A Hybrid Learning Model Can Help, Not Harm, Higher Education

With 2022 commencement in the books and colleges and universities now turning to the upcoming school year, administrators and students alike should discount a recent New York Times piece that argued that if higher education is to thrive, “everyone involved—students, faculties, administrators and the public at large—must insist on in-person classes and high expectations for fall 2022 and beyond.” 

High expectations, sure. But the view that our nation’s colleges and universities must return to in-person classes exclusively is shortsighted and fails to recognize the real gains and benefits that come with virtual learning. As a professor at a liberal arts college that focuses considerable time on students, I can say resuming a complete “in person model” is a mistake. While many classes and collegiate experiences should absolutely remain in person, a hybrid model should be embraced as students and schools would be well-served by the many and often unspoken benefits that remote learning has to offer.

The many problems of virtual learning for K-12 education have been well-documented, and it’s indisputable that young children need in-person instruction. But higher education is a different story, and the socio-developmental needs of students are quite different. Despite the widespread belief that collegiate life today involves the stereo-typical experience of students living in campus dormitories and apartments, going to libraries and cafés, and participating in various cultural and athletic activities, significant numbers of students simply commute to take a class or two and do not live in the so-called 24/7 living-learning environments of many schools. Moreover, those who live on campus are often subjected to over-crowded lecture halls with hundreds of students, and impersonal experiences are often the norm. As such, virtual education was already making real inroads well before the pandemic; one professor at Harvard even posted a comment that his course was “a better educational experience to watch … online than attend them in person.” Certainly many of those students who are fortunate enough to have a traditional four-year experience with residential collegiate environments benefit from the myriad social activities, clubs, sports, and resources that colleges and universities have outside the classrooms themselves, along with smaller classes and seminars. But the facts remain: So much can be learned virtually, does not require in-person instruction, and classes were moving that way already.

No one can argue that the COVID-19 global pandemic has not significantly impacted higher education. But even before the pandemic shut down most in-person learning in spring 2020, higher education was already in trouble. Tuition and other costs were rising, and administrative bloat was interfering with campus life both in and outside the classroom. Adjuncts were doing an increasing share of the teaching, and college burnout, social media addiction, and mental health concerns were greatly impacting students. Students were struggling well before the pandemic, and remote learning cannot be the scapegoat for broader failures in higher education. 

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Comments (31)
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  • Higher Ed right now needs more flexibility, not less. Hybrid models will allow for affordable alternatives for people who want to continue working while taking classes. I’d be pretty upset if I paid full price tuition and got Zoom class. But if it’s a fraction of the price, that could go a long way towards relieving some of the pressures in the system.

  • My son's experience with his high school online classes during the COVID lockdowns was terrible. In college, he is so happy to be in person. However, there are great options for online classes -- especially for summer studies. He will be able to take an online class this summer from home rather than paying for staying at his school for that one class.

    Like so many things, moderation is best. Some classes and professors can be good online, some students are work fine in an online format, and some can't.

  • As a teacher and community college instructor, I think we need to look at the value of the degree and what learning means. Currently we have people paying a lot of moula for something they will not achieve. It seems to me online learning aggravates that; not to mention neither my college age children nor I benefited much from taking them.

  • Asynch classes are the worst (unless its demonstration type work like car repairs).

    Look up the youtube channel Polymatter. The videos are only about 20 minutes long but are well produced with very good infographics and explanations, and covers pretty heavy meaty subjects.

    There is no way a typical professor can compete against that looking into a camera or even scrolling through his slides.

  • Online classes are good for technical things like learning a piece of software or technique (like fixing your car). You can simply see things a lot better and replay portions of the demonstration over and over.

    For anything involving discussions, critical thinking, or creativity - it sucks. Online class discussions are a joke because meaningful discussions are UNGRADABLE. Think about a long debate you had online (maybe on IM or reddit). How many back and forth messages is that? Can a professor possibly read all that multiplied by every student? No way. The medium is the message as they say, and in this case the medium is only good for one type of message: demonstrations. I took 3 marketing classes online and one sales class in person this last semester, and I retained a lot more in the one in-person class than all 3 online classes put together, even though I aced every class and was very interested in the material. So live zoom for teaching photoshop or solidworks is ok, though helping individual students is hard since the teacher cant just go over and click on their screen. Asynch for stuff like fixing a car is good because you can get a camera way closer than a second person watching. Neither of those are why people go to college.

    You also dont make friends nearly as easily, which is a huge part of the college value.

  • For those commenting on how demoralizing online classes can be for instructors, the author doesn’t advocate in favor of all online classes, or the converse. The piece makes a very modest argument: that the availability of online classes shouldn’t be gutted in favor of a wholesale in-person model, given that substantial numbers of students rely on these alternative options in order to juggle the demands of modern living.

    My university completely switched models after pandemic learning…closing something like 90 percent of its online offerings in favor of in-person instruction, even though I attend a university where the majority of the student are commuter students who work either full or part time jobs outside the hours of classroom instruction. Having the option of online classes was a boon for us. So I totally question the wisdom of this transition. It saves both time (I don’t have to look for street parking, I can get to work more easily when I don’t have to drive from campus) and money (on gas, on parking tickets or permits) when we don’t have to commute to a brick and mortar building for every class. Lastly, I don’t need a “college experience.” This isn’t my first time on a college campus. Add to that I’m introverted and less interested social activities and priorities of my contemporaries. I’m over it. I just want to get my degree and graduate.

  • I've taught hybrid on-line courses since 2017. Here are some thoughts.
    a) for in-person classes, a zoom option is great if a person is sick. Students can also look at the video afterwards to see if they missed anything. It's better than them infecting others, it's better than them missing it. But for in-person courses, it's still best.

    b) You change how you teach. I recorded a boatload of 8-12 minutes lectures. Each one has a series of questions (some essay, some multiple choice) afterwards, to gauge if the student paid attention or not. In class time is more focused on case discussions (I use mini-cases), where students have to answer questions. In my ethics course, we just finished "the fajita bandit scandal", a 2 page case of a prison employee who stole over $1.2 dollars worth of fajita meat (over 9 years). Students had to identify how he was able to get away with it for so long, debate whether his supervisor should be terminated or not, and whether his 50 prison sentence will deter future fajita bandits.

    c) Some students don't participate, which is alright, but I require they leave on their cameras or else they lose participation points. Sometimes they have to step out, which is fine, but after a few minutes, if they remain a back square they are considered absent.

    d) To encourage participation I often have students post comments to questions in the chat.

    e) Zoom sux. Go to the classroom of any master teacher, and observe how engaging it is. Now look at a Zoom classroom. Zoom today is MS-DOS about 1986. It's not built education. I think Electronic Arts, or some other video game developer could develop a killer app for education (and no, not Winnie-The-Pooh Blood and Hunger).

    f) Even MBAs have short attention spans, so design the class in 8-12 minute modules, do something different after each module.

    g) U-grads struggle more with Zoom than do MBAs...

    1. I place almost no value on an online class where I think discussion and peer interaction is core to the learning experience. Assigned discussion time over zoom is a joke. Its not that I havent had meaningful online discussions, just that they take place over pages and pages of back and forth texts, which is impossible for a professor to grade when multiplied to every student. Think of super long discussion chains in TD comment sections. It is hard enough to just follow one if you are brand new to it.

  • I've taught online and hybrid classes for years, and their flexibility is great for many students. Unfortunately, often the most at-risk students believe that the classes with the least amount of oversight/synchronous demand will be easiest for them. In reality, they're just opting for enough rope to hang themselves. I've got a 4-week online asynchronous course and an 8-week online synchronous course coming up this summer. Looking at the class rosters, students whose names suggest that they are English language learners are overrepresented in the former, a class that will offer them less support.

    The biggest problem I'm seeing right now is this post-COVID (inter-COVID?) era is that most students have come to see attendance, whether in-person or online as completely optional. A hybrid class with 52 students enrolled will have 8 show up to the in-person lecture, 2 watching the livestream, and 0 watching the video recording after the fact. Students won't read the book and they won't attend the lecture, so learning happens how? I make short (2-4 minute) "tips" videos for assignments pointing students to what they need to do to succeed assignments and warning them off common mistakes, and students can't be bothered to watch those. Or consult the document samples I post for them. Or to ask questions. So even given all the "assists" available to students who desire flexibility, too many students aren't taking them. Meanwhile, professors are expected to be all things to all students simultaneously. It's exhausting.

  • All education depends on the willingness of the student to do the work required to learn.

    I teach math at a community college, and I teach a lot of “co-requirement” courses to students who never quite got High School Freshman Algebra.

    For these students, the success rate for online learning is abysmal. Mostly the students put off doing the work until the last minute, and then discover that if you don’t understand the first day’s material, the second day’s material requires knowing the first day’s material. Starting the homework for the chapter the day before the chapter test is a train wreck.

    Then when we couldn’t test in person, students would use PhotoMath, which gives the correct answer, in a way that makes some of those signs translated from Chinese to English so hilarious.

    Now I’ve taught students in asynchronous online classes, and synchronous zoom classes that excelled. But it required self-discipline. Trust me, it was more them than me.

    That said, at this point I will teach face-to-face unless and until my Dean makes me teach an online class.

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