The pandemic has necessitated the need for teaching on-campus and online simultaneously. While at NTU we’ve been moving back to campus for most of our teaching this academic year as restrictions have allowed, hybrid delivery is still being discussed in Higher Education worldwide for its potential to offer students who cannot make it to campus the chance to attend live sessions. Yet major challenges inherent in this delivery mode are clear to every tutor who has had to contemplate it: how can we ensure that the opportunities to learn are fairly distributed between the students in the room and the students on the screen? How can we facilitate online students interacting with those on-campus?
For a long time, articles we’d read and discussions we’d had with colleagues about hybrid sessions focussed mainly on the challenges and risks that needed to be considered (for example, Schaberg, 2022). Then, during a drop-in session in late November 2021 we got talking with Sam Barclay, Senior Lecturer within the Nottingham Institute for Languages and Intercultural Communication (NILIC). Sam felt that he was finally coming to a method that worked for his sessions. As we talked it became apparent that the overarching principles governing his approach could be applied to other hybrid learning and teaching situations, especially those where group work and collaboration is at the fore. So, with Sam’s permission, we’re going to aim to share some of what is working for Sam and his students, in the hope that it might spark ideas for others facing similar challenges.
Using the strengths of each learning environment
Sam wants to provide an equitable experience for his online and in-person students. For him, that means “embracing what each of the different modes offer” and facilitating a session in which everyone can reach the learning outcomes – it does not necessarily mean an identical experience. As has been increasingly understood in education across the world in the past few years, approaches that work well in-person don’t always transfer to the online environment, and vice versa. In practice, this means that Sam’s students on-campus and his students online are treated as two distinct but interrelated communities.
Keeping it simple
When thinking about room set-up for hybrid there is often a desire to add in more technology and equipment to bridge the gap between on-campus and online students. There is a lot of information being shared about what can help online and on-campus students see and hear each other, such as this guide to hybrid from the University of Warwick’s Arts Faculty Technology Enhanced Learning team, which outlines much of the relevant software and hardware for the colleagues it supports. However, for an active groupwork-based session Sam hasn’t found adding in equipment necessary and prefers to keep it as simple as possible. He uses only the equipment provided in a standard teaching room for his set up (the lectern PC, the webcam and microphone set-up that comes with the PC, and a projector screen), plus his smartphone for the purposes of photographing and uploading the images of the on-campus student work for the online students. On-campus students aren’t required to have laptops with them or any device at all to participate.
In an example of how one of his hybrid seminars might run, Sam explained that the students in the room form three groups of 5 people sitting on different tables, which works well with roughly the same number of students forming a fourth group in an online meeting that Sam joins on the lectern PC and projects onto the screen.
Dividing the work for an activity between the four groups, the on-campus student groups are given handheld whiteboards and pens with which to record their thoughts, whereas the online student group does the same but using the meeting chat. Sam notes that he has found it important to (with due warning given) turn off webcam and mics on the lectern PC, and mute and minimise the online meeting during group work, to provide privacy for the online students and fewer distractions. Sam noticed that this removed a source of self-consciousness, making it more likely that online students would turn on their cameras while working together, knowing that their webcam feed wasn’t being shown on a huge screen.
After the initial group work comes the inter-group discussion. Sam uses his smartphone to photograph the group’s whiteboards and uploads them to the online meeting chat. Then, he asks the groups to look at each other’s work in turn – the students in the room rotate around the tables, also taking in the online students’ work on the lectern PC, adding comments with either different coloured pens or typing into the meeting chat as appropriate. The online students view the uploaded images of the whiteboards and make comments about them in a collaborative document that is also visible to the students in the room through the projector screen or when they approach the lectern PC.
Benefits and limitations of the approach
While Sam is happy with how his approach is working, he acknowledges that it would need to be adapted if he was dealing with significantly larger groups of students, especially online students. It’s worth noting, however, that a recent literature review of hybrid teaching concluded that groups of no more than 40 students total is advisable (Secker, Melcher, Wells, 2021). If the situation changed, Sam says he would still be guided by the two key principles that have emerged from his approach:
- Using the strengths of each learning environment. This allows the on-campus students to take advantage of all the benefits of working with others in person – for instance, easily picking up on each other’s non-verbal cues during discussion. Meanwhile, online students can benefit from what the live online environment brings – for instance, the ability to continuously discuss the session in the meeting chat without verbally interrupting Sam or anyone else who is addressing the whole group.
- Keeping the equipment as simple as possible. This helps Sam to keep his focus on his two communities of students and reduces extra potential barriers and problems that can result from introducing lots of unfamiliar technology into the equation.
Sam is planning to carry out a structured evaluation of the approach, but benefits are already apparent. That he can see student groups producing ideas together and then collaborating with all the other groups, regardless of their location, is a clear indicator to Sam that this approach to hybrid sessions is successfully facilitating group work for both on-campus and online students.
References and further reading
Arts Faculty Technology Enhanced Active Learning, 2021. Hybrid [online]. Available at: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/staffintranet/teachingsupport/digital/support-and-consultancy/blueprinting/ownersguides/hybrid/ [Accessed 02/02/2022].
Mihai, A., 2021. Wrapping up 2021… [online]. Available at: https://educationalist.substack.com/p/wrapping-up-2021?r=ixev0 [Accessed 17/02/ 2022].
Schaberg, C., 2022. HyFlex Is Not the Future of Learning [online]. [Accessed 07/02/2022].
Secker, J., Researching the challenges and opportunities of hybrid teaching [online]. Available at: https://blogs.city.ac.uk/learningatcity/2021/11/09/researching-the-challenges-and-opportunities-of-hybrid-teaching/ [Accessed 12/01/ 2022].