Aug 16 2022

Why Portland State University Is Committed to Hybrid Learning

The college’s Attend Anywhere program gears up for another year of growth, but challenges remain.

Higher education continues to face a period of declining enrollment and a student body that is increasingly seeking the flexibility and convenience of remote learning. According to Salesforce’s latest “Connected Student Report,”­ students expect 50 percent of their classes to be online. A recent EDUCAUSE report notes that universities will have to balance digital and physical spaces, making investments in infrastructure, equipment and staff to support this growing demand.

Among the institutions pushing into hybrid territory is Portland State University, which launched a program last fall called Attend Anywhere. The program allows enrolled students to choose on any given day whether to go to class in-person or online. Here’s a look at how Attend Anywhere was created, how its first year went and what lies ahead.

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PSU’s Hybrid Program Originated Before the Pandemic

Attend Anywhere got an indirect start at PSU’s School of Business several years before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Realizing there was interest in hybrid learning among its students, the business school equipped a classroom with a television and microphones for remote participation.

“They were the progenitors of this form of hybrid teaching,” says Jerrod Thomas, PSU’s senior director of academic technology services.

In the summer of 2020, when PSU leaders were unsure if in-person classes would return that fall, they remembered the successful precedent the business school had set. The university knew its students would benefit overall from flexible, remote options, as many of them work and 25 percent have children.

PSU moved forward with starting to make its 142 general classrooms capable of streaming and recording.

However, the university faced some budget limitations. “We don’t have a giant endowment,” says Thomas.

In the end, the school spent roughly $3,000 per room to prioritize remote lecturing capabilities. The tech setups weren’t advanced, but they did enable a synchronous remote attendance opportunity. “It gave us that minimum viable product at scale,” says Thomas.

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Taking Stock of Attend Anywhere’s First Year

Once Attend Anywhere was launched, it was met enthusiastically by students. A survey found that 80 percent of students who enrolled in Attend Anywhere courses felt more confident they would complete them. Nonetheless, the number of users was modest.

“It hadn’t taken off like wildfire,” says Cindy Baccar, PSU’s associate vice provost and university registrar. Thomas estimates that 10 to 12 percent of PSU courses were part of Attend Anywhere, many of them within the college of engineering and computer science.

There was a learning curve over the course of the year. One challenge was that faculty had to adapt to simultaneously teaching students in person and online.

PSU has been proactive about working through that.

“The office of academic innovation has been surveying faculty about what’s working, what’s not working and what the right structure is for their classes,” says Thomas.

Another challenge was awareness. Prior to the pandemic, course codes were meant to convey where students needed to be physically and when. Attend Anywhere — and other variations of remote learning — complicated things. There was also confusion concerning course descriptions: How would instructors distinguish between HyFlex, hybrid and asynchronous instruction?

“People would have confusion about what to call things,” says Baccar.

Get the checklist and see what questions you need to answer about your hybrid learning program.

PSU tackled the problem by asking some fundamental questions: How could course codes be simplified? How could students be given more complete information about what courses would entail?

“It’s got to be about time and place,” says Baccar. “We had to categorize things in ways that meant something to the students and was less about what it might be called tomorrow because of a new buzzword or subtle distinction in the pedagogy.” After some brainstorming and a few student focus groups, the university settled on new codes for the year ahead.

Growing and Adapting for Attend Anywhere’s Future

What’s next for PSU, Attend Anywhere and the university’s shift to remote instruction?

“The next phase is improving the technology and getting more exploration into the learning practices behind it or what makes an effective room,” says Thomas. Tech upgrades will likely include new monitors, tracking cameras, full-room microphones and upgraded speakers. At the same time, the university wants to make sure additional burdens are not created for faculty.

LEARN MORE: Transforming higher education for the hybrid future.

“Anything we can do to support them and keep it simple is what we’ll do,” says Thomas.

Most of all, however, PSU expects another year of growth. Attend Anywhere, much like hybrid approaches across higher education, is a work in progress.

“I expect it to be another year of learning and trying to find the sweet spot of what courses work well in person and which ones can work well remotely. I think we’re going to learn a lot more about how solid the demand is for online versus in-person,” says Baccar.

Thomas agrees. “My expectations this year are about letting people know what’s possible, letting them know what’s out there and getting everybody on the same page,” he says. “Then it’s just gauging interest, improving the experience and growing.”

NEXT UP: Navigating the world of online learning in higher ed.

Illustration by Maria Kovalchuk

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