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Blended e-learning courses mix accessibility, personal touch

Posted 12/8/2011   Updated 12/8/2011 Email story   Print story


by Christopher Kratzer
Air University Public Affairs

12/8/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Al  -- The Ira. C. Eaker Center for Professional Development has taken to cyberspace with five new blended e-learning courses, using a combination of online webinars and self-paced curriculum to allow students the benefits of the classroom anywhere with an internet connection, according to Barry Waite, the chief of workforce diversity and civilian professional development division.

"Our students need courses to further refine their job skills and develop their functional leadership. Blended e-learning takes the classroom to the student, which opens up many more learning opportunities than in the past," he said.

The Eaker Center currently offers the blended e-learning format for the USAF supervisor, civilian personnel management, military personnel management, basic civilian training force development specialist and basic employee management relations courses.  Three advanced courses are in development. The courses help deliver to Air Force personnel the knowledge they need in a timely manner.

"If I take over a force development flight, why do I have to wait months to get the education necessary to perform better on the job?" said Waite. "Blended e-learning can be offered with more frequency because there are fewer infrastructure issues to worry about like lodging and classroom space.  Additionally, allowing for more offerings, there is less lag time to get the education."
Blended elearning has many other benefits. Students are able to participate in courses without leaving their current location, which translates into both a cost and time savings.
The courses also offer increased scheduling flexibility "Most blended e-learning classes will have self-directed portions, which fit more easily in a student's schedule, with 24/7 access to course materials," said Waite. "Our experience with force support squadron functional courses tells us there are a limited number of seats available for an in-resident experience. Using blended e-learning, you are not limited by physical restraints of a classroom, but on the number of students an instructor can handle for the course."

The courses also represent a cost savings for the Air Force as well. In a time of austere budgets, producing educational value while reducing overhead is critical, according to Mike Hagen, the developmental education course director for the Eaker Center. "With looming national and Air Force fiscal constraints and challenges, the students may not be able to come to the Eaker Center classroom, and their need for quality education does not diminish," he said. "Blended e-learning is a means for the Eaker Center to provide those educational opportunities to meet the need through a quality instructor-led educational experience at a minimum cost."

Even though the courses are held online, Waite stressed the classes are "far from impersonal." In order for blended e-learning to be successful, the distance between the student and educator must be reduced, he said, something they accomplish through webinars, discussion boards and phone calls to students to assess progress.
"When we receive an email or message post from a student having technical or academic issues, our instructors will pick up the phone and ask how things are going. Imagine the students reaction when we make these phone calls -- 'Wow, that was responsive!'" Waite said. "It can be as personal as an in-residence course."

The blended e-learning concept began development in 2009 with the USAF supervisor's course, a course that first-time supervisors must take within 180 days of taking on supervisory duties. The courses have been a hit with students, he said, with students reporting the courses are just as effective as in-classroom learning. For instance, in the Air Force supervisor's course, students reported "an average of 63-percent institutional competency improvement and rate the value, quality of instruction, course management and mission accomplishment in the 95-percent range, which is on par with our in-residence experience," Waite said.  "Educationally, in professional continuing education, if the students rate the experience this well and show stellar academic progress, then blended e-learning is certainly making a positive impact."

The blended courses are a part of the continuing education that the Eaker Center offers that allows them to stay ahead of the curve, he said.  "Blended e-learning is another tool in our academic tool box," Waite said.  "Leveraging this methodology just creates a more flexible and responsive academic institution. Using blended e-learning along with our other academic tools helps build a foundation for continuous learning that is credible, current, effective and relevant."

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