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.

[next slide]

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.

[next slide]

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…

[next slide]

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.

[next slide]

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.

[next slide]

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.

[next slide]

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.

[next slide]

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.

[next slide]

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.

[next slide]

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.

[next slide]

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.

[next slide]

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.

[next slide]

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.

[next slide]

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.

[next slide]

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.

Developing a vision for converged student media

Earlier I posted the text from a presentation I gave to the 2009 Convention of the Broadcast Education Association. I mentioned in that post that I gave two presentations, but I hadn’t posted the text of the second one yet. This second presentation, which I gave on the morning of the last day of the convention, wasn’t nearly as well attended as my first presentation. I think many people had caught early flights out of Las Vegas, or perhaps some were sleeping in after a night out on the town. So for what it’s worth, here is the text of my talk on developing a vision for converged student media.

Monroe Einstein Large

Do you recognize the person in this photograph? If you said Marilyn Monroe, take a closer look. [For those reading this on a computer screen right now, it might help to see the effect of this hybrid image by changing your distance from the screen. You can also see the effect by looking at the hybrid image at different sizes. Does the image on the right look like Marilyn Monroe? For more on this and other hybrid images, visit Aude Oliva’s Hybrid Image Gallery.]

Monroe Enstein smallMonroe Enstein smallMonroe Enstein small

This photo illustrates something about vision. And at the same time, it says something about convergence. So it provides a good starting point for my talk today about developing a vision for convergence in student media. In the next few minutes, I’d like to share with you two general principles that I think this photo illustrates about the problems and opportunities for developing a vision for converged student media. And then I’d like to conclude by sharing just a few ideas from my own experience of advising multiple media.

This first general principle I think this photo illustrates is that vision is highly dependent on one’s range of vision. I’ve been a faculty advisor to various student media outlets for almost 30 years now, so I’d have to say I have a pretty long-term range of vision. And no doubt my perspective on student media is going to be at least somewhat different than the perspective of my students. I’d like to hope we can have a shared vision, but I have to admit that most of my students have a much more shorter-range vision. That is, they find it difficult to see very far beyond a couple of years, probably because they won’t be around in a couple of years. Well, hopefully they’ll be around somewhere, but if we’re doing our jobs, they’ll graduate. Their time with student media is finite. Faculty advisors keep coming back for more. So while I might be able to see things from a sufficient distance to see Marilyn Monroe in this picture, students tend to have a more close-up, short time frame view, and might be stuck staring at Albert Einstein. Personally, I think Marilyn is a bit easier on the eyes.

So developing a vision for student media really requires both the longer-term maturity of vision that a seasoned faculty advisor can bring, and the shorter-term immediacy of vision that enthusiastic students bring. And while I tend to think the faculty advisors role in developing a vision is important, I also think the students role is important. In fact I think it’s more important.

I didn’t always think this way. When I was younger and just getting started advising student media, I thought I knew more than the students, and that my knowledge made my vision more important. I thought my role was to direct student media, to manage things, to define the vision. But soon I discovered that students typically have their own view of how things should be. And sometimes, their vision turned out to be pretty good. I still think I know more than my students, at least about the things I know a lot about. But I also know that I don’t know everything, and I’m OK with that. I would much rather be working with my students in developing a shared vision, than working against my students in imposing my vision. So to sum up my first general principle: when developing a vision for student media, work with your students to see things from both a long range and a short range perspective.

I think this double-vision photo also reveals something about convergence. You know we’ve been talking about convergence for a long time. I was looking through my old BEA programs, and saw the theme of the 1997 BEA Convention, twelve years ago, was “Reinventing electronic media: Multimedia in the new millennium.” Well, we’ve been in this new millennium for almost a decade now. And while on one level some convergence seems to have taken place, there is one thing about convergence that’s hard to deny. We still have separate media. We still have radio. We still have TV. We still have newspapers, at least we have a few. And we still have the web. And while they might work together, they are still pretty much separate.

Sure, some student media web sites give the impression of convergence. In fact, the other day I was at a session where a student and his advisor from Wartburg College was showing off a really nicely done convergence site. But even though this website, which they call “the Wartburg Circuit,” looks great and brings together all of the different student media on campus for a unified web presence, they still have a radio station, a TV station, and a newspaper. It’s just that now they have another thing.

This isn’t so much true convergence, then, as a presentation of convergence, much like this picture here. This isn’t a picture of Albert Monroe or Marilyn Einstein. It’s two pictures, smushed together, and whether you see Albert or Marilyn depends a lot on your perspective. But it’s rather hard to see both as a converged thing. Rather, your eyes tend to want to see one or the other.

So developing a vision for converged student media is, like this picture, a bit of parlor trick. For just like our eyes find it hard to focus on different images at the same time, so too do our eyes find it hard to lock onto a clear vision of what converged media would look like. If anything, the vision that does emerge is, like this picture, a smushing together of things that are easier to focus on separately. So to sum up my second general principle: convergence probably won’t replace individual media, but it can provide opportunities for a combined presentation of media.

So let me conclude today by suggesting just a few things from my own experience about developing a vision for converged student media. Please take them for what they’re worth… a few ideas based on my experience in advising multiple media at West Chester University.

First, a little background so you know where I’m coming from. Part of the reason I was hired at West Chester was because they needed someone to help them launch a campus radio station, which I did. We got our FM construction permit during my first year and built the thing and got it running during my second. After four years of advising the radio station, the students asked me to advise the TV station, too. And a couple years later, they asked me to advise the newspaper. For a while, I was advising all three. But you know, that’s hard work for an old geezer. I was desperate for some kind of convergence on a practical level, if for no other reason than to preserve my sanity.

So I tried to influence the radio station, the TV station and the newspaper to meet together and work together and produce content that crossed media boundaries. At first students were excited about doing so. But then they realized that convergence, true convergence, is a lot harder than they thought. Pretty soon questions of turf came into the picture. And questions of equality and fairness. And questions of money. And yes, questions about whether one faculty member should advise three different media groups. If it was just one truly converged media group, maybe that would be OK. But we couldn’t. Or we wouldn’t. No matter how hard we tried to converge, some things, primarily related to the technologies we used, kept us apart.

But we did discover, together, that convergence came most naturally on the web. And that’s my first suggestion when looking to develop a vision for converged student media: look to the web. All three student media groups have content we put on web sites. So it makes sense to combine at least some of our web efforts and cross promote each other on our web sites. The vision of converged student media that is gradually emerging is largely one of multiple student media working together to create a more unified web presentation.

Here’s another idea: use the web to share content among student media. Start with a good online content management system. I like Drupal, because it’s open source and easily customized, but WordPress is mighty fine for some applications. Store your various media assets in a shared web database, something that all of your media groups can take advantage of. By encouraging students to share content with each other, they begin to focus less on the differences that separate the media and more on the content that they have in common. And it also helps students discover the emerging qualities of the most shareable content, that is, how to be more platform agnostic in creating media content. That’s an important lesson, but one that is more easily discovered through practice than through imposing a contrived vision of convergence.

My last suggestion, and one that I hope doesn’t upset anyone here at BEA, is to bring students from multiple media groups to the College Media Convention, which is held in the fall each year. This year it’s in Austin, Texas. If you’ve never been to a College Media Convention, you should go, and you should bring your students, and if you can, bring students from all of your media groups on campus. I used to bring students to BEA years ago. In fact, I tried to start a student division of BEA years ago. And a few of my colleagues still do. But BEA really isn’t a convention for students. The College Media Convention is. There are far more students in attendance than there are faculty, and that’s one reason why I’ve grown to love the College Media Convention. Co-sponsored by College Media Advisors, Associated College Press and Collegiate Broadcasting, Incorporated, this annual mega-conference is a great opportunity for students, and it’s a great way to build bridges between media groups on campus. There’s nothing like getting TV, radio and newspaper kids to share crowded hotel rooms, go to sessions with each other, and yes, maybe even party a little together. A lot of vision for convergence can emerge once you leave all the questions of turf back on campus and spend a few days together at a really well done convention, where students can quickly develop a broader perspective on convergence.

Well those are a few ideas for developing a vision for converged student media. If they sound rather modest, it’s because they are. Some of you may have noticed that I said earlier, “for a while I was advising all three media groups.” I’m not anymore, and to be honest, it’s a bit of a relief. Even faculty advisors have to have a life. I’m still not sure convergence is the wave of the future. But I do think we will continue to find ways to do a little smushing together, just like in this picture. Although the more I look at this picture, the more I think Marilyn needs to shave. Scarry.

BEA 2009: Ethical Dilemmas in Student Media

I just got back from the 2009 convention of the Broadcast Education Association, where I made two presentations. The first presentation was entitled “Ethic Dilemmas in Student Media: When Money Talks, Ethics Walk.” In this presentation, I tell the story of KWJC, a radio station I used to advise at William Jewell College. This paper was well received, and I got some great feedback, so I may polish it up and submit it for publication somewhere (probably in Feedback, a BEA journal where this sort of piece is most appropriate). But for what it’s worth, here is the script of my presentation as given at BEA 2009…

Ethical Dilemmas in Student Media:
When Money Talks, Ethics Walk

Today I’d like to tell you a story. A true story. A cautionary tale of money trumping ethics. If the story sounds a bit personal, well, it is. You see, I was a part of this story, or at least part of its history.

It begins long before I became part of it. About 40 years ago, the late Dr. Georgia Bowman, head of the speech department at William Jewell College, decided to start a student-operated radio station. It launched with a humble 10 watts of power, just enough to cover the Kansas City suburb of Liberty, Missouri.

In 1984, I was hired as a new faculty member at William Jewell. Among my duties was the role of faculty advisor to this station. And during the next decade, we made a number of improvements to the station. But perhaps most importantly, this station, KWJC, provided a solid foundation for a broadcast curriculum that educated hundreds, maybe even thousands of students over the decades.

I left William Jewell in 1997 to start another adventure in my life, and another student radio station, at West Chester University. But I left with fond memories, and high hopes for KWJC. I was confident that I had left a finely-tuned student radio station. It was, after all, the inspiration for one of my most widely cited articles on student radio, the “Enhancing the Electronic Sandbox” piece in Feedback.

So it was with great pride that I heard this station I left behind was honored by the Princeton Review in 2004 as one of this nation’s top student radio stations. The faculty advisors and students who followed me continued to build and polish KWJC, and I was glad their hard work was being recognized.

But in February 2006, the storyline for KWJC took an abrupt twist. The faculty advisor at that time, a young broadcasting professor named Todd Wirth, got an e-mail from the dean requesting a meeting to discuss the radio station. Not knowing what to think, but hoping for the best, Todd went. It was a meeting that would change his life.

For it quickly became clear that the meeting was not about discussion at all, but to inform Todd that KWJC would soon cease to be a student radio station. You see, the college had decided to accept a lucrative offer. In return for a sum of money, my sources tell me it was $90,000, William Jewell College would suspend student operation of KWJC. After nearly 40 years of excellence in student radio, there would be no more at William Jewell. In fact, there would be no more curriculum in broadcasting. And by the way, Todd’s contract would not be renewed.

I still remember speaking with Todd here in Las Vegas at BEA 2006. I found it shocking what he shared with me about what happened. I felt bad for him, of course. And I felt a personal sense of loss. But even more, I felt bad for all the alumni of the station, all those students whose lives had been touched by KWJC. Some of whom I’ve seen here on the NAB show floors.

Yes, I felt bad. But soon, I felt mad, as I’ve learned more about this situation. The organization that convinced William Jewell to get out of student radio is called the Educational Media Foundation. The EMF has precious little to do with education. EMF is the legal name of the operators of two powerful national religious broadcasting networks known as K-Love and Air-One. And I’ve since learned that this was not the first time EMF convinced a college to essentially hold a license for their benefit.

Western Baptist College in Salem, Oregon wanted to start a student radio station back in the 90s. Because of financial problems, they almost didn’t get KWBX off the ground. But then the EMF brought their checkbook. Today, the college, now called Corban University, holds a broadcast license. But like KWJC, KWBX is hardly a student radio station. It’s just there to give the Air-1 network a signal in Salem.

And in Kansas City, Air-1’s signal blankets the metro area quite nicely. For shortly after EMF took over KWJC’s airwaves, the station was awarded a construction permit to increase its power to 7,000 watts. Yes, Air-1 has a dandy signal in KC, and it doesn’t even have to bother with all the responsibilities of holding a license. For the license is still held by William Jewell. In fact, it was the college’s status that helped give it the nod in a competitive FCC hearing for its construction permit. And who was William Jewell competing against on behalf of the EMF? Why, it was Community Broadcasting, which is the legal name for Bott Broadcasting, another powerful religious broadcaster.

Indeed, if you look at the organizations that have dominated applications for noncommercial educational FM radio stations in the last few years, you’ll notice that they’re not really noncommercial, and they’re not really educational. They are religious broadcasters, mostly protestant, evangelical, and fundamentalist.

Last week I did a licensee search in the FCC’s CDBS database. Bott’s Community Broadcasting group has 165 facility IDs in that database. Way-FM has 204. Bible Broadcasting 237. Family Stations 454. The American Family Association has 555. But no one comes close to the Educational Media Foundation. With 1,516 facility IDs, the EMF is clearly the Clear Channel of noncommercial education radio. No organization has been more active in aggressively building not one but two nationwide religious radio networks.

Now some might say this is just good business. Stations turn over all the time. Broadcasting in America is, if nothing else, a business. And money talks, it’s hard to deny that. But when money talks, should ethics walk? Especially in that special class of broadcasting called noncommercial educational? And even more especially in that very special class of noncommercial educational known as student radio? So before I conclude my remarks, let me suggest just a few ethical questions raised by the story I’ve shared with you today.

First, is it ethical for the EMF to pay a college to hold a license for a station that they program? KWJC’s license is still held by William Jewell College, even though they have very little to do with the station’s operation. I’m no lawyer, so it may be technically legal, I suppose, but is this really ethical?

Second, is it ethical for the EMF to essentially use this college and its broadcast license to gain an advantage over their competition in an FCC hearing? Yes, the EMF probably wouldn’t be interested in KWJC if they weren’t in a position to increase their power. But is it ethical to cut a deal with the college to help ensure that power increase, especially when it benefits the EMF far more than it benefits the college?

Third, is it ethical for a college to accept money in return for closing the doors on something that was a part of campus life for nearly four decades? Why would a college shut down an award-winning student radio station, one that was attracting students to the college? Why would you suddenly drop a broadcasting curriculum, forcing many students to leave the college to finish their degrees elsewhere? Why would you end the contract of a promising professor, one who has published in BEA journals…all for some money? Is that really ethical?

And finally, is it ethical for the FCC to routinely grant noncommercial educational licenses to a small number of highly profitable businesses? Consider the Educational Media Foundation. This is a business that took in almost a third of a billion dollars last year in revenue. And this is not unusual. Religious broadcasters make a lot of money selling airtime.

If you think it’s illegal for a noncommercial educational station to sell airtime, think again. It’s technically not illegal for these stations to sell airtime, it’s just illegal to sell airtime to for-profit companies. And there’s the loophole that religious broadcasters have used to bring in the bucks. They sell plenty of airtime to ministries, many of which are also highly profitable businesses. As long as they only sell to organizations that can legally claim non-profit status, noncommercial educational stations can sell 60 minutes out of every hour if they want to. It’s legal, but is it ethical? And is it ethical for the FCC to continue to grant noncommercial educational licenses to organizations they know will sell air time in this way?

For some, these may be difficult ethical questions. But not for me. It really wasn’t ethical what happened to KWJC. And it really isn’t ethical what’s been going on in the noncommercial band. No, it’s not ethical. But it is about money. And when money talks, ethics walk.

Let me end with another true story, and I promise to keep it short. A few years ago, Lake Charles, Louisiana, earned the distinction of being the largest city in the US that couldn’t receive a signal from National Public Radio. That’s because the two translator stations that had been supplying the city for many years with NPR programming were forced off the air in favor of full-power FM stations operated by a religious broadcaster, American Family Radio.

That was a wake-up call for public radio, and part of the inspiration for Public Radio Capital, an organization to help pubcasters fight for signals in the crowded FM band. So far, PRC has helped many stations preserve and expand their signals in the face of growing competition, primarily from religious broadcasters.

But what about student radio stations? Who’s going to fight for them? For my colleagues in student media, I hope the answer is you. I’m not sure if we can be successful. But I am sure we need to try. We need to be asking whether what is happening to the noncommercial educational FM band is ethical. And we need to keep asking…while we still have the chance.