS coordinates into Google Earth to locate the hazard on the Mondoboard. We used the HD overhead camera to project documents and maps onto the Mondoboard. Students practiced with the various cameras in the room in preparation for future video recording of lectures. Every student had the opportunity to utilize the Mondoboard for a short presentation.
We also conducted two remote real-time expert interactions with our students: Dr. Lily Hoffman, CCNY/CUNY-Graduate Center, expert on pandemics; and Dr. Richard S. Olson, Director of Extreme Events Research at Florida International University. For Dr. Olson’s class visit, we had the students view his TEDx Talk “A Global Plan to Avoid Disasters” online as homework. We asked the students to prepare five questions for Dr. Olson for his virtual interaction with them from Miami. Dr. Hoffman conducted a Power Point presentation from her home in New York’s Upper West End in which she introduced her ongoing research and work on pandemics, disasters, social risks, and epidemiology. These strategies proved to be very successful. Several students commented on how valuable these flipped and blended learning experiences were.
Since we value the importance of hands-on learning, we included field trips to local sites in Birmingham, Alabama as well as a multi-day trip to New Orleans in order to examine post-Katrina redevelopment. Our Birmingham field activities included a visit to the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark Site. Other Birmingham activities included an Urban Risk-Social Isolation exercise in which student teams examined the difficulties faced by residents dependent on the city’s bus system by taking a trip from campus to a metro location by bus. A second Birmingham activity focused on urban redevelopment. Students divided into teams to examine redevelopment in two communities: Avondale, an inner-city neighborhood, and Homewood, an inner ring suburb. Student photos with texts examining development and underdevelopment were posted to the class PB Wiki. Students were encouraged to explain to any bystanders what they were doing and why. They were instructed to only take photos of physical structures and hazards.
The purpose of the trip to New Orleans was to see first-hand how dependent the city is on its infrastructure of dams, levees, bridges, sewer system, and pumping stations and how Katrina forever changed the city and how uneven recovery has been. We were unable to obtain guided tours from engineers due to time constraints, but we did have the opportunity to critically observe these structures and reflect on the city’s vulnerabilities. We visited the Lower Ninth Ward and the non-profit organization lowernine.org, which is working to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward with volunteers. We also visited several urban garden projects. Of course, we also did some more touristy things, including several guided city tours and an airboat swamp tour. Students documented urban risks through a photo essay assignment and a blog post through the class PB Wiki. Since some students could not attend the field trips due to college activities, the students were able to share their New Orleans and Birmingham experiences in a real-time format while being physically apart through the blog and cell phone messaging. BSC’s January Exploration Term is intended to be open and experimental, so students tend to come from different class years and academic preparations, which can be a challenge when teaching difficult material. When we teach this course again, it will have prerequisites and considerably more time will be spent in the field.
As a culminating experience and building on the value of applied learning experiences, students were told they were interning for an international NGO (non-governmental organization) that focuses on urban risk reduction, prevention policies, and mitigation reductions. Students were to examine various types of these approaches locally as well as in the Global North and South. As a final class project, each student developed a 2000-word memo identifying a specific risk followed by a reduction, prevention policy, or mitigation initiative to deal with this risk. Some of the students’ risk reduction recommendations ranged from the very creative to the merely practical, but the time constraints of the January short term did not afford us sufficient time to develop professional quality proposals.
We relied heavily on indices of socioeconomic and political development and disaster and climate risk, but we did not have the opportunity to engage in any sophisticated statistical analysis. A future iteration of the course might require a prior course in research methods and statistics. Nonetheless, students did demonstrate a basic understanding of aggregate country-level measures of risk and vulnerability, and basic poverty, inequality, quality of life, and crime statistics, and we explored how communities and countries may move up or down these indices. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to employ mapping technologies beyond the use of entering the GPS coordinates of observed urban risks into Google Earth. Time dedicated to possible career tracks in the fields of urban planning, risk assessment, and disaster management and disaster research was fruitful. Several students expressed interest in internship and graduate school possibilities in these areas.
We learned many lessons from the process of developing the course and the experience of teaching it. Some of these lessons stemmed from the team-teaching experience itself—for example, merging the strengths of our syllabi and developing a true team synergy in the classroom. Other lessons emerged from the process of developing the course and the skills to apply the blended learning technologies. In fact, “The Teaching Professor Technology Conference” that one of us attended to prepare for this course was more than informative; it was revealing. The conference was very well attended, especially by older faculty members and others who may have felt they were being left behind by developing technologies. Indeed, there have been more technological changes in the last five years than in the last thirty-five years, and the conference helped us to frame the challenges we might expect to confront in developing and teaching our course. It was very evident that Birmingham-Southern College has not been at the forefront of the innovative uses of technology both inside and outside the classroom. We compete for students who have used these technologies in high school. Also, we compete with colleges and universities utilizing flipped and blended learning, student gadgets and devices, and social media and the Internet extensively and successfully.
Liberal arts colleges can and should develop blended learning models that fit their mission. New and more creative ways to engage our students through technology can indeed be authentic learning experiences. However, the most important takeaway for us was the critical need for institutional and knowledgeable information technology support, which can only come from a well-funded and highly-trained IT department. Small liberal arts college professors, especially, are resource and time constrained. They cannot do it all on their own.
Because BSC’s January Exploration Term starts so early, it was difficult to connect with other colleges and universities, including ACS schools. Class time was extraordinarily compressed due to field activities and the time spent in New Orleans (and the inclement weather forced us to cancel our last two class meetings). We met for three hours at a time, which is probably approaching the endurance limit of both professors and undergraduate students. So, we had little time for reflection, to catch up, or to fix problems. It is imperative to have knowledgeable technical support. Our IT staff was very helpful, but several admitted they were also still learning how to use the technology. BSC’s new high-tech classroom, Olin 205, is an auditorium, which made group work and student interactions challenging. Moreover, the structure of the room altered our teaching styles by forcing us to stay near the screens, often unable to face our students or to move around the room. Through this grant, we were able to pool funds with the BSC Business Department to develop two new high-tech seminar rooms.
There are several challenges for professors who want to adopt new technologies and apply innovative teaching strategies at a small liberal arts college. First, resources are limited and departments and support staff are overburdened, which makes it difficult to stay on the cutting edge of new technological developments. Our classrooms are not equipped with the latest touchscreens, projectors, sound systems, or cameras. We only had one classroom in which blended learning technologies are easily applied. Our information technologists are not at the forefront of the pedagogical applications of technology. Second, there is a significant dedication of time to learning how to apply the new technologies. The learning curve can be rather steep, especially for faculty who may have been teaching the same way for decades. Third, technology does not always work. Things can go awry and technological dependency can sometimes get in the way of the art of teaching. So, it is important to be patient and have back-up plans. In anticipation of technological glitches and since we were teaching this course for the first time, we included the following in our syllabus:
Don’t expect everything to go smoothly all the time. Since we are relying on several outside speakers and experiential learning can be unpredictable, a degree of flexibility is required for this E-Term. Moreover, since we are the first professors and students to use Olin 205, a degree of patience will be necessary. Technology is great when all goes well, but there needs to be a Plan B when it does not.
We view course evaluation as occurring on two levels. Unfortunately, the results from the student evaluations did not provide us with very good feedback. Only a few of the students took the evaluations seriously, which is typical for an Exploration Term course. We have been very self-reflective in what worked well and what did not work so well. Developing this “hybrid” blended learning course required a significant amount of time and assistance from the IT staff. As a team-taught course we made adjustments to the class setting and the new technologies. We adapted to each other’s teaching style and syllabus course requirements. We were able to merge our course content and academic disciplines into a coherent interdisciplinary course. We were able to learn from one another, from our students, guest speakers, and guides. We adapted a learning outcomes rubric from a first-year seminar course to assess students’ progress in the course. The rubric is broad enough to be applied to most lower-division courses. We regularly assessed student engagement with the course material and of student experiences with the blended learning technologies. Most of the students were actively engaged with the course material. We viewed them as active participants and partners in the process of modifying the course as needed. For example, it quickly became evident that some of the students did not fully understand the concept of blended learning. Some thought class attendance would be optional or rarely required. Moreover, most of the students had never used a Mondoboard for presentations. Student input was very helpful. We wanted our students to become familiar with the technology in the classroom, so one of their assignments was a technology practicum:
Concept: Since we will be utilizing the new high-tech classroom, each student will have the opportunity to experience the technology prior to your final presentation. Students in teams of twos and threes will create a mini-PowerPoint presentation/learning activity (5 slides) of some concept covered in the course readings. The PowerPoint must incorporate graphics and hyperlinks. The presentations should be between 8-10 minutes.
Based on our experiences developing and teaching this course, we summarized our general takeaways:
- Expect to invest a considerable amount of time setting up the blended and flipped elements of your course. Scheduling meetings with IT personnel and guest lecturers and converting traditional teaching materials to blended learning format requires significant start-up time.
- Things will not always go as planned, so be patient and always have a back-up plan.
- Don’t give up on the technology if something does not work the first or second time.
- It is imperative to have knowledgeable and effective IT support. When setting up remote class visits ensure that the technologies are compatible and that your guest has support on his/her campus.
- Do not expect all of your students to be technologically savvy. Be patient with them.
- Introduce online game simulations early in the term. Do not assume every student is a gamer. Allow time for the students to become familiar with the game before you actually use it in class.
- Establish clear rules, such as what to post, what not to post, how to post, and where to post, when using a learning management system that is available to the public. Blogs, comments, and photo uploads need some degree of oversight and organization.
- Provide clear guidance when flipping certain elements of the course. Give students instructions on how a video or online exercise is to be used at home and in the class. Do not expect students to understand what you are trying to do and how you are trying to do it.
- Do not allow technology to interfere with course content. The technology is supposed to enhance the course content.
- The liberal arts college model for blended learning requires significant face-to-face time, but students respond well to remote guest lectures and some flipped content. In fact, for our students virtual learning experiences were often as authentic as face-to-face.
We plan to teach Environmental Hazards and Urban Social Risks in the summer of 2015. The course will be nearly six weeks long. We will be able to take advantage of the better weather to do more field excursions and risk mapping. We would like to include an international experiential learning component to the course. We plan to video record both classroom and field activities. We also plan to open the course to non-BSC students. We will be exploring how we can partner with professors and other ACS schools. We would very much like to create a system whereby experts in specific fields interact with students remotely in our classes across the ACS and from other schools.
These experiences have inspired several ideas, which should be applicable to other blended learning efforts for improving our course. We want to make the use of technology in the classroom smoother, more natural, and to promote more student-faculty-expert interactions. We would like to schedule real-time connections with classes at other ACS institutions as well as increase the number of remote visits by experts. We see great potential for flipping more course content and materials while relying more heavily on course-relevant Internet resources. We see the potential for the increased use of smart phones and laptops. Finally, we are eager to collaborate more closely with other ACS institutions by utilizing blended learning technologies to share our classroom and field activities as well as lectures.
Several parties were involved in the process of developing our course besides the two instructors including the ACS, BSC Provost’s Office, IT staff, the IT Faculty Committee, and other support staff. The new high-tech classroom and talk of the development of our course generated some buzz on campus. Several meetings and workshops were held to create a vision for the increase in use of technology at BSC. Several faculty indicated they would like to develop their own blended learning course components. The Provost’s Office is providing support and incentives for them to do so during the 2014-15 academic year. This summer, one of us will be revamping an existing course, Introduction to International Relations, to include more blended learning and flipped content. The instructor already utilizes flipped videos and PollEverywhere in the classroom, but he would like to incorporate more online games and simulations. Course materials are available on Moodle for other faculty to incorporate portions of this model into their curriculum through webinars or recorded streaming videos.
We hoped our course would be a model for other ACS institutions to create blended learning courses that encompass the liberal arts ideals as well as provide a template for evaluation and modification for future courses. The interdisciplinary field of environmental hazards (tectonic-earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, weather extremes, hydrological flood and droughts as well as disease epidemics) and urban social risks (poverty, war, starvation, and crime) is growing. Examining how risk and vulnerability are socially and politically constructed and how they can be mitigated is crucial to saving lives, money, and property. Making communities more resilient to adversity—that is, environmental and technological hazards and other social risks is now at the forefront of research and policy formation. Resilience is the buzzword among urban planners and disaster professionals. The UNISDR defines resilience as: “The ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.”
Unfortunately, the fields of risk and disaster management are burgeoning because the complex interaction of population pressures, rapid urbanization, mass poverty and high inequality, environmental degradation, climate change, poor land use, shoddy building practices, and weak social and governmental institutions is resulting in more people living in even more precarious situations. We knew we would not have adequate time and resources to train students in the use of all the electronic tools for hazard identification, mapping, and geographic information systems but we would be able to at least introduce them and advocate for future skills training. We wanted to employ the analytical tools and perspectives from both the physical and social sciences to help them understand how environmental hazards are context dependent. Blended learning strategies enabled us to deliver course content in more effective and real-world applicable ways.
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 Rebecca Frost Davis, “Blended Learning at Small Liberal Arts Colleges,” Academic Commons, January 27, 2014, http://www.academiccommons.org/2014/01/blended-learning-at-small-liberal-arts-colleges/.
 “Terminology,” The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), last modified August 30, 2007, http://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/terminology.