Last May, Tufts Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy graduated the first group of students to attend its Masters program based in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), United Arab Emirates. The 3-term, one year program consisting of 10 courses and a thesis has 2 residencies of 10 days each in Ras Al Khaimah. The first residency is at the beginning of the program, and the second residency is at the end. The residencies take place at the RAK Medical Hospital and the rest of the program is conducted online. Members of Tufts Distance Learning Consortium had an opportunity to speak via Skype with Elizabeth Lundeen, a graduate who is based in Kyrgyzstan, about her educational experience in the program.

A Student’s Experience of Blended Learning

Remote collaboration with Skype

Blended learning involves a combination of traditional classroom-based learning and remote distance learning formats. In a blended course, students are usually required to attend some classes on campus while completing other technology-based work remotely. Elizabeth found that the RAK program strikes a great balance between face-to-face and online learning: “The residency is great because it allows us to receive a lot of individual attention. We sit around a conference room table, and it has the feel of a workshop. Meeting the faculty and classmates face-to-face allowed everyone to get to know each other before transitioning to the online component of the program. Because we knew each other, we felt more comfortable asking each other for help. We even studied together using Skype.”

This was Elizabeth’s first distance learning experience, and she was pleasantly surprised. She felt it was not that different from a more traditional campus experience: “You do have to keep up with the lectures each week because you have to do your discussion postings, assignments and tests.”

Most of the learning activities were asynchronous which means that they did not have to occur at a required time. The student could accomplish them according to their own schedule. Lectures could be accessed online through Angel (a learning management platform), or from a DVD/USB drive provided by the program. Because internet access is expensive in Kyrgyzstan, Elizabeth accessed the lectures from the USB drive. She went online to post to discussions, access and post assignments, take tests and use Skype, but most of the work could be done offline.

On the topic of tests, there were only a couple of tests that had to be taken online. Most commonly, students would download a Word document, answer the questions, and post it back to Angel. Angel keeps track of the time the test was downloaded, and the time it was submitted by the students. Elizabeth explained that because there are regular electricity outages and internet service disruptions, she was nervous that it would happen while taking a test. “Luckily, it didn’t happen, but I know my professors would have understood!”, she exclaimed.

For Elizabeth, this blended learning Masters program was ideal, despite the long hours each day required to juggle her full-time work and the program’s requirements. The program allowed her to keep her field-based job with the Red Cross in Kyrgyzstan, while gaining a deeper understanding in the area of nutrition, which has become an important focus of her work.

Building A Blended Learning Program

Paul Giguere, Senior Director of Academic Initiatives at the Friedman School

The online program was developed by Paul Giguere, Senior Director of Academic Initiatives at the Friedman School, and his dynamic and talented team, Heather McMorrow, Associate Director, and Patrick Connell, Instructional Technology Manager. Paul found that by implementing a blended learning program, Tufts University could pull together an “A team” of core faculty members to teach in RAK for short periods of time, during the residencies.

The task did require extra effort for faculty members developing course materials and syllabus for the online parts of the courses for the first time. As Heather noted, “teaching online for the first time is difficult. It’s a whole different type of time and course management.” Though faculty often find the task of translating a traditional face-to-face course to an online environment overwhelming the first time, many instructors acknowledge becoming better teachers in their face-to-face courses after having taught online and find it far less tasking each time the course is taught.

The workload assigned to students was re-adjusted while some of the courses were running. Elizabeth also explained that “students engaged in online learning can’t hide if their work is incomplete which is very different than in a traditional environment. Students need to do all their work, in order to contribute to the online discussions.”

Heather championed for the standardization of the program syllabi in order to enable students to devote the majority of their cognitive effort to the content of the course and less on orienting themselves to the course environment and interpreting expectations. Accreditors for the Ministry of Education in the United Arab Emirates lauded this choice in their accreditation report. The Friedman school is now applying these new standards to all courses taught at the school, regardless of it being a blended or traditional course.

Paul estimates the cost of developing one blended course to be about $100,000, and between $1million and $1.5 million for an entire program. The cost reflects mainly “people time”, such as coordinators, faculty members and instructional designers and some of the technology infrastucture. Paul emphasized that when looking at the price tag for this type of blended learning program, “we need to keep in mind the cost efficiencies over time. ”

Some of the cost efficiencies for this program are:

  • not having to set up a physical campus in the Middle East,
  • the ability to use core faculty,
  • improving traditional face-to-face instruction,
  • reaching students who would not be able otherwise to attend graduate school.

The technology used to deliver the lectures is fairly simple. Using the commercial software Articulate installed on a computer, and a high quality microphone, faculty came into a sound-proofed room to record their lectures. An advantage of using Articulate is the ability to edit a single slide and its associated audio without having to re-record an entire lecture. This feature is helpful when reusing a course and making targeted changes.

Based on what the program team learned from the first cohort, including detailed feedback from Elizabeth and her fellow students, the program has been extended from 12 months to 16 months and students take 2-2.5 courses a term in order to make the program more manageable for working students, who are the target population.

Melanie St. James, Senior Interactive Media Designer, UIT Academic Technology

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