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Multimodal Instruction

July/August 2019

By Margo Vanover Porter

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Campuses are employing diverse teaching formats to meet institutional goals and better serve the changing needs of students.

When it comes to teaching models, one size does not fit all. Institutions are weaving a variety of approaches—online, blended, flipped, competency-based, gamification, adaptive, service learning, and virtual—into their curricular offerings. You name it, and somewhere an institution is trying it on for size.

The motivations of these institutions are as varied as the modalities: to improve student success; to reach a broader, more diverse student population; to accommodate different learning styles; to reduce commuting time; to satisfy the preferences of a digital generation; and to meet workforce requirements.

In order to find out how and why institutions are incorporating new learning formats into their curricula, Business Officer magazine reached out to leaders from multiple, disparate institutions, and all agree: Slowly but surely, technology is reshaping the ways students learn and faculty teach.

Virtual Surgery

Students in health sciences in the Austin Community College (ACC) District, Texas, can practice performing surgery on a virtual surgical table, manipulating an image on the table-length screen to access various layers and levels of the human body.

“We jokingly say that, if it’s a teaching model, we have either tried it or are using it,” says Susan Thomason, associate vice president, instructional services. Among the educational approaches that ACC has tried are hybrid, adaptive, inclusive, competency-based, experiential, service, and virtual.

“Our students change from one generation to the next. They bring different talents, interests, and abilities into the classroom, and we want to adapt and respond to how they learn and what they are familiar with,” explains Gaye Lynn Scott, ACC’s associate vice president, academic transfer programs. “We’re trying to expand our use of technology, not just for improved teaching and improved outcomes, but also for access and economies of scale—how do we provide the greatest reach for the students we have.”

One successful approach ACC has taken in developmental math relies on a competency-based, computer-mediated, self-paced software in which the fun components of gamification are embedded.

“Our adaptive-learning math program uses the same psychology that is used in games,” says Carolynn Reed, associate professor and mathematics/developmental mathematics department chair. “You have immediate feedback and positive reinforcement. It’s addictive. The technology that is coming out these days to support learning is incorporating gaming aspects because that’s what hooks the students.”

Students also appreciate that their math classes in the ACCelerator, a lab that offers access to hundreds of computer stations for individualized learning, are customized to their specific areas of proficiency—and deficiency. ACC currently offers three ACCelerator labs across the district, with a fourth one in development. “Students come in at all different levels,” Reed says. “We focus on what they need to learn without wasting their time on topics they already know.

“We’ve also been pairing the developmental math courses with the college-level courses,” she continues. “Students start out in a college-level course and they get developmental support in a just-in-time manner, so they’re learning what they need to learn right before they need to learn it. Combining those two courses increases success by three to five times. It’s had a huge impact.”

Of course, this intensive form of instruction carries a price tag, Scott points out. “Some of the models in the math department, where we’re trying to help students succeed in a college-credit math course in their first semester, are really labor intensive [for faculty],” she says. “We have two faculty members teaching across the developmental and college-level components of the course. That has a budgetary implication.”

Michael Midgley, vice president of instruction, explains that math is important because Austin’s economy is driven by IT and advanced manufacturing. “The reality is, if you can’t do basic college-level math, you are essentially shut out of those areas,” he says. “It becomes a real economic and workforce imperative to be able to do math and compete in the IT economy.”

Looking at promising initiatives and deciding whether to make them an institutional priority can be a challenge, Thomason concludes. “How do you weigh and vet these different technologies to determine which ones you deploy and which ones you don’t?” she asks. “Testing and research-based projects help us determine when we need to do large-scale projects. It’s really a balancing act on the administrative level.”

Blended Learning on a Budget

Back in 2012, when large institutions with a substantial number of commuter students who were experimenting with blended learning reported demonstrated gains in student outcomes, the leaders at Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pa., wondered: “While blended learning was a benefit for commuter students who didn’t have to go to campus as often and find a parking space, would that benefit translate to a residential, liberal arts campus where everyone lives nearby?” The answer: yes.

“Blended learning is taking many forms here,” says Jennifer Spohrer, Bryn Mawr’s director of educational technology services. “We have faculty who are doing a flipped classroom. Students watch online before class what would have been a lecture so they can do problem-based learning in class, as well as collaborative projects outside of class. When they come into class, students talk about readings or the project work.

“Although a few faculty still believe in the model of ‘I impart the information and the students learn,’ the idea of active learning has become more and more pervasive within college-level courses,” Spohrer emphasizes. “It’s really a question of how you deliver active learning. Technology can be one way, but it’s not the only way.”

Spohrer, whose role at Bryn Mawr is to help faculty integrate technology into teaching and learning, points out that technology is advancing so rapidly that what might be of interest today may be passe in two years. “The ability to add in faculty lines or bring in expertise is not always as swift as the new expertise that is needed. Especially in technical fields, the pace of knowledge generation and change is high. Helping faculty and students stay on top of that is really a challenge.”

While Bryn Mawr does not offer fully online learning, the residential college in Pennsylvania has become a leader in blended learning. Since 2012, it has sponsored the Blended Learning in the Liberal Arts Conference, which attracts between 100 and 120 participants from 50 to 60 colleges around the country and also from India. The conference, held in May, draws a mix of educational technologists, librarians, administrators, and faculty, mostly from liberal arts colleges but also faculty from large universities and local high schools.

When a faculty member wants help with a digital assignment, Spohrer begins the process by asking, “What are you trying to do? What are your pedagogical goals for the course?” Only then does she begin thinking about the tools the students will need to use and the skills required of the instructor.

Unlike large institutions that may have a vast network of online specialists and generous resources, Spohrer typically tries to find ready-made resources or work with other institutions, with each school developing a piece of a much bigger educational package. “We do a scan of what is out there,” she says. “Are there materials that we can use that are open source or that a publisher has created? We tend to do things less expensively.”

Students Set Their Own Pace

At the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, students in certain classes can learn at their own pace with U-Pace, an online approach that combines self-paced, mastery-based learning with instructor assistance. Originally developed at UWM, the model has been adopted by more than 40 institutions.

“U-Pace works in concert with a variety of learning management systems,” says Diane Reddy, professor and director of UWM’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. “It uses information about a student’s performance that is recorded in a learning management system to personalize the support that each student needs to achieve mastery. It holds students to a very high standard; they have to achieve at least a 90 percent on each assessment.”

This model is used at UWM for introduction to psychology and introduction to sociology. “The U-Pace approach allows students to go as fast as they like or as slow as they need,” Reddy says. “The students receive support—not only help with the concepts, but also messages to change their thinking about themselves as learners.”

As an alternative to the traditional credit hour system, UWM—in partnership with UW Extended Campus—also offersthe UW Flexible Option, which provides competency-based programs based on direct assessment. “Instead of students earning credits for seat time, they earn credits for demonstrated mastery of knowledge,” says Laura Pedrick, executive director, UWM Online, and special assistant to the provost for strategic initiatives. “We have six programs in the UW Flexible Option, including information science and technology, health sciences, nursing, and an associate of arts and science degree. Students progress through the curriculum by demonstrating mastery on assessments, which are designed by our faculty.”

Academic success coaches help students on their flex-option journey. “We have served more than 1,400 students in that mode of instruction and 200-plus graduates,” Pedrick says. “Some students move through at a rapid pace. We are attracting a new, nontraditional type of student for whom higher education was not seen as a possibility.”

For example, if you were an IT professional with multiple certifications but not a four-year degree, “the UW Flexible Option modality means that you don’t have to sit through a class about something you already know,” Pedrick notes. “You can demonstrate mastery on the assessment and focus on the research and ethical issues related to information technology you were never exposed to before.”

The program received approval as a nonterm direct assessment program from the U.S. Department of Education. “Traditional financial aid is based on credit hours and seat time, which locks everyone into moving at the same pace together through a curriculum,” Pedrick says. “Personalized learning challenges this traditional regulatory framework.”

According to Pedrick, UWM’s annual online enrollment is about 9,000, with 2,500 students fully online and 6,500 combining online with face-to-face courses. The institution offers 42 online degrees and certificates and 12 online minors.

Blended Classes Perform Better

At the University of Central Florida (UCF), Orlando, blended courses outperform face-to-face and online classes in multiple metrics: student success rates, student withdrawal rates, and student satisfaction rates.

“Blended classes tend to be a few percentage points better on each of those metrics,” reports Kelvin Thompson, executive director, Center for Distributed Learning, at UCF. “Students are happier with them. They are succeeding at higher rates, and they are withdrawing at lower rates than their comparable face-to-face or online counterparts.”

Outcomes like these, he says, are not reported widely at other institutions. He attributes the success rate at UCF to the rigorous support and preparation that faculty receive. “A team of about 80 humans—including 23 professional, graduate-degreed instructional designers—supports our faculty and students in these modalities,” he says. “We’ve also got web developers, video producers, graphic artists, and help-desk people.”

To ensure that students know exactly what they are getting, fully online courses are labeled with a “W,” and blended reduced-seat-time courses are labeled “M” for “mixed mode.”

“There are a variety of other modes,” Thompson says, “any of which can have courses that feature personalized adaptive learning components. A new specialized blended course, which we refer to as reduced-seat-time active, combines face-to-face and online with fewer face-to-face class meetings than perhaps a generally blended course would have. There’s also a really explicit emphasis on active learning techniques.”

UCF first ventured into online activity 23 years ago. Now, if a course is offered with an online section, the online section fills up first, Thompson emphasizes.

“We see that again and again. Our researchers find that students see these technology-mediated modalities as a way to fit their formal education into their lives. This semester, a student may take one fully online W class, one reduced-seat-time M blended course, and two face-to-face traditional courses. Next semester, the student may take all blended or all online or all face-to-face classes. Students make choices about what is available and what fits their lifestyles.”

In the span of a year, more than 80 percent of UCF students take at least one online or blended course. “That’s a huge percentage of our 68,000 students,” he says, adding that more than 10,000 students are currently taking just online courses.

UCF has been curating an online compendium of more than 100 individual strategies for online and blended teaching practices for almost a decade. “We receive submissions from faculty and designers all over the world,” Thompson says. “We curate those in an open collection called the Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. This codification of teaching practices offers a variety of approaches and strategies for dealing with content in the online or blended environment, fostering higher levels of student engagement and interaction in online and blended courses, and creative ways of assessing learning in the online and blended environments.” To search the repository, visit

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

Related Topics

Developmental math at Austin Community College relies on software in which the fun components of gamification are embedded.

“We are attracting a new, nontraditional type of student for whom higher education was not seen as a possibility.”

—Laura Pedrick, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee