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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays.

From: Beth McMurtrie

Subject: Teaching: Making Hybrid Teaching Work for You

You’re reading the latest issue of Teaching, a weekly newsletter from a team of Chronicle journalists. Sign up here to get it in your inbox on Thursdays.

This week:

  • Experts answer your questions on effective hybrid teaching.
  • One faculty member shares his experience doing a test run in a hybrid classroom.
  • I ask for your suggestions on useful research about the practice and delivery of hybrid teaching.

Your Questions around Hybrid Teaching Answered, Part I

Covid-19 has upended virtually every facet of campus life, starting with the classroom. This fall many colleges are putting in place hybrid teaching strategies, in which some students will attend class, sitting far apart and wearing masks, while the rest will beam in remotely, via Zoom or some other conferencing technology.

For instructors, this poses both pedagogical and logistical challenges, which I wrote about recently in this article and this newsletter post. I also asked readers to tell me what questions they have about teaching in a hybrid format. You have quite a few, it turns out.

So, once again, I turned for answers to Jenae Cohn, an academic-technology specialist for the program in writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, and Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. This week and next I’ll share your questions and their answers on how to address some of the trickier aspects of hybrid teaching. As these discussions show, while hybrid teaching requires an adjustment, there are ways to make it work.

Learning names when wearing masks: “I have a difficult enough time learning students' names; how will I do that with all students wearing masks?” asks Karen Loeb, an adjunct instructor at Westfield State University, in Massachusetts, who teaches a course called “Principles of Sociology.“ “Have you heard of any creative ways of students identifying themselves to facilitate learning names?”

Cohn’s response: I would encourage you to set up a discussion forum in your learning-management system to create space for introductions. You can call it something like “Introduction Forum,” where you have students share a little bit about themselves and post a picture or two of themselves, perhaps even one with a photo of them wearing a mask! It might not necessarily help you identify students when they come to class in person, but it’ll at least give you some photos of faces to put to names so you can study up a bit before you meet in-person.

If you’re having students coming to class face-to-face and wearing masks, I’d suggest an activity where you have students make name tags that they can put on the tables/desks in front of them. In addition to having students write down their names, I also often ask students to write down their pronouns and to draw a picture of something that represents a favorite interest or hobby. If you have a large class, you can ask students to share their name tags and talk about what they drew. If you have a small class, you can take a minute on the first day to have everyone go around the room and explain what they drew on their name tag and why it’s meaningful to them. If you can encourage students to bring their name tags to subsequent class sessions, that can queue your (and their!) memories.

Hearing one another when classroom microphones are limited. Stephen T. Mennemeyer, a professor emeritus in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, asked about this challenge. He has been teaching an online course in statistical modeling and simulation for a few years, which students can attend remotely, or attend in person as the “live audience,” or watch the recorded session later.

“The live-log-in and live-audience students can ask real-time questions that can clarify my presentation, which usually involves showing how to do certain computations using Excel or other software,” Mennemeyer writes. “I have done this using GoToMeeting and Zoom along with Canvas in different years, depending on whatever software my university subscribes to.

“One problem with this arrangement is that questions from students in the live classroom are not always heard in the recorded session or by the live online attendees. My awkward solution to this problem is to have the live-audience students also log in to the Zoom session and mute their microphones to prevent feedback echo. When a live-audience student has a question, I mute my microphone and have the student unmute their mike so that their question can be heard. We need to use a lot of hand signals to assure that only one mike in the classroom is unmuted, and that slows down any back-and-forth discussion. Ideally, I would like to create a live-audience “group” in Zoom that would eliminate feedback echo and/or instantly mute/unmute in favor of whoever is speaking. Is this possible with any of the available technologies?”

Cohn’s response: Honestly, I think what this reader has suggested — while clunky — is the best available solution I’m aware of. If this reader has some available funds, there are external microphones one can purchase to connect up with a Zoom webinar, and these microphones can be passed around a room for audience members to use. This support article from Zoom details some possible hybrid setups with in-person instruction and the inclusion of a Catchbox microphone (i.e., a microphone that can be passed around the room). I suspect some students might be uncomfortable with sharing surfaces right now, so I might suggest sticking with students’ individual machines. I might encourage heavier use of the text-based chat, too, as a dialogue stream for students, even if they are there in person. If an in-person audience member has a question, they could record it in the text chat so that there isn’t so much time spent with the logistics on muting and unmuting the mic.

Bruff’s response: When I had the chance to try out this kind of hybrid and physically distanced teaching in a classroom the other week, the biggest logistical challenge was making sure that the remote students could hear the in-person students. In one classroom with a ceiling-mounted microphone (connected to my Zoom session, thanks to our talented IT staff), this wasn’t hard; most of the students in the room could be heard by the remote students, even through masks. In another classroom, where I was just using my laptop, without an external microphone, it was harder to hear students on the Zoom call. The first row of students were picked up well enough by my laptop mic, but beyond that the remote students couldn’t hear the in-person students.

I see two strategies for dealing with this:

Option 1. Having students in the room also join the Zoom call and go through the dance of muting and unmuting microphones and speakers as the reader outlined. This takes what is a zero-step process (asking a student to share a question or comment with the class) into a multiple-step process, but it is workable, as I found out during my demo. It’s not ideal, but we’re living in a less than ideal world right now.

Option 2: Make use of a text chat to enhance communication between the two groups of students. Instructors have some choices here. You could ask the in-room student to share their comment out loud, while another student or a TA takes notes on their comment in the text chat for the benefit of the remote students. Or you could ask the in-person student to make their comment in the text chat, and appoint someone, perhaps a student or a TA, as the “voice of the chat.” Their job is to share, out loud, important comments or questions from the text chat. Given the audio challenges, it might be helpful if the voice of the chat is one of the remote students, or someone prepared to do that microphone dance.

One note on text-chat options: If the students in the room are also on Zoom (or whatever videoconferencing tool you’re using), you could use the built-in text chat. Or you could use a second tool that would enable chat between class sessions, like GroupMe or Microsoft Teams or Slack or Discord. These tools have the added advantages of facilitating communication outside of class and of providing a way to build more social presence into a course.

Next week, we’ll address questions on how hybrid learning works with students who don’t have laptops in the classroom, and how to do “pair-share” exercises in large-enrollment classes. If you have other questions, drop me a line at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com and I may be able to provide answers in a future newsletter.

Lessons From a Hybrid-Teaching Test Run

As Derek Bruff mentioned above, he tried out some hybrid teaching strategies recently, with other faculty members acting as his students. I asked him to describe some of his findings. His biggest challenge, as he noted above, was making sure everyone could hear one another.

Here are a couple of other takeaways:

The active-learning strategies I had planned generally worked. Live polling (using Zoom’s built-in polling feature) worked with both in-room and remote students. The text chat was useful, as long as I had someone to play the 'voice of the chat'; I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to follow the chat myself. And the group-work activity, in which students discussed questions in small groups and reported their answers via a shared Google Sheet, worked very well. In-person students could discuss the question in pairs, and remote students used Zoom breakout rooms. I could monitor the groups’ progress on the Google Sheet as they recorded their answers. The only hiccup was that the in-person students were also logged into Zoom, so when I sent everyone to breakout rooms randomly, one room ended up having just one remote student in it. It took me a minute to realize she was all alone and to reassign her to another breakout room.

“One strategy I didn’t try, but would like to, is having each of the in-person students FaceTime or Zoom one of the remote students for some quick pair work. Each pair would have one in-person student and one remote student, with the in-person students using earbuds or headphones to deal with noise issues in the room. I don’t know how practical this would be, but if it worked, it would allow for something close to the 'turn to your neighbor and discuss' activity.

“Finally, perhaps my biggest takeaway was that most everything an instructor needs to do in a hybrid and physically distanced classroom is going to take more time and mental effort. There’s a new workflow to even the simplest of teaching activities, and the learning curve for that workflow will be different for each instructor. I’ve already been using a lot of technology in my teaching (presentation software, polling software, videos, podcasts), so I was able to pick up the new workflow fairly easily. By the third classroom demo of the day, I was already feeling pretty confident about what would work and what wouldn’t. But teaching in these contexts will take some practice, and will require some faculty to learn some new skills. I would be frank with my students about this and invite them to help me find ways to make the learning environment as effective as it can be.”

Your Go-To Articles on Hybrid Teaching

Bradley Hobbs, a clinical professor of economics at Clemson University, wrote in with a request. He’s looking for academic articles on the delivery and effectiveness of hybrid teaching. I’m guessing that he’s in the same position as a lot of Chronicle readers: He knows the pedagogy of his field well, he says, but is not an expert on technology. “I am really earnest about making Fall 2020 ‘work,’” Hobbs writes.

If you have any recommended reading, drop me a note at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com and I may share it in a forthcoming newsletter.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

—Beth

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