Test Drive a Hybrid College Course

Jason Fertig

My Aikido practice has helped me learn not to fight head-on against powerful forces that I cannot stop. That is never truer than in the case of my forays into distance education.

For all the traditionalists who despise the popularity of online courses, I firmly acknowledge the many limitations of distance education. In my experience, there is a definite percentage of students who underestimate the workload of distance courses and then proceed to perform extremely poorly; compared to my face-to-face courses, I have failed many more students in online courses. In addition, most of my attempts to mimic the pedagogy of live courses over online media have failed dismally. Virtual chat sessions with more than five students became cumbersome to manage because of the pacing of comments. Discussion boards seemed like a good idea, but after posting a few topics per week for a class of 20+ students, I wound up with over 100 essay-type deliverables per week.   Additionally, given the lack of face-time with students, I have to check my outgoing personality because lighthearted comments are easily misinterpreted over online communication.

But while teaching a class with minimal face time with students is not my preferred form of teaching, I still choose to teach one online course on management history each semester because I learned to navigate the rough waters and teach effectively online.   More importantly, my comfort with distance education pedagogy has improved the delivery of my live courses. Allow me to explain this further.

Across a given university, a student is likely to find standardized options for class meeting times. These options normally divide three hours of student-professor contact into 1-3 weekly meetings of 50-150 minutes. Yet, this one-size-fits-all scheduling approach is not conducive to good teaching for all subjects.

The expectation that a course that requires immersion (e.g. a foreign language) or extensive practice (e.g. calculus) should be scheduled for the same contact hours as one that requires longer assigned readings is a recipe for poor teaching. In my career, I have struggled through courses like Organizational Behavior, Human Resource Management, or Management History when they were composed of 30-60 students, 50-minute class periods, and three meetings per week because the expectation of frequent meetings made it difficult to assign long readings (e.g. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or Man’s Search for Meaning) between class periods.

Thus, such high-school-style class scheduling has contributed to professors shunning more reading in favor of utilizing “experiential learning” by placing more emphasis on what takes place in the classroom as opposed to the preparation that takes place out of it. Unfortunately, without adequate preparation (reading a case study, etc.), experiential learning can entertain students, but it often does not teach anything. Students are studying less and less, and many students readily admit to not reading outside of school. No pedagogy aside from a strict admission screening will produce an ideal classroom of motivated students. Given the hand that we face in higher education, creative pedagogy that borrows from distance education can cultivate more efficient and effective use of contact hours.

I have utilized a hybrid design in my courses over the past year that has greatly enhanced my effectiveness in the classroom. Hybrid courses (or blended learning) involve moving a component of a course online in exchange for reduced contact hours. For example:

Longer readings and reaction papers are assigned in place of one class meeting. The professor spends the allotted class time grading and students spend that time working instead of both parties possibly just “going through the motions.”

A course scheduled for twice per week meets once per week to discuss a case and the other class period is replaced with an online lecture instead of a face-to-face one.

In my 30-student, 50-minute, three times a week Human Behavior course, rather than having the entire class meet with me for each class period, I modified the class structure to mimic a lecture/recitation format. In this class, one day is dedicated to a face-to-face or online lecture and the other two days involve “breakout sessions” where I meet with half of the class. Weekly papers are due for each student, so we exchange class time for more out-of-class work. The breakout session focuses on reviewing the students’ papers, and the smaller size allows for a richer discussion.

At face value, traditionalists may sense that my teaching is less effective given the reduced amount of time that students are in class. At times, I have had to defend myself when my superiors learn of my unique method. Yet, my response to critics is that while the numbers in class are fewer, each student gets more individual attention from me. When faced with larger class sizes, (whether right or wrong) many educators assign group assignments as a way to cut down on the amount of deliverables. Why not forgo group assignments altogether and try something different? The difference between 25-40 students vs. 10-20 students is night and day, even if it does not look that way on paper. Additionally, given that I deal with many “non-traditional students,” providing more time out of class allows me to assign longer readings and more papers, while minimizing the complaints of a large workload encroaching upon their “hectic schedules.” Again, why fight a battle when there is a better option?

My pedagogy may not work for everyone, but I am less concerned with advocating that others mimic my methods as I am with advocating the use of hybrid courses to restore some rigor back into the classroom. We should not limit the idea of online education to a system in which all content gets moved out of the classroom. Why make this issue an all or nothing proposition?    There are certainly flaws with hybrid course design, but there is no perfect system – the best is the enemy of the better. When faced with today’s expanding course enrollments and unmotivated students, there are options to improve the education experience for all stakeholders. Why not take the hybrid out for a spin? It may ride better than you think.

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