Balance in Blended: Reflections on Teaching Hybrid Lecture Courses

At the 2014 Broadcast Education Association convention, I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel entitled “Flipped, Blended or Hybrid: The Use of Emerging Technologies in Large and Small Classes.”  Below are the slides from my presentation, and my prepared remarks.



Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be on this panel on what I like to call hybrid learning. Of course, not everyone calls it that, which is reflected in the title of this panel. Some call it flipped learning, and others like the term blended. But I think a good case can be made that the term hybrid more accurately describes the kind of approach I’m discussing today.

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So I’d like to begin by taking a few moments to make the case for the term hybrid. Then I’ll present a very simple model for thinking about how to achieve balance in a hybrid course. I’ll briefly describe my experiences in hybrid course development, and provide some specific examples. And finally, offer some suggestions for making the most of a hybrid course.

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At first glance, the terms flipped, blended and hybrid may seem interchangeable. But I think there are some subtle yet important differences. When I think of the term blended…

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I think of a blender, which is a great device for creating smooth refreshing beverages. But when we combine in-class instruction with online learning, I hope we’re doing more than just creating an homogenous cocktail of instruction.

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When I hear the term flip, I think of a very easy to use video camera that unfortunately is no longer being made. Or I think of one of those waffle machines you might see at the breakfast bar at a motel. Of course, the term flipped has become popular, in part because of the Khan Academy model of doing homework in class, a flipping of the more traditional model.

But I believe that, especially in higher education, we’re doing more than just flipping or blending. We’re creating something new that combines the best of both online learning with classroom instruction. We’re creating a hybrid.

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I’ve been driving a hybrid car for many years, and it combines a gasoline engine with a battery powered motor, a combination that helps me get better gas mileage. But the real beauty of my hybrid isn’t just that it blends both of these modes of propulsion, and I hope it never flips over on me. No, what makes it a hybrid is the logic behind the combination. When I need to accelerate, the gas engine kicks in. When I’m scoping out a parking lot, I’m on battery power. When I’m pushing 65 down the highway, my car can draw from both gas and battery as needed. My hybrid car knows when to use the gas, when to use the battery, and when to use both.

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In a similar way, a hybrid course does more than just blend classroom instruction with online learning. It does more than just flip what used to be done in class with traditional out of class work. It draws from the strengths of both teaching modalities to move students toward their learning goals. And it’s that deliberate and thoughtful balance between the two modes that makes a hybrid course something more than just the sum of its parts.

Of course, there are different approaches to achieving that balance. We all have different experiences in the hybrid mode, and we all offer unique insights. So let me just briefly discuss my experience with the hybrid mode, and some of the insights I’ve gained.

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Over the past three years, I’ve been involved in three hybrid projects. First I was part of the team that converted a large lecture course in intercultural communication into a hybrid course. That experience led me to convert the lecture course in mass communication that I regularly teach into a hybrid. And this past year, I’ve been part of the public speaking hybrid course team.

In each of these hybrid efforts, a first step was to clearly identify the learning outcomes, and decide whether those outcomes would be best achieved using class time, or online learning, or some other approach, or a combination of methods. In other words, we considered the logic behind the balance of these teaching modalities. Let me illustrate this with a simple model.

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I think it’s helpful to divide the instructional components of a course – the things we do to advance learning – into three somewhat overlapping areas: those that seem to belong in the classroom environment, those that lend themselves to the online environment, and those that lie outside of both environments. For example, I often put major exams in the classroom, where I can more carefully monitor the testing environment. But shorter and less consequential quizzes are fine in the online environment. And I often have students read a textbook, so I would put that in the third category – neither in class nor online.

Note there is some overlap in the circles in my model. Some things can combine modalities to advance learning goals. For example, most of the hybrid courses I have taught are large lecture hybrid classes, so I devote some class time to lecture. After all, the class meets in a lecture hall. But at the same time I try to provide online content that complements and extends the in-class lecture mode. And I do that by creating short online videos that in many respects serve as the online equivalent to lectures.

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Let me give you an example. Here’s a brief clip from one of the first online videos students see in my mass communication class.

Now of course that’s just a brief sample to give you an idea of what I do. In this particular course, students watch about 80 of these videos.

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I’ve found that these online videos work best when they are presented in what I call an “online learning module.” Each module consists of a series of 6 to 8 short videos, and each of the videos are around 5 to 10 minutes in length. So it takes students about an hour or so to complete each module – about the equivalent of a class period. By breaking up the modules into shorter videos, it more closely reflects what I do when I lecture in the classroom. I don’t drone on for an hour. I try to stop every few minutes, ask if there are any questions, or ask students to discuss something, or ask some clicker questions. And I try to replicate this experience online.

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For example, I present the videos using a quiz format. That is, each video is on a separate web page with a few questions below the video. Students watch the video, answer the questions, and click the button to go to the next page in the sequence. This not only insures that the students watch the videos in sequence, but it also generates a score, which I can use as part of their grade. And just as I do at the end of most class lectures, at the end of each online learning module, I review the key concepts, and pose a discussion question for an online discussion forum.

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One advantage of online learning is the time flexibility offered by asynchronous content, so I think it makes sense to embrace that advantage. In my hybrid courses, I tend to avoid strict synchronous “appointment learning” in the online environment. Instead, I practice what I call disciplined asynchronous delivery. By that I mean that students must complete the online work during a clearly defined window of availability, typically a week. But students are free to spend as much or as little time as they want to complete their online work. Now of course, some students are going to spend the absolute minimum amount of time. But I’ve found that you can encourage them to spend more time if you make it worth their while. For example, I allow students to attempt each of the online learning modules as many times as they wish, with their score being the average of all of their attempts. I think this fosters mastering of the material. Further, our learning management system keeps careful records of the time students spend on task, so I can keep tabs on how much time students spend with online content.

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Speaking of time, I know I’m likely running low at this point. So in my remaining time today, let me just offer a few suggestions on how to make the most of a hybrid course.

First, try to create content that is both flexible and reusable. If you’re going to spend hours recording online videos, you might as well try to make videos that can go a few rounds. That’s one reason behind the logic of creating shorter online videos rather than longer videos. It’s a lot easier to update a five minute video than it is to redo a fifty minute video lecture. Shorter videos also enable the redeploying of content in different contexts. For example, we’ve been able to use some of the hybrid content we created in the intercultural communication course to create a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC.

I think it’s also important to provide good audio in online content. You might have noticed that I used a bit of music at the start of the sample clip I showed earlier. I use a lot of music, both in class and online, because I want to try to engage the students both through what they see and what they hear. I use high quality microphones to capture my voice, and add audio processing as appropriate. I encourage my students to use headphones when listening to the online videos, so I want to make sure that the audio I create is “earphone worthy.” Perhaps it’s my professional background in radio that makes me more sensitive to this sort of thing, but from my experience, there’s much to be gained from paying attention to audio.

I think it’s also important to design online components that work well on small screens. As instructors, we often view our content on laptops or desktop computer monitors. But students are increasingly consuming online content on tablets and smart phones. So I try to keep these smaller screens in mind when I design online content. At the very least, that means bigger fonts, centering content in “screen safe” regions appropriate for a variety of possible aspect ratios, and testing content with a wide variety of hardware and software scenarios before deployment.

Finally, I’ve found that it’s a good idea to devote some class time to keeping students on track in the online environment. Let’s face it, students have a tendency to focus on the minimum requirements to achieve the grade they want. While it’s a good idea to convey those requirements through online communication, it’s even more important to take advantage of their attention during class time to reinforce what they need to do to succeed. One way I do this is by including a checklist as my very first clicker question in each class. The checklist identifies the specific things a student should have completed by that point, and I ask students to click A if they’ve done all of those things, B if they’ve done most, etc. Of course I don’t know if they are telling me the truth or not, but that’s not really the point. I’m trying to encourage them to engage in some self-assessment of their online efforts. I follow this up with a few additional reminders during class, including an end-of-class checklist – spelling out what I want them to do before our next class. I think these frequent reminders help students stay on track, and encourage them to maintain the discipline needed to be successful with online learning.

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I hope my comments today about achieving balance in the hybrid environment has been helpful, and I look forward to some discussion later on in the hour. If you would like to continue the conversation beyond today, here is my contact information. Thanks again for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.

BlendKit 2012 Reflection: Teaching a Hybrid Course with Desire2Learn

I’ve recently been participating in an online course for teachers called BlendKit 2012. This open online learning experience provides a five-week introduction to blended learning, or what some call hybrid learning. It is sponsored by the University of Central Florida (UCF) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) with funding from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC).

Essentially, a blended (or hybrid) course is one that includes both in-person, face-to-face instruction with substantial online instruction. Students in a hybrid course spend some time in a physical classroom environment, and some time in an online learning environment. It’s becoming an increasingly popular “middle ground” alternative between traditional face-to-face courses and online courses. I’m attracted to the hybrid concept because it encourages an instructor to consider what kinds of learning activities work best in a classroom and what kinds work best online, and design courses that take advantage of the best of both modalities.

Participants in BlendKit 2012 are encouraged to post blog entries about their experiences with hybrid learning. So I thought this would be a good time to post something to my blog that I’ve been meaning to do for awhile. This past summer, I had the privilege of presenting at the Desire2Learn Fusion conference. This annual meeting sponsored by the popular learning management system Desire2Learn brings together faculty, administrators, technical support staff and vendors for a few intense days of sharing, exploring and pushing the boundaries of online learning. My presentation detailed my experiences as part of the instruction team that used Desire2Learn to develop and deliver a hybrid course last year in intercultural communication. I’ve embedded the slides of that presentation below. Perhaps it will prompt some interest among participants in BlendKit 2012 who may be using D2L as part of a blended (hybrid) course, or thinking about doing so.