Blended Classes: The Value of Face-to-Face and Synchronous Online Teaching

Like many law professors, I found myself a few months ago teaching regularly from a laptop in my home.  With little prior online teaching, I was intimidated.  Relying on expert help at our school and in the legal education community, on lots of practice using the platforms available, and on the generosity of my students (who kindly took time to do pre-class sessions), I muddled through the semester.

               When I learned we were likely to be teaching online again in some capacity, I decided to take advantage of the available resources to help understand the similarities and differences between face-to-face classes and online classes.  I was delighted to find among these resources an article by one of my favorite educators, Gerald Hess.  His article that explored many of the questions on my mind.  See Gerald F. Hess, Symposium: The State and Future of Legal Education: Blended Courses in Law School: The Best of Online and Face-to-Face Learning?, 45 McGeorge L. Rev. 51 (2013).   (Note on a separate resource: coauthored with Michael Hunter Schwartz and Sophie Sparrow, Professor Hess’s book Teaching Law by Design [Carolina Academic Press 2009] has helped me more than any other single source in designing and teaching my courses.   It should be mandatory reading for all new law professors.)

Professor Hess’s article cites credible authority that online teaching fosters students’ development of self-directed learning.[1]  My colleague, Natt Gantt, and I have been working with St. Thomas Law School’s Holloran Center to provide tools with which law teachers can both adopt development of self-directed learning and use the materials on the Holloran Center website to achieve and measure that learning outcome.[2]   We had not, however, focused on the strengths of online teaching as a means of achieving self-directedness.  Perhaps it should have been obvious to me that, if a student knows that she will be expected to actively participate in the online class, she will take more ownership of her learning.   I had to see the online format in action to begin appreciating its benefits.

               Professor Hess’s article references not only interviews of teachers and students but also empirical evidence that evaluates how effectively face-to-face, online, and blended (combining face-to-face with online) instruction achieves learning outcomes.  The findings offer support for online as a more effective means of achieving learning objectives than traditional face-to-face classes.  However, Professor Hess cautions against exaggerating these findings because most of the empirical research did not involve on law schools (but did include graduate courses).   When one compares the ability to achieve learning outcomes through face-to-face versus online teaching, however, this evidence suggests that we keep an open mind.  When comparing face-to-face teaching with blended teaching, moreover, the results show “stronger learning outcomes than did face-to-face instruction alone.”[3]

               Professor Hess explains why such conclusions make sense.   A well-designed blended classroom encourages students’ collaboration in the learning process.  Such a class also allows students to use their strengths to their advantage while developing or improving new skills.   For instance, the face-to-face class allows students who think quickly on their feet to interact with the professor and each other.   Many students, however, feel more comfortable participating online, after having had the chance to ponder a prompt or post.  All students, moreover, must actively participate in the process of learning.

               Professor Hess’s articles sets forth General Design Principles for an effective blended class.  I encourage anyone who may be teaching a blended class in the upcoming academic year to review his design principles.  I am sure they will help to ensure a class is as effective at achieving learning outcomes as possible.   I know that they showed me I still have a lot of work to do.    However, I realize now that the effort can lead to more effective teaching and learning than in what I had come to accept as the previous norm—face-to-face classes. 


[1] See Hess, supra, at 60-62.

[2] See, e.g., Larry O. Natt Gantt, II, and Benjamin V. Madison, III, Self-Directedness and Professional Formation:  Connecting Two Critical Concepts in Legal Education, 14 Univ. of St. Thomas L. J. 498 (2018); see also Univ. o St. Thomas Law School’s Holloran Center for Leadership in the Professions, Competency Milestones: Self-Directedness, https://www.stthomas.edu/hollorancenter/hollorancompetencymilestones

[3] See Hess, supra, at 69 (quoting Means et al., U.S. Dep’t of Educ. Evaluation of Evidence Based Practices in On-Line Learning:  A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies 28 (2010).

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