Sunday, March 21, 2021

Hybrid teaching - the new normal or yet another stress factor?

As universities prepare for a post-pandemic future, there is a lot of discussion about hybrid or even hyflex teaching where classes are held both on campus and online and students are able to choose how they wish to access the class. Hyflex even includes the option of being able to participate completely asynchronously but with exactly the same learning outcomes and examination requirements. It sounds great but doing this well will demand considerable effort and there are many pitfalls to beware of. Few classrooms are equipped for hybrid teaching for a start. Many institutions have already started converting classrooms for greater flexibility, generally involving the purchase of multiple screens, microphones, cameras and other hardware, much to the delight of the tech industry.

The idea of offering greater flexibility to students is fine but there are also dangers of taking a simplistic approach to a complex issue. Hybrid teaching is nothing new and many institutions have been doing it for years. It works relatively well for traditional large-scale lecturing since the students are largely passive regardless of location. The problems emerge when you add more interactivity. The classroom students then tend to dominate the discussion sessions and online students are often reduced to passive spectators since they are not as visible and it is hard to get the teacher's attention. Managing group work both in class and online is quite demanding on the teacher, especially if you want to have mixed campus and online groups. 

This all adds to the stress levels of already overstretched teachers after the past year's intensive pivot to online education, discussed in an article by teacher Amanda White in Times Higher EducationUpskill fatigue: will hybrid and hyflex tip academics over the edge? Despite her experience in online education, she admits that the past year has been very tiring and is worried that poorly implemented hybrid solutions will put even greater burdens on teachers. New teaching methods and skills will be required to ensure pedagogical quality and avoid falling into the trap of simply offering dual mode lecturing. Some institutions will be able to install expensive technology and provide essential support for their use but most will not, leaving teachers to rely on their multitasking skills, or lack of them.

While hybrid may seem like a panacea for the educational limbo we find ourselves in, implementing it poorly as a stopgap measure is likely to cause our educators more harm than good. Having educators without adequate training, learning design assistance, facilities and workload support is likely to pave the way for activities that do not engage the class, leaving online students cut adrift as observers.

Large lecture-based classes, often for first year students, are a tempting area for hybrid adaptation and Tony Bates warns against this in a new post, Teaching large lecture classes online in the fall? He advises universities to take the chance to change the model of teaching first year students and simply drop the large-scale lecture format except for a few exceptional occasions. Instead of lecturing, teachers need to help students find the information themselves and assess it.

When an instructor prepares a lecture, at least in first year, they are often doing work that the students could be doing: searching for information, raising issues, making a strong case or argument, coming to conclusions. These are skills that students increasingly need to develop themselves.
He also suggests that many first year classes could be smaller allowing for more collaborative group work and a teacher role more focused on facilitation and tutoring. If that is not possible then a more interactive and collaborative approach can be applied by a better use of prerecorded shorter lectures and a focus on asynchronous collaboration in the learning management system. In all cases we need to redesign our courses and review what technology we need. 
Without substantial re-design, moving large lectures online will increase the workload and stress on instructors, and/or will lead to poorer results for students. So now is the time for administrators and Deans to start asking whether we should be moving the large lecture classes online, or instead, finding better ways to deal with first year courses.
So should campus teaching become hybrid by default and if so, how do we deal with practical workshops, lab sessions and so on? I think we need to look carefully at which spaces to use for different types of activity. Sometimes we will have to insist on students coming to campus for essential hands-on training in fields like medicine, engineering, visual arts, music etc. Flexibility is fine but in some cases it can be dangerous and students need to be aware that although they can study online for some of the course there will be obligatory on-site training. At the same time we will definitely move to more hybrid solutions but they will demand course redesign and professional development for teachers if they are going to succeed.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed! We all need to transition from react to pandemic needs to redesign our syllabus to reimagine 21st century learning. React-Redesign-Reimagine!