Lee Webster (L), director of learning and production environments at Georgia State University, and Cub Kahn (R), Oregon State University's Blended Learning Coordinator, talk blended learning success. 

May 03 2021

Making Hybrid Learning Happen in Higher Ed

At colleges and universities around the country, the future of higher education looks increasingly hybrid.

When the pandemic struck, and in the year that followed, higher education found itself grappling not only with how to transition entirely to remote learning but also with an existential crisis of sorts. Facing concerns about student technology access, tenuous enrollment numbers, value propositions and more, higher education quickly realized it needed a path forward. In remote, online and hybrid learning, some colleges and universities are finding that path — or at least some of its paving stones.

Now, higher education technology leaders believe mixed-modality models, such as hybrid learning, will remain in force even as universities look beyond COVID-19. To be effective, however, those offerings will need to go further as schools try to provide educational experiences of equal value to past modalities and settings. A recent Deloitte report, for instance, states that nearly 80 percent of undergraduate students said their online courses lacked the engagement of in-person classes.

At the same time, Deloitte also predicts that hybrid offerings could help institutions grow more resilient in the face of future disruptions. With hybrid learning most likely to remain a driving force even after the pandemic, university leaders point to a range of best practices and technologies that they think will help make such efforts effective.

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“Hybrid learning absolutely will continue past the pandemic,” says Lee Webster, director of learning and production environments at Georgia State University. “With the number of adult learners entering higher education and the need for more flexible schedules, we were anticipating growth in hybrid learning even before COVID-19. The pandemic just accelerated the whole thing.”

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A Hybrid Future for Many Universities

At Arizona State University, Executive Director of Learning Experience Kyle Bowen thinks hybrid is here to stay.

“As we moved to remote delivery last spring, we found there were opportunities to engage in new ways,” Bowen says. “That went directly into the design of a new mixed-modality approach we call ASU Sync. At its core, ASU Sync aims to offer experiences that blend physical and virtual environments and enable students to learn from anywhere.”

Hybrid learning, Bowen says, allows ASU to reach new communities, to offer greater customization for students and to provide an engaging conversation for online learners. “All of that will continue into the future,” he says.

The same holds true at Oregon State University. “Hybrid had already been a growth area,” says Cub Kahn, blended learning coordinator for the Center for Teaching and Learning and Ecampus. Hybrid courses at OSU’s Corvallis campus, he says, grew more than 20 percent annually from 2012 until the pandemic.

“Everything happening now — courses with reduced class meeting time, regular classroom meetings with a significant online component — this form of learning will continue to grow, and likely at an accelerated rate,” Kahn says.

Overcoming the Hybrid Learning Curve

As schools continue looking to effectively implement and expand on hybrid modalities, teacher training will grow increasingly imperative. “There can be a huge learning curve in terms of how to deliver online courses effectively,” Georgia State’s Webster says. “Our instructional and technology support teams work closely with our academic units in a top-level approach, with a program called Mastering Online Teaching, a crash course on what they need to do to get started using the online system and online course delivery.”

Training and faculty support also need to include a bottom-up component, Webster says, with self-help guides that enable instructors to quickly get started with remote learning tools. Webster’s team also emphasizes ease of use, with focus groups examining how students and teachers interact with hybrid technologies.

“We do that multiple times, and we adjust it every time there’s a place where users are running into issues,” he says. “We look at the computer itself, the icons on the desktop, the audiovisual system and the videoconferencing system. We want them all to work together to minimize the complexity and streamline the experience.”

Cub Kahn
This form of learning will continue to grow, and  likely at an accelerated rate.”

Cub Kahn Blended Learning Coordinator, Center for Teaching and Learning and Ecampus, Oregon State University

Bowen considers flexibility a key to hybrid success. To that end, his team offers a range of professional learning opportunities for teachers to help them make creative use of hybrid tools. “We look at teaching strategies, ways to remain responsive to student needs and new methods for active learning in the hybrid space,” he says. “It’s all about helping faculty to work within this evolving environment.”

At Oregon State, Kahn promotes hybrid success through close cooperation between his team and the university’s IT team. “In terms of actually rolling out the technology, we work together to put on workshops and to develop training materials and online resources,” he says. The resulting efforts include faculty learning communities, workshops, web resources and other communications with campus stakeholders.

Key Technologies for Hybrid Learning Success

Institutions determined to support hybrid learning have no shortage of technologies to choose from. At Georgia State, Webster leans heavily on the merged compute and broadcast capabilities of all-in-one computers, which combine the instructor’s computer, monitor, microphone and camera into an integrated unit.

“The professor can capture audio and visual and also do rudimentary annotation,” says Webster, adding that such devices “have all the capabilities the professors need, and they aren’t having to lug around webcams or other peripherals.”

Webster also uses platform-agnostic videoconferencing software called soft codecs. Because they’re not tied to a specific vendor, soft codecs can integrate with any videoconferencing or lecture capture platforms, Webster explains. Such devices ensure teachers will also have access to the latest videoconferencing tools and capabilities.

“The videoconferencing companies are releasing new features all the time, with breakout rooms, virtual backgrounds and virtual assistants,” Webster says. “The vendor-agnostic soft codec makes the camera and microphone available through a USB port, so it can work with any videoconferencing platform.”

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Likewise, Bowen has used a number of key connectivity tools to support hybrid learning. “We’ve had as many as 3,000 Zoom class sessions daily,” he estimates. The Slack messaging app has also been critical: “Faculty and students use it to build relationships.”

ASU has worked with Adobe Creative Cloud to help learners engage in creative processes without being tethered to a specific location. “They can be creative where they are and can engage peers in co-creation,” says Bowen, who also uses the Canvas learning management system to weave together remote and in-person learning.

“Canvas provides each class with a base of operations, a central place from which they can share media and connect students,” he says. “It offers a common space to work and learn, which underpins that live experience and supports the blending of physical and virtual spaces, along with the blending of synchronous and asynchronous activities.”

Similarly, Oregon State makes Canvas LMS the cornerstone of its hybrid effort. “We have learning materials housed there, we have assignments there, and we also facilitate interaction within the learning management system, including structured discussions that are part of the course,” Kahn says.

“It’s important because so much of the teaching and learning goes on there, once you go beyond the traditional model of lectures, term papers and exams,” he continues. “In hybrid courses, it enables us to stretch the boundaries of the classroom in both time and space.”

MORE ON EDTECH: With hybrid learning on the rise, higher ed sees a Zoom room boom.

Strategy and Equity for Hybrid Learning Success

If hybrid learning is to remain a permanent part of the learning landscape, university leaders will also need to integrate it into their strategic planning efforts. This will mean, among other things, a renewed emphasis on issues of digital equity.

“IT leaders need to think about those technology challenges that students have, especially when students cannot come into the computer lab or don’t feel safe doing so,” Webster says. “A lot of Georgia State students lack stable internet connections for their online courses, so we’ve invested in a device loaner program to provide students with a laptop and a hotspot for a semester at a time.”

Technology leaders can also advocate for classrooms that support hybrid modalities. “You need to make sure every space has the core capabilities, not just with videoconferencing tools but the ability to run modern software,” Webster says. “Professors need a compute environment that can support advanced uses without a lot of frustration.” He also wants universities to invest more aggressively in technology to support smart scheduling, so professors can best use their IT resources.

“The registrar needs software to optimize where all of these thousands of classes go every semester, something that takes into account the available technology in the room,” Webster says. “You want make sure that professors are being scheduled into classrooms that have the appropriate technology for what they need to do.”

Effective strategic planning around hybrid approaches requires that remote learning scenarios remain top of mind across all levels of campus administration, Bowen says.

“The mindset is that we are at the beginning of the revolution. We are inventing and innovating as we look at the future of this modality,” he explains. “We want to design the best possible live virtual learning environment to help faculty members not only to engage students remotely but to make it a more natural engagement.”

Ben Rollins and Robbie McClaran