A couple of weeks ago I had an interesting meeting with about 25 instructional designers from UBC, where we discussed design models for hybrid learning, defined as a deliberate attempt to combine the best of both face-to-face and online learning.
Hybrid learning: the next big change in online learning?
Despite all the hype about MOOCs, hybrid learning is probably the most significant development in e-learning – or indeed in teaching generally – in post-secondary education, at least here in Canada. I am seeing many universities (13 in six months so far) developing plans or strategies to increase the amount of hybrid learning. The University of Ottawa for instance is aiming for 20% of all sections to be hybrid within five years (which its Board feared was ‘too timid’ a target.) UBC has just started a major development called its flexible learning initiative which aims to radically transform first and second year undergraduate teaching and reach out to new markets. Hybrid learning is a cornerstone of its strategy.
Why is this happening?
The reasons for the move vary a good deal but are often connected:
- a desire to improve the quality of very large first and second year undergraduate teaching in large research universities, which is often delivered mainly through lectures, with relatively little meaningful or ‘deep’ interaction between instructor and at least the majority of students
- lecture capture and ‘flipped’ classes: once a lecture is recorded, the question arises as to why students need to see it live. Flipped classes require the students to watch the recorded lecture first then come to class for discussion or other related activities
- as instructors have increasingly used learning management systems to support their classroom teaching, there is a growing awareness among instructors that students can learn ‘some things’ just as well or better online as in class; thus instructors are more ready for a more systematic move towards hybrid learning
- the need for more flexibility for even young, full-time students, who usually have part-time jobs and hence often have difficulties making a class when it clashes with their work.
Current hybrid models
- flipped classrooms: this is the predominant hybrid model to date. This in fact may not mean any reduction in class time, but class time is spent differently, perhaps in discussion with either the instructor or more often with teaching assistants, reviewing content from the video lectures, or even in some cases working on problem based learning. Online activities include watching recorded video lectures (increasingly in smaller chunks than a continuous 50 minute lecture), chat or formal discusion forums, and online assessment or quizzes. This model is not without its problems. Students sometimes don’t do the online work before coming to class so are not properly prepared. There is a danger of overloading students if the online activities are merely added to their regular activities such as attending class, doing the necessary reading, etc.
- ‘intense’ residency: this can come in a number of forms:
- the Royal Roads University model of one semester being spent on campus (usually in the summer) while the remaining semesters are fully online
- one week or weekend/evening face-to-face sessions for practical hands-on work, such as using labs, while the majority of the course is studied online
- in a very few cases – but where the trend is heading – classroom time is reduced from say three ‘credit’ hours a week of lectures to one or two hours thus allowing more time both for the students to study online and perhaps equally importantly, more time for the instructors to devote to the online teaching and support
- lastly, it is essential to mention the work of the National Center for Academic Transformation, which for nearly 15 years, under the leadership of Carol Twigg, has been working with universities and colleges in the USA to redesign large first and second year classes, to make them more cost-effective. This requires a thorough re-design of the teaching, and has shown encouraging results from the more than 120 redesigns so far undertaken. Much can be learned from this earlier work.
What’s the problem, then?
The main challenge is how to decide what is best done in class, and what online. There is a clear set of best practices and design models for fully online learning, but, other than the NCAT studies, we don’t have good models or at least well-tested models for hybrid learning.
In reviews of the literature, I could find almost no published research on the comparative ‘affordances’ of face-to-face versus online learning. In fact, I received yesterday a copy of a brand new book, called ‘Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age’, by Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe, that contains many excellent chapters on the design of teaching and learning with technology, but there’s nothing on how to decide what should be done face-to-face rather than online.
In fact there is so little written about this that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a stupid question. But then I think of the students I used to see on my way to work on the 99B express bus to UBC, lolling about and falling asleep, or desperately trying to catch up on their reading on the bus, and the question has to be asked: ‘What is the university offering these students on campus that they couldn’t get from studying online?’
I’m sure there are many good answers to this question, but I’m not hearing the discussion. The assumption has generally been, ‘Campus is best,’, but is it, and if so, for what? And what models or design principles can guide us in answering those questions? This was the issue I raised at the UBC instructional design workshop a couple of weeks ago.
So we did a little brainstorming. Here are some of things that were suggested in the very short time available (10 minutes or so):
- foundational knowledge (facts, principles, concepts, ideas, vocabulary, etc.)
- certain kinds of skills such as knowledge management, knowledge navigation, independent learning, creative writing
- some elements of clinical practice (e.g. correct procedures, video demonstrations of equipment being used, patient symptoms)
- public speaking and facilitation skills
- problem solving
- building a closer relationship with/’humanising’ the instructor
- body language cues from the instructor about what is really important to him/her in the course
- practical lab skills/operating equipment
I am sure with more time we would have added substantially to the list, but one thing was apparent. Many things that seem at first sight more appropriate in a face-to-face context can often be done just as well if not better online, e.g. developing critical thinking skills.
Another conclusion was that it was hard to find any general principles that would identify clear differences, and decisions needed to be embedded in the needs of specific subject domains, although there was an acceptance that you have to work harder online to make teaching more personal.
If any readers want to add their own thoughts on this, please do so
An instructional design strategy
There is an instructional design strategy that was used very successfully at the British Open University for designing for the first science courses in the early 1970s, and I also saw a similar strategy more recently being used at the Colorado Community College System to decide on what experiments should be done using remote labs and which by home kits.
The challenge in both cases is to decide which skills that are essential in a subject domain require access to ‘real’ equipment, and which can be developed through reading, observing videos, using simulations or animations, or home kits, so that the time actually spent in a lab (in the case of the Open University, in real labs at other universities in summer schools) is reduced to a minimum, whilst still achieving high academic standards in the subject area.
This means defining in advance the desired learning objectives or outcomes and then working back, using the most effective media at the least cost. What became clear early on is that foundational knowledge or content can usually be handled equally well if not better through text, video or other media, and thus these days online. It is developing skills that presents more challenges. One approach is to break down the learning outcomes as follows (the subject is hematology – the study of blood):
This requires the subject expert (possibly working with an instructional designer) having a deep understanding of the nature of the subject matter and making relatively intuitive decisions based on experience about what is best done online and what in an actual lab. However, without an instructional designer or more exposure to what is already available online (e.g. simulations), the tendency is to underestimate what can be done online. It can also be seen that the mix of face-to-face and online is likely to differ considerably between (and also within) different subject domains, because the required content and skills will be also different.
The principle of equal substitution
Even after a short time in exploring this issue, it becomes clear that many learning outcomes, from an academic perspective, can be equally well achieved either in a face-to-face or online environment. This means that other factors, such as cost, convenience, or the skills and knowledge of the instructor about online learning, the type of students, or the context of the campus, will be stronger determinants of choice than the academic demands of the subject matter.
At the same time, there are likely to be some critical areas where there is a strong academic rationale for students to learn in a face-to-face or hands-on context. This area needs to be researched more carefully, or at least be more theory-based than at present.
What about the campus?
If we accept the principle of equal substitution for many academic purposes, then this brings us back to the student on the bus question. If students can learn most things equally well (and more conveniently) online, what can we offer them on campus that will make the bus journey worthwhile? I believe that this is the real challenge that online learning presents.
It is not just a question of what teaching activities need to be done in a face-to-face class or lab, but the whole cultural and social purpose of a university. Students in many of our large, urban universities have become commuters, coming in just for their lectures, maybe using the learning commons between lectures, getting a bite to eat, then heading home. As we have ‘massified’ our universities, the broader cultural aspects have been lost.
Online and hybrid learning provides a chance to re-think the role and purpose of the whole university campus, as well as what we should be doing in classrooms when students have online learning available any time and anywhere. Of course we could just close up shop and move everything online (and save a great deal of money), but we should at least explore what would be lost before doing that.
Your homework (to be done online)
I’d really be interested in your thoughts on the following questions:
- What academic activities really need to be done face-to-face/on campus – and why?
- Are there underlying principles or theory that could help us make such a distinction?
- Do we need to re-think the campus experience? If so how? Or should we just get rid of the campus for most academic areas?
Beetham, H. and Sharpe, R. (2013) Rethinking Pedagogy for Digital Age: Designing for 21st century learning, 2nd edition London/New York: Routledge