Chief Information Officer, Southern Methodist University
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many schools to implement hybrid classroom technology capable of serving both in-person and remote students in a hurry. These schools learned valuable lessons from the experience that may shape the future of higher education, but this is not without pitfalls.
In the 1960s, the Federal Communications Commission created the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS), which ushered in the modern era of hybrid education. Hybrid education refers to educational practices that are a combination of in-person instruction and synchronous remote learning. The ITFS allowed faculty to teach in one room and broadcast via microwave TV to other rooms within the radius of the transmitter.
Today’s technology allows for more interactivity over the internet at lower cost, but the result is the same — an instructor is in one location, and there are students in multiple other locations all contributing to the class. The biggest difference between then and now is that participation in the 1960s TV courses was voluntary, while COVID-19 made hybrid learning mandatory for students and instructors alike. This difference can change your opinion of the effectiveness of the hybrid modality.
The new normal
Our campus made the decision to have in-person instruction for fall 2020, as well as a hybrid approach with some students on campus and others remote. The semester began with 250 newly upgraded hybrid classrooms where we added additional audio and video devices, electronic whiteboards, and document cameras. The goal was for each instructor to teach with in-person students while simultaneously using Zoom to teach to remote students, with the quality of the video and audio broadcast being of utmost importance.
Before the start of the semester, we provided hundreds of one-on-one training and consultation sessions to help faculty prepare for hybrid instruction. In-person orientation sessions let faculty test drive the classrooms before the first day of class, and we were able to fix problems before the students arrived in the classrooms. After just a few days, we were already moving equipment because each discipline has a unique technological need to ensure the highest quality experience for the remote students.
Hybrid test taking introduced issues of fairness between each course’s in-person and remote students. Most agreed that the remote students had an advantage because of that group’s easy access to additional materials during an exam without the instructor knowing. For that reason, we asked faculty to deliver all exams online so that every student had the same experience and no particular advantage. However, rapid implementation of fully online testing also increased student anxiety, because if there was a technology problem during an exam, getting help during an active test from either faculty or IT proved extremely difficult.
From an administrative perspective, we learned to come together to acquire, analyze, and make decisions with data much faster. Decisions were made in real time and required quick access to data. Whether with local, national, or campus data, we were challenged to aggregate various data sets in ways that allowed the university leadership to make decisions quickly. We also continually reminded ourselves to not go so fast as to neglect important data validation tasks like assessing the overall complexity of any given request before deciding to do the work. While faculty have shown that they can teach remotely, students have been clear that the on-campus experience is their main priority. Balancing the different viewpoints of the students, the faculty, and the administration requires attention and finesse.
Students provided helpful feedback on the hybrid semesters. They liked pre-recorded lectures so that they can view materials both before and after class. They did not like when the pre-recorded lectures took the place of live discussion. Students appreciate that all classes now use the campus learning management system, and they have appealed to campus leadership that this use continues beyond the pandemic.
When asked about overall effectiveness of each teaching modality, students cited engagement to be the best when attending in-person classes. This was followed by fully online, entirely synchronous classes due to the simplicity. Next down the list in satisfaction was the hybrid class, not because it was a poor experience, but because of the overall complexity to course delivery. In the very last place was the fully asynchronous, fully online course featuring no live interaction with either on-campus classrooms or remote Zoom discussion. When too much of a course is done without face-to-face interaction or Zoom meetings, the student engagement level dropped off.