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
  • consensus-building
  • decision-making
  • 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
Brainstorming at UBC: (Photo: Gabriel Lascu)

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.

Fall at UBC with the old library at the back (Photo: Tony Bates)

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:

  1. What academic activities really need to be done face-to-face/on campus – and why?
  2. Are there underlying principles or theory that could help us make such a distinction?
  3. 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


  1. Thanks for this Tony. To add to the equation, what is best on campus and what best online would also differ according to subject. Was there any discussion of funding support to bring students, teachers, and professors up to date on the new technology?

    • Hi, Linda
      Thanks for your comment. No, we didn’t in the workshop discuss tech and instructional support, perhaps because UBC is an exception and provides substantial support to faculty (perhaps less so for students) in using technology for teaching and learning. However, I’ve been to many universities where this support is still way inadequate.

  2. Great reflection thanks Tony.

    Response to Q1.
    IMHO some learning outcomes are developed a better synchronously initially ( e.g.collaboration, persuasion, negotiation and leadership) and then subsequently developed asynchronously. Maybe some fine tuning of psychomotor skills fall into this category as well.I think these are all best developed synchronously because immediate feedback is more critical to development. With connectivity, which can also include bandwidth good synchronous video to observe non-verbal cues, this can be done online. because of these connectivity issues, F2F is more reliable probably at this time. Trust (between students and with teachers)is also a critical ingredient that helps development and initial meetings face-to-face can often allow this to be built up more quickly. IMHO that is why it is best for project teams to start with a face-to-face meeting. And this is especially important when different cultural backgrounds of learners (and teachers) are involved. in formal learning is also more possible face-to-face because of the serendipitous teachable moments, such as conversations that occur as teachers and learners go to and from a class. once developed initially synchronously, then some aspects of these capabilities or learning outcomes can be refined to asynchronous contexts. For example, collaboration schools across cultural teams to have to work in different time zones.

    Response to Q3
    Also IMHO I think we will always need university campuses. They may change what their main service or purpose is over time but we will still need them. Students develop great networks through shared experiences that they can invest in, and draw on, for a lifetime ahead. trust building through shared formal and informal experiences, in and out of the classroom, do this. ( I’m sure that’s why a concert or football game means so much more when shared live.) Undergraduate probably prefer (and afford) more of the face-to-face on campus because they are on average less mature learners and less self disciplined. Of course many are mature learners and self-disciplined. Younger students want other sorts of outcomes from their campus experience and may not have the sorts of commitments and older students have that are competing priorities. Postgraduate coursework students seeking to develop finely tuned outcomes like persuasion, leadership and and negotiation, may be best to develop these face-to-face with other students and their teacher/coach. These capabilities may be best developed in non-camp campus face-to-face contexts, such as the site of the authentic problem that they are solving collaboratively. Our Global Executive MBA is an example of the latter.

    • Thanks for your very thoughtful comments, Mark.

      Your comments about different cultural backgrounds is very much on the ball. However, I have taught online courses where up to 35% of the students were from outside Canada, from more than 30 different countries. Cultural differences certainly impacted on the teaching, and special effort had to be made to accomodate to cultural issues, but it can be handled well in an online environment. In fact, for these students, online learning would have been the only way to access such courses, which were very specialized.

  3. Tony, just to flip your question a bit: how would your F2F workshop have differed if it had been held online? Would you and the participants have reached similar conclusions? Do you think you would have had the same intensity and focus?

    In your closing paragraph you note that “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.” I think that’s the nub of the matter. As soon as we realize that learning can happening in online, F2F, and hybrid spaces, then the question is not only what is the whole campus experience about, but what’s the intents and purposes of education itself? We have to move, it seems, beyond higher and hire education to something else.

    I. You could argue, as Mark does, that F2F, is a good starting point for students to meet each other and develop rapport as part of a hybrid learning environment, but community building, if that’s what we want to call it, can also happen online and move to a F2F experience. Consider Meetup, and hybrid courses where students meet first online and then get together in a physical classroom. If a campus has faculty with particular expertise, specific resources, facilities, campus organizations, projects, events, etc., then that might warrant using the campus.

    2. If we consider online and F2F as learning spaces, then the question might be if we have a particular assignment, program, etc., which “space” helps maximize the learning experience, develops community, student engagement, etc., etc.?

    3. Boston Architecture College offers a unique distance Master of Architecture degree. It’s a low residency program in which students, who already have jobs at design firms around the country, work on their projects online, and then once a semester they come to Boston for an intense week-long studio and residency. Perhaps it’s the very nature of “design thinking” learning, but this model provides a tremendous opportunity for collaboration, skill building, critical thinking, and overall student engagement and faculty mentoring. I think that their hybrid model is even more powerful than the on-the-ground Master’s degree as students can connect and share design work online, which culminates each semester in their on-campus residency. All to say, that I think this model (I’m prejudiced–I was the former VP of online learning) has figured out how to best use each learning environment to its advantage.

    • Thanks for this comment, Howard.
      Your ‘flipped’ question is an interesting one. I think at an exploratory stage, for brainstorming, etc., a face-to-face environment was necessary, but after that the conversation could easily have been continued and elaborated online
      I know a lot of research was done by telephone companies when video-conferencing first became popular. The aim was to identify what kinds of meetings or topics were best done face-to-face, and which by video-conferencing. In general it was found that video-conferencing is better for ‘low emotional’ meetings, where straight information is being shared or where rationality and logic were likely to result in decision-making, whereas ‘high emotional’ topics are best handled in a face-to-face context (but presumably without weapons). Thus some forms of decision-making could be handled remotely, but others couldn’t. Now I can’t find that research, so if anyone can direct me to it I’d be really grateful.
      Your Boston Architecture example also suggests there is probably a lot of research already done around space planning in buildings that could throw some light on the issue of what works best in a face-to-face environment and what doesn’t. The whole recent discussion around tele-commmuting also makes me think some research must have been done in this area that would be helpful (although it’s ironic that Yahoo, an online company, would ban tele-commuting – perhaps they know something that we don’t!)
      All this is to emphasise that we need more evidence-based research on the differences between studying online and face-to-face; and if that research already exists we need to dig it up. At the same time, it might be helpful to start from the law of equal substitution – that in most cases it doesn’t matter – then establish evidence-based examples of where it does.

      • Hi Tony, not to muddle your observation about “high/low” emotional meetings since I agree with it, but I have direct experience which contradicts the notion.

        I used to teach a course on “Contemporary Spiritual Writing,” which was primarily a discussion about spiritual issues as reflected in contemporary articles, journals, etc. The class was online, 100% asynchronous, and what was remarkable about the eight week experience (a summer course) was the degree of participation and intellectual and emotional commitment of the students. As I recall we had about 18 students, and the approach was fairly straightforward. The course was set up around “themes,e.g., spiritual journey, life transitions, etc. I set up the assignments, often, with a short presentation– a few pages of text and images, videos, etc. and asked students to read relevant articles in our anthologies. Students were divided into groups and expected to work through questions about readings as a team and then pose a team response and question to the class discussion board. Actually a pretty traditional approach. (They also kept a variety of journals.)

        What was remarkable, though, was the work on the group level. Students quickly bonded and invested themselves in the conversations as they wrangled with some pretty deep issues. Teams would post summaries of their conversation which included an “answer” to the question prompt, and then they would be a discussion free- for-all on the open class forum comparing/analyzing the summaries from the various groups.

        Maybe it was because the students were self-selected,and they made emotional/spiritual connections with life-death matters, but there was a resonance with the subject and a sense of engagement, which I rarely experienced in a F2F class. Students spoke freely about their spiritual journey and struggle, and there was an overriding civility and compassion that to my mind was amazing. Not to go on about this, but it ranks as one of the best teaching experiences I’ve ever had, and I’d say the students found it transformational.

        Certainly this isn’t unique to me–other instructors have had similar experiences. I guess we’re still left with your question about needing research to better understand how we pick our learning spaces for a hybrid course.

        One last note: later that summer as I was walking by the campus bookstore someone called out my name. It turned out to be one of the students from that class. She had recognized me because I had created an introductory video, but I didn’t recognize her since I didn’t require students to post pictures of themselves. How ironic, had she not stopped me (and we had a most wonderful conversation which picked up where we left off in class online) I would have walked by one of my students from that class.

        • Very nice story, Howard.
          Yes, I guess that sums up my law of equal substitution – it all depends on the context. A good teacher and well intentioned students can carry a class, no matter the medium (another one of my ‘laws!)

  4. Hi Tony,
    Thanks for sharing your discussion of design models of hybrid/blended learning. Important considerations of whether the learning will take place face-to-face or online are the resources available for instructional design and the “teacher presence” effort to be expended. While resources may be saved in less use of facilities for f-t-f teaching/learning, extra efforts generally are required to design and deliver online. Some faculty and students will naturally be attracted to the face-to-face environment because of their comfort level with the environment and the decreased chances for technology glitches.

    • Good comments, Denise.
      I agree: I think ‘non-academic’ or non-content issues, such as availability of support, cost, student needs, and methods of working to design, develop and deliver teaching are all likely to be stronger determinants of when to go online and when to teach face-to-face than academic objectives, although there will always be some exceptions to the law of equal substitution.

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