This week:

  • I dive into the challenge of defining hybrid teaching.
  • I point you to a discussion of alternatives to exams in STEM courses.
  • I share some stories and essays on teaching you may have missed.

Hybrid Confusion

Why is it so hard to define a hybrid class? Or, rather, why is it so hard for colleges to describe it in a course catalog? That was the question that popped into my mind after seeing this chart, tweeted out recently by Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

mcclure2.png

That’s … a lot. Eleven different course-delivery options, to be exact.

McClure noted that the designations were devised at the request of the faculty, and were meant to give students a better understanding of what they were signing up for. Certainly, as we now know, there are many ways to design a hybrid course. Maybe you choose to meet in person on Monday, remotely on Wednesday, and asynchronously, for group work, on Friday. Or maybe half your class meets online and the other half in person, but you switch up who does what when. Or the lessons are entirely asynchronous, while the live class is dedicated to discussion and group work, and attendance is optional — sometimes.

But is it really helping anyone to define every possible permutation of “hybrid”? More to the point, what should colleges take into account when trying to balance specificity with clarity in course descriptions?

I put that question to a few of our go-to teaching experts, and their answers were informative and nuanced. I’m going to lay out what they said here, because a lot of college officials are wrestling with this problem as they look toward the summer and fall. It’s likely that hybrid teaching will stick around for quite some time, either because the pandemic will have a long tail or because professors and students will continue to want flexibility in course structure.

First up: Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning and director of a teaching center at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Greene notes that Santa Cruz is likely to come up with a similar set of options, although she expects that, by the time summer rolls around, students will see a simplified version.

Between the two ends of the spectrum — fully asynchronous and entirely in person — Greene anticipates that Santa Cruz will use other definitions, including remote synchronous, remote asynchronous (with some synchronous sessions), and hybrid, which she defines as alternating groups of students who meet in person on different days of the week.

These details are important, Greene notes, because Santa Cruz will be offering as many in-person courses as it can in the fall, but will also find campus space severely constrained. Students will need to figure out whether they must return to campus, and which courses they can’t take because of scheduling conflicts. Meanwhile, the university has no idea of the demand among students for in-person classes.

“This is the most logistically challenging thing I’ve yet had to do in my career — to figure out how to deliver reasonable course schedules, balance student and faculty needs, redesign systems that don’t assume multiple course formats, and so on,” Greene writes. It helps, she says, that different parts of the campus, including the registrar’s office and the people in charge of health and safety, are working together to come up with creative solutions.

I also reached out to Robin DeRosa, director of the Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University, in New Hampshire. Her university has also struggled with this kind of “complexity overload,” she notes. The primary things students need to know, she believes, are the requirements for synchronous meetings — to make sure they can handle any travel logistics — and whether those requirements conflict with work or other obligations. But colleges should not stop there.

“In a perfect world, helping students understand the time and location requirements would be enough,” she writes. “But we live in an imperfect world, so I think students do in fact need more-nuanced information.”

Students, she notes, might be up against:

  • A lack of access to broadband and high-quality computer devices, hindering their ability to succeed in online courses.
  • Underfunded disability and accessibility offices, so they wouldn’t be getting the support they need to learn online, and faculty members would lack help in designing accessible online courses.
  • Insufficient instructional design and professional development, which affect the quality of hybrid and online teaching.

“We all should and mostly do use online modalities as part of most university courses we teach,” DeRosa writes. “But we need to invest more in digital equity, accessibility, and instructional design.”

I also contacted Viji Sathy, a professor of practice in psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Sathy helped design a new tool for course transparency that was created partly in response to students’ confusion over course terminology. The tool, Class Features, enables professors to explain exactly how and when a course is offered.

Sathy notes that Chapel Hill sought to avoid a complicated list of instructional modes, aiming to limit it to four to six definitions. But the more people in her group tried to describe each mode, the more they realized the terms resisted simple definitions. (You can read their final list of definitions here.)

Sathy is still thinking through the most useful way to define course structures, based in part on her own experience in teaching a flipped classroom.

“I think the closest I can come to conceptualizing this is a matrix,” she writes. “On one axis (x) is sync/async. On the other axis (y) is individual work/group work. I imagine that most courses employ activities that range the four quadrants. I believe the pandemic is pushing people toward a preference for async for flexibility, but sync for structure and a sense of community — ideally, a mix is preferred by many.

“Here’s where things get interesting,” she continues. “I’d argue that every class, pre-pandemic, had sync and async activities — lecture and assignments/papers being the most common instantiation. Returning to my flipped-format class, I decided that it made little sense to use lecture in group/sync time. That does not optimize our valuable meeting minutes. For me, I deemed group/synch time the best to use the resources in the room to do peer instruction or troubleshoot problem-solving, etc. Recorded lectures fit the async/individual category best. To provide examples of the other categories: group/async would include a discussion board, and individual/sync is office hours.

“All of this is to say that we use a mix of these in any kind of class, but I don’t know if we as educators regularly interrogate the activities that occur in those quadrants and ask if they are optimal for that ‘mode.’ What I see now (Covid times) is a true interrogation of the synchronous/group time. I hope this sticks — I hope we do consider the added value of meeting together as a group synchronously and make the most and best use of that time.”

Finally, Sathy notes that professors should be mindful of the total number of hours they expect students to put in per week, whether in class, asynchronously as a group, or on their own.

“Working backward from, say, nine hours or so for a typical class,” she writes, “I would then work toward being transparent about how many of those nine hours are sync/group, async/individual, etc. From an administrative and scheduling perspective, I’d be most interested in nailing down the sync/group time as it is the most constraining in terms of rooms/schedules, etc. As an instructor, I’d want to be frequently gauging if the async time is accurately estimated. As a student, I might construct a schedule where there is a mix of classes that best fits my learning needs.”

To do that, of course, students need to know how each of their courses is going to operate. Do you have ideas on how colleges can be clearer as they define and describe course modes this summer and fall? Has your college come up with a solution that you think works? What are the most important elements in a course description? Drop me a line, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

Alternatives to High-Stakes STEM Exams

Last week, Erin Whitteck, assistant director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, asked her Twitter followers to share their experiences — good and bad — in creating alternatives to high-stakes exams in STEM courses. The responses are wide-ranging and worth a read, especially since several respondents shared resources. I’ll mention just a few of the points people made here:

  • Some students say they prefer high-stakes exams because that’s what they are familiar with and exams take less time than projects do.
  • Take-home exams and open-book exams are common options. They’re popular with some students because they can dive more deeply into the material, without the time pressure.
  • Professors are creating plenty of alternative assessments, including field journals and reports, group projects and close analysis of scientific research. But while those are effective strategies, instructors say they also take enormous amounts of work to design well.

ICYMI

  • The Chronicle’s Katherine Mangan reports that students are pushing back against campus surveillance tools, such as exam-proctoring software and devices monitoring their potential exposure to Covid-19.
  • Now is the time for instructors to ask how they will use new skills and experiences to improve their teaching once they return to the classroom, writes Patrick D. Culbert, an assistant professor of teaching in forest and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia, in this Chronicle advice piece.
  • Learning through play can be a valuable tool in the college classroom, writes Sarah Rose Cavanagh, an associate professor of psychology at Assumption University and associate director for grants and research at the university’s teaching center, in this Chronicle advice essay.

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

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.