On day one of our hybrid program, a group of 20 students filed into a classroom on campus. Their professor was already there. But what made this class different is they were also joined by a group of 20 additional students who were participating online, from various locations around the globe. And I was there monitoring the class, anxious to see how it would all turn out.
The faculty called out the name of the first student on his roster, an online student. Without missing a beat, the student gave a little of her background and what she wanted to learn in the course. The student was originally from Guyana, where the faculty had lived, which resulted in a natural sidebar between the two. Except in this case, the faculty was talking to the student’s face on the projector screen, and the student was in her living room in New York. About 90 seconds had passed, and I breathed a sigh of initial relief.
Later in the course, a student sitting in class interrupted one of his online classmates with a question. Another student even introduced her dog to class, which everyone got a kick out of. The class ended two hours later after introductions were over and the faculty gave a short lecture. I was ecstatic, because I realized that this experience was the closest we’d come to bridging the classroom experience for online and on-campus students.
For several terms, my team and I have been working with St. George’s University to deliver online courses as a part of their public health program. The course content was hosted in our Open EdX LMS and the lectures were given live via web conferencing software. In a typical week, students would spend time reading chapters, watching videos, and then discussing those materials in the forums. Twice per week, they met for a live lecture and discussion. And we’ve spent a lot of time refining that experience to enhance the strengths of online courses and accommodate some of the weaknesses. What we have not tried to do is recreate the brick-and-mortar experience. Online classes are different, and they require a different set of rules to run them, or so I had rationalized.
Over the past few months, however, our directives have changed and required us to rethink the way we deliver our online courses. For the summer term, we decided to allow the students the choice to attend classes as an online student orattend on campus. But we could not expand the number of faculty or their hours. We had to teach both cohorts simultaneously.
The course materials would still be hosted on our Open EdX LMS, and both cohorts would receive the exact same experience of accessing their course materials via the course LMS. But the lynchpin of the experience–and the riskiest component–would be the hybrid lectures. We needed to develop an experience that would allow online and in-person students to participate in a live class lecture without sacrificing too much for either cohort. It needed to accommodate the standard lecture as well as group presentations, discussions, and virtual lecturers. And we had two months and less than $10,000 to do it.
- Faculty – Faculty are most comfortable in their natural habitat–standing in front of their brick-and-mortar classroom. One of our significant challenges was finding a way to give faculty that brick-and-mortar setting without letting them forget about the students online. It was just too easy to walk away from the computer, start calling on the hands that are raised in class, and leave the online students struggling for attention.
- Video – We had been using a particular web conferencing vendor that limited the number of students in an online lecture who could show their faces. In a class of 30, if only 6 students can turn on their webcam, no one turns on their webcam. An online population that was “faceless” would not only be a de-motivator for the faculty but it also would decrease student participation.
- Audio – The online cohort was easy. They would all have their computers with microphones. For students on campus, they’d all need a chance to speak and be heard, and we didn’t have the budget to give everyone a microphone.
- Wi-Fi – The risks here were two-fold. We have always struggled with consistent, reliable internet for students who are on campus. The demands on campus bandwidth are huge today and SGU’s location in Grenada compounds this problem; a building outage in the location of our hybrid studio has the potential to knock out the entire class, not just a few students.
- The Room – We dedicated a small room to serve as our Hybrid Lecture Room. It had previously served as a room for department meetings and it is about 15’ x 20’.
- The Software – We switched to Zoom Conferencing Software, which has been a great experience for us so far. It allows us to show up to 50 faces at a time, which accommodates all of our online cohorts.
- The Video – For online students, this is easy. They see the presentation materials being shared and the face of the presenter and some classmates. For in-class students, we gave them a similar view on a projector screen. They are able to see the presentation on the projector and the face of the active speaker. It’s a little sci-fi to see your online classmate’s four foot tall face on the projector screen, but conversation is actually quite natural.
- The TA Moderator – We knew that we couldn’t ask the faculty to monitor their computer screen for online student activity and the budget was not there to add a TV screen to the back of the room showing online activity. So we employed the help of the class Teaching Assistant. The Class TA serves as liaison between the online class and the faculty. If an online student raises their hand or types a response in chat, the TA will alert the faculty.
- Audio – We wrestled for a long time with audio, and spent a lot of our budget getting different bluetooth, directional, and lapel mics in our classroom. In the end, we found that a Blue Yeti placed front and center was intelligent and clear enough to pick up the voice of the person speaking.
- Faculty Love the Classroom – It was immediately apparent that faculty teach better in their natural environment. We’ve seen faculty eventually grow accustomed to moderating a class from behind their computer, but the acclimation process was nearly instant for all four classes when the faculty were behind the podium instead.
- Faculty Love Faces – Faculty seeing the faces of their students was the most fundamental change from our last iteration of classes. We’d been hearing this from faculty for several months and this was the first time we got to really enable all our online students to see and be seen. It makes a huge difference. It matters very little that a student is on the screen instead of in a desk, so long as the faculty can see their expression.
- Simpler Audio is Better – Originally, we had designed a system that included faculty headset mics and a classroom mic, with manual switching between the two. During our testing, it became clear that the classroom mic could pick up both audio sources clearly. That eliminated the need for switching at all! Not only did it simplify the role of the TA, but it allows for these “town hall” like discussions and debates with multiple people talking and interrupting. This is the first time I’ve seen that done well in an online setting.
- The Best EdTech Tool Doesn’t Feel Like a Tool – Over the last iterations of our online courses we’ve researched a lot of Web Conferencing and other Education Technology tools. Many of them have been great ideas, but most faculty are loathe to try new tools. And more importantly, even excellent new tools are only meant to complement the class experience. I have seen nothing yet that replaces that experience. This is the closest we’ve come to recreating the classroom feel right down to those “town hall” debates. And the strength lies in the fact that it doesn’t feel like a tool at all. The TA has some technical responsibilities and we are currently keeping a technical moderator in each class to deal with issues such as lag. But the faculty and students are largely unaffected. To them, this hybrid class feels like any other class.
Taking this forward
It’s a wonderful thing when a first iteration of an idea works well. That said, this is still the first iteration. Here are a few of the improvements that we’ll be adding in future iterations:
- Fewer Blind Spot – Right now, online students don’t have a great view of their on-site classmates. Adding another camera turned towards the faces of the students in-class will improve the experience.
- Multiple Audio Inputs – The room we are working with is small. It fits about 20 people. The centrally-placed mic can hear the students in the far corner of the room, but if we doubled the size of the room then we wouldn’t expect one mic to handle that. To improve the current room and scale up, we’ll need to find a way to incorporate multiple mics without introducing an echo.
- Easier Interactions Between Faculty and Online Students – The TA works excellently as a liaison between the faculty and their online students. But a large screen (or screens) in the back of the room that would alert the faculty to raised hands and allow them to see a student’s face without turning would reduce or eliminate the need for a TA to stand between the two.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide where the fundamental differences are between online and in-person courses, and then how to address each one with a combination of course design, technology and faculty support. To this point, I’ve decided that online is just different. Before this hybrid approach, faculty were required to act a little more like TV moderators. Students had to get used to working behind online tools like chat forums or VOIP (just like so many people do “in the real world”). All of this works because online also allows students to learn at their own pace, devote more time to informed discussion, and provide mediums for “quieter” students to be heard.
But this hybrid approach is exciting. It feels like we’re expanding the strengths of an online course with the natural feel of an in-person classroom. We’ll run this program for seven more weeks. We’ll collect feedback from all the parties, both qualitative and quantitative. Then we’ll build out our second iteration.
The timing for this looks right. Colleges campuses are continuing to expand, yet remain short of classroom space for students. Students, for their part, have more responsibilities than ever and several are opting for cheaper or hybrid approaches to a traditional degree. Universities, faculty, and students alike can benefit from the flexibility of being able to attend a lecture from any connected location. Many in the Education Technology space are trying to achieve an experience that enables more people to learn and sacrifices less of the in-person benefits. Hybrid courses are a significant step in that direction.
Also, many thanks to the people and companies that helped make this happen. Mostly Donna Walker, Jonathan Modica, and Dr. Satesh Bidaisee. I have no affiliation or marketing agreement with any of the following companies except for the fact that they are an integral part of the Hybrid Room, and I recommend them to anyone trying to build something similar: Zoom Web Conferencing, Equil Pen,Blue Yeti.