Letter from the Chair: Blended Learning by Reeve Vanneman, PhD

Changes in the technology world seem to be accelerating, and Maryland Sociology is changing along with them.  The latest emphasis is a collection of new technology uses grouped under the umbrella “blended learning”.   These include everything from taped lectures available over the internet to interactive self-instruction exercises.  I am sure there are administrators somewhere who dream of using technology rather than faculty to fill more “seats” (the commodification of education is well indexed by the everyday language of university procedures).  But we are sociologists and understand that electronics cannot fully substitute for face-to-face social interaction.

For myself, I am hopeful that some of these blended learning techniques will develop enough to permit us to focus our social interactions on our more complex educational goals.  The more routinized but necessary parts of sociology (“How do you calculate a regression coefficient?”; “What is Marx’s definition of class?”) might be better handled through well-designed internet applications.  This could free our class time to engage in the more difficult questions (“What are the limits of regression analysis for understanding social structure?”  “How does Marx’s use of class differ from most contemporary uses and why is that important?”).

For now, the educational technology is still in its infancy.  It reminds me of doing searches before Google or creating web pages before Facebook:  anybody can see the promise, but wider adoption requires better software.  Instructors who have tried Blackboard or search committees using Maryland’s disastrous eTerp job listings can appreciate how difficult it is to write software that seems easy to the user.  With time, the necessary innovations will come, and we need to be ready to take advantage of them when they arrive.

Here at Maryland Sociology, John Pease has experimented with creating an online summer course.  Grad students Les Andrist, Valerie Chepp and Paul Dean have developed a website to store and index short videos for use in Sociology classes (www.thesociologicalcinema.com).  Nicole DeLoatch has started a blog for undergraduates (ugradsoc.blogspot.com).  Grad students Nathan Jurgenson and P.J.Rey have an active webpage (http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/) and blog on the prosumer studies (www.bsos.umd.edu/socy/prosumer ) and incoming Professor Phil Cohen has a widely read blog on family and gender (familyinequality.wordpress.com).  And this newsletter itself is available as a blog (umdsocy.wordpress.com).  In ten years we may look back on these efforts as Internet antiques, but they are building the foundation for our future excellence.

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