Could hybrid learning offer a way out of lockdown?

As universities balance the push to re-open with the need to keep staff and students safe, Jisc subject specialist Chris Thomson looks to a mixed participation model of online and face-to-face engagement

What does the future hold for UK undergraduates? The University of Bolton’s vice chancellor has announced the re-opening of its campus in September, describing the extensive measures required to keep students safe from COVID-19. Since then, there have been several more news stories about universities taking similar approaches and changing the shape of teaching and learning accordingly. But many prospective students say they would rather defer entry than take a purely online course. So, how can institutions deliver learning and teaching for all when physical presence isn’t universally possible?

Hybrid or ‘hyflex’ learning

A model in which, at any one time, some learners may engage in activities while physically present, while others are engaging remotely, could offer a solution. This is not a new model. In fact, it has been employed successfully for a number of years in a range of settings. EDUCAUSE produced a paper, referring to it as ‘hyflex’ learning (hybrid-flexible), as early as 2010, and Coventry University’s PHONAR programme was taught both to a campus-based cohort and a community of learners that engaged with it as an open course. Similarly, the University of Mary Washington in the US has been running its digital storytelling programme for many years with a hyflex model. In both cases, there is interaction between students.

How it works

US maths professor Robert Talbert has provided some useful analysis on detailed aspects of the model, following a 2019 paper by Benjamin Malczyk. Overall, these are the key features of hybrid learning:

  • For any course, there are two modes of engagement; a physically present mode and a remote mode.
  • Learners who are engaging in each of the two modes also interact with each other. They are not separate cohorts but part of the same learning community.
  • Learners can take a flexible approach, engaging in either mode as suits their needs or the environmental conditions.
  • Some activities may require all learners to engage online – for example, certain group activities or project work.
  • Some ‘live’ events facilitate engagement using both modes – for example, seminars and lectures. 

Reflecting on personal experience

From 2009 to 2013, I took a part-time masters’ in technology-enhanced learning, innovation and change (TELIC) at Sheffield Hallam University. This course employed a mixed participation model, with some learners physically on campus, while others joined virtually.

When I started the course, I was living in Sheffield and able to attend the fortnightly three-hour ‘live’ seminar sessions on campus. These were usually discussion sessions with about half a dozen people in the room. We were joined by roughly the same number of learners via video conference.

Beyond these sessions, the whole cohort engaged with online tools such as e-portfolios, wikis, Skype, online library content and the like for research, collaborative activities and assessment.

My situation changed a year into the course when I moved jobs and location. I was still able to fully participate, but via the online mode of engagement. This required a shift in mindset and a bit of settling in, but it didn’t negatively affect my experience or impact on my learning outcomes.

Community matters

My TELIC course was about co-creating knowledge, not just consuming it. Therefore, all the activities and spaces sought to foster a sense of community and equality between peers and with the teaching staff. Things that helped towards this were:

  • Ungraded assessments with a focus on detailed, qualitative feedback rather than differentiated attainment levels.
  • Collaborative projects – mostly small-group work.
  • UK and international representation – partnering with international institutions and welcoming international students.
  • Peer assessment, with students reviewing each other’s work.
  • Linking to a wider community of past cohorts.
  • A sense of play, creating opportunities for learners to engage informally online.

Lessons learned

The hybrid approach isn’t a magic bullet, and universities considering it have a lot to think about. How can teachers create a sense of community across two different modes of engagement? How can they design a curriculum with two modes that are separate but interact? How do the experiences differ for physically present and digitally present learners?  How is it possible to accommodate a learner switching between the two? And how can institutions create parity of esteem, rather than a perceived ‘premium’ and ‘budget’ mode? Most importantly, how can institutions provide the resources for this? Staff will need support at a time when they are already experiencing significant stress.

The challenges are many and may be hard to advocate. This is, after all, a less traditional, unconventional approach. But these are not normal times, and as institutions start to look at a return to face-to-face teaching, hyflex may well be a format worth considering.

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