How colleges with hybrid instruction can support online students this fall

As colleges release their plans for the fall semester, even those hoping to reopen their campuses are leaning heavily on remote instruction to spread out students and give them more options. 

Under some hybrid models, instructors will teach classes in person and simultaneously livestream those lessons to remote students. Another format is offering a mix of fully in-person or online courses. And others are planning to shift from in-person to virtual classes after Thanksgiving. 

But it can be tough to ensure remote and in-person students get the same quality of education when they take classes together. Here’s how several ed tech and higher education experts say colleges can prepare for a hybrid fall. 

Using the right technology

Teaching in-person and remote students in the same class can be tricky, but Harvard University’s continuing education division has spent several years reimagining this type of classroom. 

The university used to simply livestream in-person classes to distance students, but this method had some shortcomings. “A livestream was really more of a passive window into the class,” said Christian Franco, Harvard’s manager of live interactive learning technology. “You’re getting the information, but it’s not a two-way exchange.” 

In 2016, it debuted a new course format called HELIX. There, classrooms are filled with cameras and microphones to capture instructors’ lessons, and large monitors display remote students. Although instruction at Harvard will be mostly remote during the fall semester, these courses offer lessons for other colleges employing a similar hybrid model. 

Getting the technology right takes precision. For instance, positioning cameras close to the monitors gives students the sense instructors are looking at them when they view the screens, Franco said.  

Hybrid courses can also require substantial investment. To prepare for the fall term, the University of Kentucky  which is offering a mix of in-person, online and hybrid courses — upgraded technology in roughly 90% of the classrooms listed in its central scheduling system. That includes adding Zoom capabilities to around 120 classrooms with computers or projectors. 

The university also installed panoramic cameras in classrooms for livestreaming, and remote students can use software provided by the school to work in groups during classes, said Kathi Kern, director of the university’s center for the enhancement of learning and teaching. 

Students could be in their dorm, in the classroom or on another campus, “but they can still participate with their team,” Kern said. “Those teams really allow students to have a lot less anonymity.” 

Going beyond technology

Instructors must think carefully about how hybrid classes are structured. “What we quickly realized is that technology alone isn’t going to be enough, and you really have to think a lot about the pedagogy,” Harvard’s Franco said. 

Instructors should be clear with students at the start of the term about how classes will be conducted, he said. Virtual students should know whether they should have their cameras turned on and how to notify the instructor when they have a question. 

“If you just jump in and start going, it’s going to take on a life of its own,” Franco said. 

Faculty development is also key. The U of Kentucky has been holding virtual office hours since March that allow instructors to consult with pedagogical experts and technology staff. It also created a website that explains how instructors should communicate with their online students. That could include holding virtual office hours regularly and clarifying where students can find lecture materials.  

Students will also need nonacademic support this fall. Old Dominion University, which is offering in-person, online and hybrid courses this fall, is training some staff members whose job duties have been reduced as a result of the pandemic as success coaches and retention specialists. 

The initiative builds on an existing coaching program the university has with InsideTrack, a student services nonprofit. “Some students do very well with the transition online and some don’t,” said Don Stansberry, the public Virginia university’s interim vice president of student engagement and enrollment services. 

Students can talk to coaches either remotely or in person to work through potential issues. For instance, a coach may direct a student who doesn’t have the right technology for an online course to the university’s emergency grant fund. 

Is hybrid the right approach? 

Several issues may arise with hybrid classrooms, especially when in-person and remote students are tuning into the same lecture. This structure has the potential to make a virtual student feel like a “fly on the wall,” said Jesse Stommel, a digital learning fellow and senior lecturer at the University of Mary Washington, a public institution in Virginia. 

Although instructors can use technology to boost remote students’ participation, that group’s needs may be different from those of in-person students. Online learners, for example, could be more likely to have a chronic illness or be taking care of someone who is sick, Stommel said. 

“The best thing that institutions can do is make sure that they are creating asynchronous opportunities for learning for those students,” he said. 

Some institutions that only recently announced their fall plans have given instructors little time to prepare for hybrid courses. And others walked back their plans for an in-person fall as the coronavirus is surging throughout many parts of the country. 

“Institutions should have made strong, assertive decisions about what the fall was going to look like so that students and faculty could start planning,” Stommel said. “Most institutions have instead waited until the very last minute to decide what the fall was going to look like.”

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