5 Reasons that Electric Bikes Are Like Blended Learning

My new obsession.

December 10, 2017

My new obsession is electric bikes. Not that I own one.

Being an academic, I’ll need to do 10,000 hours of research before I am comfortable contemplating any action. At this rate, I expect to be in the market for an e-bike purchase in spring of 2018.

Like all my obsessions, I understand electric bikes through the lens of learning and technology.

Here are 5 ways that electric bikes are exactly like blended learning:

1 - The Passion of Early Adopters:

A growing number of my colleagues are commuting to campus on an electric bike. They are replacing a drive to campus in a car with a ride to campus on an e-bike. Reasons vary. Some are riding their electric bike because they live too far away to ride a traditional bicycle. Others ride their e-bike to campus because they can arrive without getting sweaty, avoiding the need to shower. What all of these electric bike owning colleagues have in common is their passion for e-bikes. They are electric bike evangelists. They talk about how their e-bike changed their life. Not only do they get more exercise, they look forward to their morning and early evening ride. The purchase price of the e-bikes were justified by saving on the parking passes and gas, but these practical commuting decisions gave rise to a larger belief that electric biking is the future of transportation.

We hear much the same things from those educators who have gotten into blended learning. Talk to faculty teaching online courses, and they marvel at how the medium enables them to deeply interact with their students. The asynchronous nature of much of online learning creates space for all the students in the class to contribute to discussions and debates - through the mechanisms of discussion boards and blogs and wikis - space that is normally constrained and finite in a traditional 50 or 90 minute residential class. Flipping a mostly residential course, by having course content and curriculum be delivered before the class through online lectures, creates new space in the face-to-face discussion for active learning.  Class is invigorating when the teaching model moves from delivering content to coaching and mentoring.

2 - A Dedicated Community of Practice:

The small and growing number of electric bike people on my campus have started to find one another. They are meeting to talk about how they chose their e-bike, where they get it serviced, and what rides in the area (with big hills) they are now willing to tackle. These campus electric bike pioneers are starting to convert others. There seems to be many more of us who are talking about getting an e-bike than who actually own one.  The enthusiasm of these early electric bike owners is contagious.

This small group of e-bike converts reminds me of those faculty who were amongst the first to teach online and to use technology to flip their residential classes. The first professors to make the transition to online and blended learning faced a good degree of skepticism from their colleagues. Most were skeptical themselves. They wondered if technology would get in the way of what they love best about teaching. They worried about what would be lost when eye contact was replaced by screen time. When the give and take of a good lecture was substituted for recorded video presentations and discussion boards.

What most faculty found, to their surprise, was that online and blended teaching is pretty great. Maybe not better than traditional face-to-face teaching, but usually better than a straight lecture based (large enrollment) course. Online and blended learning encouraged, rather than inhibited, interactions with students.  The medium of online and blended learning still required all the expertise of an experienced educator. The difference being that now online faculty could teach students who were also full-time workers, who were unable to move to campus, and who relied on online learning to participate in higher education. For those teaching blended courses, the technologies of classroom flipping opened up more time for active learning and intensive instruction.

3 - The Potential to Convert Non-Participants:

One reason that I’m excited about electric bikes is the promise of getting my wife to ride one.  She is not a big bike rider, mostly because of all the hills that surround our town.  With an electric bike, we will both able to tackle longer rides through our hilly community.  The idea that e-bikes convert non-bike riders into enthusiastic cyclists is one that we hear often.  The new breed of pedal assist e-bikes are simple to ride.  You operate the bike like any other non-powered bike.  The electric assist only kicks in when you are pedaling.

The idea that e-bikes have the potential to turn non-riders into riders mirrors that of online learning.  Those taking fully online and low-residency courses would often be non-students if not for the flexibility that this method enables.  A fully online or low-residency student can work towards a degree while also working.  There is no need to quit one’s job and move to a campus.  A student can navigate online courses in smaller chunks, on their own schedules, freeing up the time necessary to work and care for family.

4 - Quality Is Expensive:

If you have priced an e-bike, you know that they are expensive. The price is dropping, but the average e-bike seems to come in between maybe $1,500 and $2,500. This is much more money than most recreational non-electric bikes. The reason that e-bikes are expensive is that the components are costly. An e-bike will be heavier, so better brakes and derailleurs are necessary.  The main additional cost of an e-bike comes from the electric motor. A quiet, light, powerful, and reliable electric motor is expensive - as are the controllers that and battery that make it work.

The extra expensive of a quality e-bike is really no different than the extra expense of a equality online or blended course.  In a good online/blended course, you are not taking anything away from a traditional residential class.  You are layering on top of this course everything that makes teaching at a distance or flipping the class possible.  This involves putting together recorded lectures, simulations, low-stakes assessments, and assignments that students interact with digitally.  Increasingly, quality online and blended learning is also mobile friendly - adding a new level of complexity.  Quality online and blended courses are best built by a faculty (subject matter experts and experienced educators) working with an instructional designer (an expert on learning science and learning technologies).  The extra inputs of high quality online and blended learning raise the costs of instruction.

5 - Costs and Growing Inequality:

The fact that high quality online and blended education is more expensive, not less expensive, than traditional face-to-face learning means that the benefits of these methodologies are not evenly distributed. Wealthier institutions and those that charge higher tuitions can afford to hire both faculty and instructional designers. The more affluent a residential campus is, the more likely it is that larger enrollment introductory courses are moving towards a blended and flipped instructional model. The quality of online education is directly proportional to the resources available to create the courses and invest in the student learning experience.

Will expensive e-bikes create the same sort of divide in cycling that we see in higher education? Will there be a class of wealthy riders who can afford the benefits of power-assisted riding, where those with less resources will be forced to struggle up hills unassisted?  Will quality e-bikes be reserved for the affluent, creating two classes of riders?

Have you looked into purchasing an electric bike?


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