Northern Virginia Community College
As natural disasters have dominated headlines this summer, colleges and universities across the country are recognizing the value of hybrid course offerings, in which students split their time between face-to-face and online instruction.
In some cases, instructors use hybrid courses to host traditional lecture and classroom discussions online and use more active forms of teaching in the classroom. Others offer lectures in class and assignments online. Officials and instructors describe numerous benefits to this model, which allows students to balance course work with other responsibilities while maintaining the most essential components of the residential experience.
When the academic calendar is interrupted, though, hybrid courses take on another purpose -- students can continue learning remotely without the jarring transition from an exclusively face-to-face setup to an online one.
“If you’re only face-to-face, you’re very far away from having a fully online course,” said Jacob Larsen, director of Iowa State University’s language studies resource center. “If you’re already hybrid, you’re probably better suited to trying to do everything online.”
Even universities and colleges not in disaster-prone areas should keep in mind that some of their online students in far-flung areas could be experiencing adverse conditions, said Shannon Riggs, director of course development and training at Oregon State University Ecampus. Hybrid courses have another advantage in that respect: most of their students are within range of campus because they’re used to periodically attending class in addition to completing work online.
“In setting up the framework for the course, you have a design that’s already set and established, and a means for students to participate,” Riggs said. “When a hurricane situation comes up, they’re already acculturated to how to participate in that space. You don’t have to set up a framework.”
Matt Reed, vice president for learning at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed, said his college decided to provide all instructors with an “online shell” for their face-to-face courses after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The page on the college's Canvas infrastructure offers space for syllabi, discussion forums, documents and videos, according to William Burns, the college's dean of online programs and learning resources.
"There’s never a snow day if you have an online shell," Burns said.
Having course documents online makes sense even beyond disaster situations like hurricanes, Reed said. Instructors who abruptly take ill midsemester leave an accessible legacy for a substitute to take over. Students who miss a handout while absent from a face-to-face session can easily access it online later. And digital skeptics are more inclined to get on board with “web-enhanced” courses than hybrid.
“Some professors do the absolute bare minimum to meet the requirement,” Reed said. “Others do more elaborate work.”
A January blizzard bore out Reed’s belief in the importance of the web-enhanced model. Brookdale closed for two days during the winter intersession, eliminating a major chunk of time for the two-week sessions that were in progress. Having course materials online made that interruption less jarring, he said.
More Than Disaster Protection
Hybrid courses offer advantages beyond hurricane and tornado preparedness, college officials say. Warren Sandmann, provost at William Paterson University, in New Jersey, has seen online discussions flow more freely than their in-person equivalents. He generally believes hybrid courses are more effective when they reshape the course structure to acknowledge the digital element, rather than directly translating a face-to-face course into an online environment.
Online forums also empower students who might be intimidated by speaking out loud in front of an entire class, according to Larsen, of Iowa State. On the other hand, being surrounded by peers in a classroom can have meaningful effects on a student’s investment in the material, according to MJ Bishop, director of the University System of Maryland's Center for Academic Innovation. Hybrid courses allow each element to complement the other, she said.
Opportunities and access all see a bump from the hybrid approach. Students who take hybrid courses sacrifice less time than those in a face-to-face course, which means they can attend to jobs or personal responsibilities without feeling completely disconnected from their instructor and classmates, according to Bishop.
The more diverse range of experiences and backgrounds in a hybrid course’s student population is also an enticement, Bishop said. She once taught a hybrid graduate instructional design course in which some students had worked in computer programming, while others brought experience in education. The participants’ exchange of ideas was ideal, she said. Plus, students who needed more time to get up to speed could do so on their own time with online exercises and then come into class ready to apply what they’d learned.
Challenges and Requirements
For all their benefits, hybrid courses also have limitations and pose unique challenges. Hybrid courses aren’t any more useful than face-to-face courses when students and faculty members lose access to electricity or the internet. The University of Central Florida suspended all online and hybrid courses for seven days in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma because its faculty members were just as “digitally displaced” as students, said the provost, Dale Whittaker.
In response, Central Florida’s instructional designers are now working with faculty members to help them record mini lectures on video, move discussions online and examine syllabi to plan longer-term adjustments, according to Tom Cavanagh, the vice provost. Observers think universities need to actively train instructors to teach hybrid courses so that they don’t have to receive on-the-spot training if a severe weather event forces operational changes.
“A four-hour workshop doesn’t make you a proficient online teacher,” Larsen said.
At Northern Virginia Community College, hybrid course instructors must enroll in a certification program that’s taught online in order to create the experience online students will face. The course mixes asynchronous and synchronous components, according to Steve Sachs, the community college’s vice president for instructional and information technology.
“Because this is a different style, we wanted to make sure we had people prepared to do it that weren’t just cutting seat time out of the equation,” Sachs said.
As important, some instructors remain reluctant to move even a portion of their pedagogy online, Reed said.
A broader lingering question is whether students en masse prefer hybrid courses and opt to take them at a frequency that justifies universities’ continued investment. Central Florida and Northern Virginia both report that students have expressed strong interest in more hybrid courses; officials at the former said hybrid courses post the institution’s lowest withdrawal rates and highest ratings in student evaluations.
At Brookdale, though, some students mistakenly believe that hybrid courses are designed to require more work than face-to-face or online courses, Reed said, because they combine elements of both.
“Students see on-site as the Cadillac model, online as super convenient,” Reed said. “Blended, students don’t see a benefit.”
Bishop has seen similar sentiments from students at time. Indeed, hybrid courses require more self-discipline, especially if faculty members leave students to their own devices when they’re not in class.
“When faculty take the approach that hybrid [classes] are going to be less work [for them], that’s problematic,” Bishop said.
Administrators expect institutions to continue gathering student feedback and adjusting their philosophies on hybrids. Larsen thinks that mobile-accessible courses will be expected in the years to come, and that institutions that want to protect against sudden catastrophes should look into learning management systems hosted in the cloud, rather than on campus or in another physical location that could be threatened.
“If your LMS is not set up right or if it doesn’t have features and functionality, there’s only so much a teacher can do,” Larsen said.
Hybrid advocates concerned that their preferred model won’t catch on might be heartened to hear that during the hurricane closure earlier this month, officials at Central Florida noted more than 1,000 students were accessing the learning management system, getting ahead on course work they were missing during the unexpected break.
“There was a benefit to having our systems up and running here on the campus,” Whittaker said.