Emphasizing Interpersonal Engagement in Seminar-Style Blended Courses

by: Alyssa Dyar, Derek Thurber, & Lois Trautvetter

Below is a summary of our project. Click here to view our full poster. 



How can the Higher Education Administration program at Northwestern University maintain or strengthen the high quality, interpersonal learning experiences of graduate-level seminar courses when offering them in a blended learning format? What factors influence student engagement and satisfaction?

We will explore this question by examining the complete blended learning redesign process, including the program format, activities/tools used, faculty development/ongoing support, and student training/support.



A qualitative case study of blended format courses within the professional graduate program was conducted from Spring 2016 through Winter 2017 (additional courses in Spring and Summer 2017 will be added). The blended coursework was developed as part of a new certificate program, created to engage students who were already working in the field, but may not be able to attend classes in the traditional format, either due to location or scheduling. Changes were made to courses and the blended format over the course of the year based on feedback from faculty and students.

Course Quarter # of Instructors # of TAs In Person Hours Online Sync Hours # of Students
1 SP16 1 20 8.5 17
2 SU16 1 1 18 8 16
3 FA16 1 18 10 12
4 WI16 2 15 12 41
5 SP17 2 16 12 13
6 SP17 1 1 16 10.5 28
7 SU17 1 1 16 12 *
8 SU17 1 16 10 *

* Number of students TBD

Table 1. Background and Context of Blended Format Courses. Each row represents one of the courses examined, with rows 5-8 representing upcoming courses.


Program Format

Blended learning as opposed to fully online learning was likely a strong contributing factor to establishing interpersonal connections and providing ongoing engagement in seminar-style courses.

  • Classes include face-to-face weekend intensives and synchronous online sessions to help facilitate dialogue and build relationships, both with peers and instructors.
  • Instructional designers work closely with faculty to ensure that asynchronous content closely aligns with synchronous and face-to-face activities to create a cohesive learning experience.
  • The program works to ensure that our certificate (online) students have access to the same resources as our traditional (onsite) students, including academic and career counselors and professional development workshops. Students are encouraged to engage with the broader MSHE community via our online community and onsite social events.



In alignment with previous research on edtech adoption, emphasis should not be placed on the technology tools but rather on how those tools are used, with particular emphasis in the blended format on integration between asynchronous and synchronous activities.

  • Coursework incorporates a variety of activities that promote communication and collaboration, including group work, discussion-based assignments, and peer reviews.
  • The program emphasizes active learning strategies: synchronous and face-to-face sessions are leveraged to facilitate as much interaction as possible. Any activities that do not require significant interaction (lectures, video content, written assignments, quizzes, etc.) are delivered asynchronously.
  • An assortment of educational technology tools are employed to facilitate student engagement and discussion, including Flipgrid, Yellowdig, and Adobe Connect breakout rooms.


Faculty Development & Support

Faculty involvement in the instructional design process is critical with development focusing on redesigning courses and modifying teaching practices for the unique blended format.

  • Instructional designers follow a structured course design process, which based on the ADDIE model, emphasizes faculty involvement and ongoing evaluation. While the process is structured, course development is not ‘one size fits all’ – each course is approached individually.
  • Course designs benefit from both the quantity and quality of meetings between the faculty and instructional designers. Emphasis is placed on approaching each meeting with a clear focus and providing faculty with ideas for evidence-based learning activities.
  • Faculty are provided with ongoing resources, including technical support during synchronous sessions and continual access to instructional designers.


Student Support

Providing students with orientation to the technology and strategies for participating in a blended format may have a bigger influence on their experience in a course than their reasons for taking that course (i.e. wanting to take the course vs. being required to take it).

  • Students are required to attend a technology orientation before their first blended course. Familiarizing students with the platform minimizes technical issues during the online sessions, helps facilitate smoother class discussions, and lowers the cognitive demand on students (they are able to focus on the content, not the technology).
  • Courses include expectation-setting information regarding the benefits and challenges of the online/blended format.


About the Presenters

Alyssa Dyar
Alyssa Dyar is the Instructional Technologist for the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She studied Educational Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and completed her Masters in Educational Technology at Loyola University. In her current role, Alyssa is responsible for providing technology support and training for faculty, staff, and students surrounding Canvas, hybrid/blended course design, and the exploration of new technology tools. Her goal is to help instructors integrate technology in ways that increase meaningful learning by incorporating principles of cognitive psychology, education, and instructional design.

Derek Thurber
Derek Thurber is the Instructional Design and Technology Consultant for the Higher Education Administration and Policy Program in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. In that role, he has taken the lead on developing and rolling out a new blended learning graduate level certificate in Higher Education Administration as well as supported and worked towards the overall improvement of teaching and learning within the entire Higher Education Administration and Policy curriculum. Derek graduated from ​the Master of Science in Higher Education Administration and Policy Program at Northwestern in December 2015 where he focused his studies on instructional technology and design. As a graduate student, he worked as a graduate assistant for the program office, supported the development of a Northwestern Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), and designed an online parent orientation program for Oakton Community College. In October 2015, Derek presented his master’s project focused on scalability of simulation-based learning at the Tech-Ed conference at Washington State University. Prior to coming to Northwestern, Derek lived in Colorado, Washington State, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and most recently Minnesota — where he completed an AmeriCorps VISTA project focused on developing an online tutoring program for Riverland Community College.

Lois Trautvetter
Lois Calian Trautvetter is director of Northwestern University’s Higher Education Administration and Policy Program and associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy. Her research interests include faculty and professional development issues such as productivity, enhancing research and teaching, motivation, faculty-student interaction, and new and junior faculty, as well as holistic college student development, including spiritual development. Her co-authored book is Putting Students First: How Colleges Develop Students Purposefully.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *