Aug 17 2022

How Community Colleges Are Setting Best Practices for Hybrid Learning in Higher Ed

Schools that offered courses with at least some remote learning aspects before the pandemic have found ways to make hybrid instruction a success.

El Paso Community College has provided remote instruction since the 1990s — first via TV studio broadcasts and later through an online platform. During the COVID-19 pandemic, like many schools, the Texas-based college experienced a greater demand for offsite learning opportunities.

To accommodate its increased online course needs, EPCC made a number of adjustments, including quadrupling its internet broadband capabilities and loaning Wi-Fi hotspots and Dell laptops to students.

Although the school has resumed face-to-face instruction, it has continued to provide computers and hotspots when needed; and the interest in remote learning options has remained strong, according to Keri Moe, associate vice president for external relations, communication and development.

“More faculty are integrating online platforms or resources to supplement students’ learning experiences,” Moe says. “It provides expanded options that improve the way students and faculty collaborate and interact. Blended delivery allows for the use of multiple modalities, which reinforces engagement, learning and retention. Essentially, it is the best of both worlds: Students can get access to materials at any time, while still experiencing the benefits of face-to-face support and instruction.”

With nearly 1.4 million fewer students enrolled in undergraduate programs than before the pandemic, offering hybrid courses — a class structure nearly half of students (49 percent) prefer — could potentially help colleges and universities boost registration. Some, including EPCC, have found the classes are a natural fit for many of their students.

“EPCC has always prioritized schedule options and delivery platforms that serve the diverse needs of our students,” Moe says. “We offer courses — in-person, hybrid and online classes — from early in the morning until late evening. The pandemic has shown the value of remote learning, not only for completely online opportunities but also to strengthen the overall academic experience.”

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Sharing Best Practices Can Foster Hybrid Learning Success

At Rockland Community College, an instructor who had been overseeing a graphic arts study abroad program with both online and in-person components was instrumental — along with eight other faculty members who had hybrid experience — in helping the school shift to an online system during the pandemic, according to Associate Provost Fabiola Riobe.

The educators led workshops at the Suffern, N.Y., school, which is part of the State University of New York system, and served as a general resource for faculty members who weren’t as familiar with the approach.

RCC has also implemented an online training sequence that all faculty members have to take before teaching online and, based on a tech staff member’s recommendation, recently launched a concierge service to answer students’ technology questions related to online learning.

“You want to create an environment where everyone feels included and like they could be successful,” Riobe says. “That goes for students and faculty alike.”

EPCC, too, initiated remote learning-based tech training for its faculty and staff. The school’s IT department offered daily workshops on video editing and how to use microphones, cameras and software applications such as Adobe Creative Cloud and Microsoft Teams.

“The pandemic made the challenges of the digital divide more apparent, both in access to technology and in knowledge of how to use it for students, faculty and staff,” says Marco Fernandez, EPCC’s interim associate vice president of IT. “The IT Division quickly worked to ensure faculty and staff had the technology they needed to teach and offer services to students remotely.”

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Maximize the Impact of Hybrid Learning in Higher Education

Incorporating every student can be difficult during in-person lectures; educators face similar challenges in hybrid sessions.

To facilitate engagement, some schools have added technology ranging from speaker systems to ceiling-mounted microphones.

“Many community colleges are between 50 and 100 years old, so a lot of them were already working on technology refreshes,” says Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. “Certainly, that was increased by the needs that came with the pandemic, and we continue to see equipment upgrades.”

Pikes Peak State College in Colorado Springs, Colo., for instance, outfitted certain classrooms with microphones, cameras and Samsung monitors.

Katie Wheeler, assistant professor of communications and director of the school’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, has used an Owl Labs Meeting Owl in classes, which includes a 360-degree camera that pivots to focus on the person who’s talking.

READ MORE: Maximizing Microsoft Teams for higher ed hybrid work.

“It’s actually my favorite device,” Wheeler says. “I teach communication courses for public speaking, popular culture and organizational communication. My students are constantly interacting, and it’s worked well to have a variety of technological options.”

To encourage participation in class, Wheeler outlines how students should provide input in her lecture slides.

“If there’s no structure for how to ask or answer questions, the hybrid classroom falls apart,” she says. “It makes a big difference to add an instruction box that says, ‘Step 1: I want you to raise your physical or digital hand. Step 2: I want you to wait for me to call on you, or I will develop a speaking order.’”

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How to Embrace Hybrid Learning in Higher Education

Even though many schools are now holding at least some in-person sessions, online course components won’t be vanishing anytime soon.

A July EdTech Twitter poll found 64 percent of schools planned to offer some form of hybrid learning during the current school year. Approximately 40 percent of respondents said all or most of their classes will be hybrid.

As the pandemic was taking off, online learning was viewed primarily as a way to minimize interruptions to educational programs. Today, a number of schools are examining the most effective pedagogy for hybrid instruction.

“I don’t anticipate we can unring the bell; our world of work and learning has been forever changed,” Parham says.

As instructors continue to weave more hybrid elements into classes, EPCC’s Fernandez anticipates IT departments will play an even more critical role in helping to shape students’ educational journeys.

“Access to technology and support for technological needs are essential for strengthening student outcomes,” he says. “Higher education institutions should focus on having robust network infrastructure and internet access, including hardware and software platforms that facilitate remote learning, online resources and training opportunities for students, faculty and staff.”

NEXT UP: Why Portland State University is committed to hybrid learning.

Illustration by klawe zeczy

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