The sudden shift from face to face learning to online learning as a result of the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted multiple deficiencies across institutions of higher education — everything from an almost total lack of knowledge about technologically mediated learning among a substantial share of faculty to basic infrastructure problems like insufficient bandwidth on campus to push content and collaborative platforms out to students. Mostly, it’s working okay, but just barely okay, and almost no one seems thrilled by how it’s all going.
When this crisis has passed, as it surely will, what are the odds that colleges and universities will say, “Okay, back to teaching exactly the way you used to”? I’d say those odds are very low. At my own university, we launched almost 5,000 online courses in just a few weeks. Someone, somewhere in the administration of the university is thinking or saying, “You know, we could teach a lot more students if we just kept up the online delivery, even at half the current rate.” And they would be right. And that wouldn’t be all bad, given that as a public university our mission is to provide access to quality learning opportunities to as many students as possible.
It’s also worth noting that more and more universities are talking about staying online for the Fall 2020 semester as one of several contingencies.
My worry is not that the university will decide to try to hang on to as many online courses as possible. My worry is that the university and the faculty will see this as a binary choice — courses offered entirely face to face or entirely online — and will forget that there is a third option — hybrid or blended courses, where students and faculty spend some time face to face and some time in online modes of learning and instruction.
One reason I worry that we’ll take a pass on hybrid courses is that a growing body of research across the disciplines demonstrates that student learning outcomes are often the highest in hybrid courses — higher than either option in that binary. Studies of student learning in the sciences, the humanities, and engineering all point to the particular advantages of hybrid courses for non-native English speakers, for students who have to work more than 20 hours per week, for students who have child or elder care responsibilities, and for students managing health issues.
Moreover, reducing the number of hours or days students are on campus reduces the university’s carbon footprint and saves our students money (they pay for less gas, less parking, and fewer expensive meals on campus). If they also have better learning outcomes, why wouldn’t we implement more hybrid courses?
The simple answer, and the one that I fear will control our decisions, is that hybrid courses are a pain in the ass to schedule. In the traditional scheduling model, each classroom on campus has a pre-defined number of slots that courses can be scheduled into and then that physical room is full. But hybrid courses that meet on variable schedules — perhaps face to face for the first couple of weeks, then every other week online, then face to face for the final three weeks — can bring the whole system crashing down. Registrars will have a fit.
But do we really think this is an insoluble problem? In a word, no. Somehow we manage to schedule courses that meet three days a week, two days a week, or one day a week, some for 90 minutes, some for 50 minutes, some for 2.5 hours. I think we have enough brain power on campus to figure out a way to schedule courses that meet every other week, or every third week, or whatever. It’s not possible to give faculty the freedom to select any possible meeting pattern, but it certainly more than possible to add hybrid courses to our existing portfolio.
If we do, we’ll be doing right by our students. And isn’t that the goal?