Dec 3, 2014

Blending online and on-site activities across campuses


Dr. Rukmini Balu  is one of the faculty members who taught Duke Kunshan University (DKU) inaugural classes in Fall 2014. She taught Fundamentals of Global Health for undergraduate “Semester Abroad” or “Semester Away” students. The seven-week intensive course was offered in an innovative way to incorporate face-to-face learning with […]

Dr. Rukmini Balu  is one of the faculty members who taught Duke Kunshan University (DKU) inaugural classes in Fall 2014. She taught Fundamentals of Global Health for undergraduate “Semester Abroad” or “Semester Away” students. The seven-week intensive course was offered in an innovative way to incorporate face-to-face learning with technology-driven, long-distance learning methods. The course was designed to closely mimic a full semester course offered at Duke in Durham, but featured a new format that blended online and on-site activity between campuses.

Currently, the Provost and the Advisory Committee for Online Education (ACOE) are seeking proposals for online education projects, and they encourage applicants for the CFP to consider some examples as a starting point to generate ideas. Dr. Balu’s course is one of these examples.

Why blended learning format?

When Dr. Michael Merson, Director, Duke Global Health Institute, asked Dr. Balu to consider teaching for DKU, she thought it was a great idea. However, Dr. Balu’s full time job as Director, Strategy and Partnership Development, Duke Medicine Global, and the task of raising two young children would prevent her from staying all 7 weeks on-site at DKU. Dr. Merson suggested a blending learning format.

While planning to allow flexibility in place and time, especially with the 12-hour time difference, Dr. Balu still wanted to bring a rich experience to students. In addition to lectures, she wanted to incorporate guest speakers, team projects, student-centered discussions, field trips and case studies into the course, to redesign engaged learning activities.

Portfolio of the blended format

portfolio_learning methodologies

Table–Portfolio of learning methodologies

As early as January 2014, Dr. Balu started to work closely with the Center for Instructional Technology to plan the course redesign, to determine what technologies were possible and would fit, and to put together materials that would be delivered via this broad format. In Fall 2014, she taught the first and last weeks of the course on-site at Duke Kunshan University (DKU).

During these two weeks, she was able to meet students in class four days each week, and to work with students one-on-one during her office hours. Respectively, she and a guest speaker, Dr. David Boyd, took students to field trips (local hospitals).

During the middle five weeks, while she was in Durham, she continued to interact with her students through teleconferencing in real-time. However, she didn’t offer the teleconferencing sessions four to five times per week like in a face-to-face class, instead, she reduced meetings to two sessions per week, and let students watch pre-recorded short lecture videos at their own pace and time; within prescribed timelines for group work, online forums. and other activities. During teleconferencing meeting times, she focused on discussing content covered in the video, answering questions, addressing problem areas, and focusing attention toward specific areas of understanding.  This flipped “tele-classroom” offered flexibility for students and the instructor, and was beneficial to those who were not equally fluent in, or comfortable with, English. Of the 22 students, about 90% did not speak English as their native language.

Technologies applied

Lecture video in Kaltura-  During summer 2014, Balu spent hours and hours recording over 40 videos using a recording kit from the Duke Online Initiatives. Each video was less than 10 minutes long, and was uploaded to Kaltura for streaming. In order to give students a sense of being on Duke University’s campus, she had an additional 20 videos shot and edited by professionals from the Duke Media Services (DMS). These videos were set at typical Duke scenes, such as Duke Chapel, Duke Gardens, Trent Semans Medical Center, etc.

prerecorded videos

Sakai, Learning Management System – Students used Sakai as a learning platform to access lessons, participate in discussions, see course announcements, and take weekly online tests.


Online discussion forums with Sakai– Participation on online discussion forums was mandatory; students needed to post at least two meaningful comments every week.

Teleconferencing– Two nights each week, Durham time (Monday and Wednesday morning in Kunshan), real-time case discussion took place via teleconferencing, incorporating assigned global health cases and video lectures.  This gave the instructor an opportunity to address student questions and concerns.


Dr. Balu via teleconferencing was interacting to students who were at the DKU campus.

Did the format work?

During Week 6, we conducted a student survey. In response to the question “What do you think of this blended learning format, which includes classroom lectures, field trips, team exercises, video lectures and online discussions?” 16 students out of 22 responded, with 31% selecting very effective, 37% effective, 25% somewhat effective, and 6% neither effective nor ineffective.

response_effectivenessSome quotes from students:

The course is overall highly satisfying. ..”

I love blended learning format very much.”

I like pre-recorded video because I can review each class. I found my interest in this course. Thanks a lot.”

Students suggested more case studies, and online office hours when the professor was in the U.S so they could communicate more. One student suggested ways to promote more conversations in video-conferencing lectures:

“The video-conferencing lectures may be more beneficial and engaging if students are required to explain different concepts learned or explain global health related articles. Maybe the professor could draw names out of a bucket for people to share global health news, or homework articles, or things learned [from] the recorded lectures. This way everyone would read and watch lectures before coming to class because they may be called on to explain specific concepts or share recent news.”

Challenges faced

Technology-related: the physical campus in Kunshan was not ready during the first six weeks, so teleconferencing lectures were a challenge to undertake while students needed to travel to particular locations, and the Internet sometimes faced slow connectivity.  Some students also faced a steep learning curve in using Sakai, especially when taking online exams.

Cultural differences:  Students needed to adapt critical thinking and active learning skills, and needed additional encouragement to speak out.

Time: The time difference was sometimes a hindrance, especially since the instructor could not address student concerns right away. While Balu was at the Duke campus in Durham, teleconferencing sessions were offered at night, her time (morning in China), and technical staff needed to be available for support.

Distance learning-specific: Students did not feel as connected to the instructor and to the course. Undergraduates could “slack off” in the absence of instructor presence in a classroom.  Students were also not familiar with distance learning.

Much preparation was required in advance from the instructor’s end–recording and producing videos is very time and labor intensive work.

What we have learned

  • Always start with course design- a sound pedagogically and technically designed course makes a difference.
  • Start course planning in advance –developing online materials and videos is time and labor intensive work.
  • Instructional design, course development, and technical support can take a village of people– collaboration and teamwork play an important role. Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology, the Online Course Initiatives, Duke Kunshan University, Office of Information Technology (OIT), Duke Media Services, the Link, and DGHI were all involved in course design, development, video recording and editing, on-site support and technical troubleshooting.
  • Have a backup plan –technology can fail, so having a backup plan is important: in case the videos in Kaltura did not play in China,  Duke Box, a cloud-based storage and collaboration space, was made available for the course. The instructor used Skype as a backup when video-conferencing failed, and gave a makeup exam when there were online issues.
  • Be willing to take risks and work on mitigating those risks.
  • Plan to reuse re-recorded videos for Duke Durham campus courses.
  • Design meaningful discussion questions to inspire and promote engaged discussions.

Some conclusion from Dr. Balu

(Quoted from Dr. Balu’s presentation at the Center for Instructional Technology Showcase)

  • Overall, a very positive experience
  • Offers great flexibility
  • Time-effective form of learning
  • Equalizing effect in mixed classrooms with variable language proficiency
  • Opportunity for other faculty to participate in global classrooms
  • Good example of why we are a global university – a scalable model for the future

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