Blended learning wouldn’t seem to be a prominent campaign issue. The Donald doesn’t promote his ability to blend, Bernie isn’t burning for blended, and education overall has been a small part of the 2016 presidential campaign.
But among students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, there’s a sign that blended learning may be a bigger election issue than one might expect.
In January 2014, Andrew Powell was a junior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. With a track record of helping professors flip their courses, he ran for student government president to slow tuition increases by transforming the way students learned. Specifically, Powell proposed “a large-scale, 10-course redesign project” to turn 10 large courses at UNC into flipped classrooms.
As Powell told me in an email, “I ran for [student body president] because I wanted to make blended learning the new normal at Carolina. I wasn’t sure if a traditional university could totally reinvent its classroom experience, or if a student could have a leadership role in making such a change happen, but I wanted to give it my best shot.”
At many colleges and universities—UNC included—students largely dismiss the student government as a rubber stamp for the administration. One might therefore not expect a campaign run on substance around teaching and learning to gain much traction.
But it did.
With catchy videos that explained the whats and whys of blended learning, a detailed policy platform written for a relatively uninformed audience that outlined why blended learning matters, and a detailed website with testimonials backing up his plan, Powell captured the attention of his fellow students. He won the election with more votes than any other candidate in UNC history.
Powell then worked to deliver on his promises.
Facing steep odds—the student government at UNC doesn’t have much in the way of resources or authority, and there was plenty of bureaucracy to combat—Powell personally managed six course redesigns and then switched tactics. He and the student government vice president, Kyle Villemain, convinced a committee from the Provost’s office to devote roughly $10 million over five years to blended learning with a focus on improving student success in the sciences. Powell said the switch came about because it seemed like a bigger opportunity than working with professors to change one-off courses, as the $10 million effort is redesigning all first- and second-year courses in the sciences.
By the end of his term, Powell said: “There was a real change in the mindset and culture on campus.” Blended learning moved from being a fringe idea to one that won over faculty members. Although Powell isn’t ready to say his year as president was a success—he says he would like to wait and see how the five-year project turns out—others on campus seem more bullish.
The Daily Tar Heel opined that, “It is clear by now that blended learning has the potential to narrow the achievement gap in college classrooms. … Research done by UNC’s professors indicates classrooms that utilize blended learning help to level the playing field for students from groups that traditionally underperform, including minorities and first-generation college students.”
The newspaper praised Powell and said the effort should “constitute the centerpiece of his legacy…Once the campus loses Powell’s voice in promoting blended learning methods, it is the responsibility of prominent voices on campus, including future student government leaders, to make sure the topic does not fall by the wayside.”
At an institution that has been marked by academic scandal more than academic innovation as of late, Powell’s efforts offer an encouraging story with a still-open ending. It suggests that if we engage students more directly with a say in how they learn, they can make promising innovations happen in their schools.
But it takes a champion and leadership.
The blended bug has bitten Powell to the core. After graduating from UNC, Powell took a job at the African Leadership University in Mauritius. It’s a new blended-learning university system, where he is designing the student learning model and leading faculty training. He is creating the future in a place where innovation in education is needed sorely.