Hybrid Learning: Challenges for Teachers

With the move to hybrid or "blended" course delivery that is taking place in many institutions, there is a challenge for teachers to think through the pedagogical implications of both methods and develop new designs for instruction and course delivery that maximizes both environments. The goal in the design of the instruction is to make the experience as "seamless" as possible for students, providing intentionality for each environment and the technology used. This intentionality must emerge from the learning outcomes of the course, as well as the engagement of the student throughout and the effective use of technology to heighten interaction and to support the production of learning.

The Challenge to Teachers
Many teachers have a fear of technology and often see a move to hybrid or online learning as a move to replace them as teachers and as a way to diminish the learning experience for students. It is important to remember that technology is only a tool in learning and should never drive the process. When it does, students feel frustrated and tend to see it all as "busy" work rather than as instructionally beneficial. Additionally, teachers can feel overwhelmed in having too many student responses to read through and not really sure what to do with those response or how to integrate them into the learning experience. As such, the technology-supported tasks or activities tend to "sit outside" the actual course, and the course then has the usual classroom time, usual assignments and evaluation activities, plus additional and tedious online activities.

The main problem here is that the instructional design has not changed because the actual online methodology has not been understood. In professional development for teachers, more time should be spent on methodology training than on technology training. Usually, the reverse is true, and teachers can know how the technology works but remain confused about what the benefits are to instruction or why the change is necessary in the first place.

The Challenge to Methods
While I have taught courses in hybrid design for the last eight years, I have consistently worked on a methodology that combines both effective classroom delivery and online delivery into a hybrid design that I have found to be successful. My focus throughout was to look at how the design of instruction and how the use of technology could heighten the engagement of the students in their learning process. As I have already stated, many educational institutions (schools, colleges, and universities) are moving toward hybrid programming and hybrid course delivery intentionally to provide more flexibility for on ground students and to increase the overall marketability of programs of study to potential students. My sense is, however, the main benefit to hybrid from a teaching and learning viewpoint is that it provides an opportunity for the learning process to become much more engaging for students, and for students to drive the learning process more directly. It is also an effective way to increase students' learning autonomy (Reynard, presentation at Middle Tennessee instructional technology conference, 2006). In other words, with the integration of the Internet both to deliver and to mediate the learning process in combination with face to face contact with other students and with the instructor, hybrid provides a meaningful opportunity to bring together the best of both worlds, so to speak.

Maximizing Student Engagement
Throughout my research, I use the term "dynamic" in reference to learning contexts that heighten interaction at all levels and keep students engaged in the process through self-direction and response (Reynard 2003). Although most courses of study require students to interact with the content of the course and with the instructor, when the course design is linear and conventional, there are pre-set expectations about content, interaction, learning products (e.g. assignments, quizzes, essays ), and evaluation. The learning outcomes of such a course, therefore, are also predictable and pre-defined.

Within a dynamic learning environment, while specific content may be presented by the instructor, students are free to explore, interact with, comment on, modify, and apply the set content and additional content they discover or create through the learning process, and all of this leads to the outcome for each individual student, which therefore customizes the learning process for each student. That is, while there may be pre-set learning outcomes based on the study discipline and/or state standards, in a dynamic learning environment, students can work with those outcomes, integrate them with their own learning needs and outcomes, and emerge with a more holistic and relevant body of knowledge that can be applied directly to real life. Therefore, students themselves drive the process and support their own learning outcomes. In order to make this level of interactivity possible, however, dynamic learning environments should make good use of new technology. Technology itself does not produce dynamic learning environments, but it can effectively support the requirements of such a course.

Scaffolding
Dwight and Garrison (2003) suggest that hypertext1 has the potential to completely change teaching and learning by providing students with the ability to explore and retrieve texts for courses and maximize their customized choices in the process. The authors do acknowledge that there is also the potential for chaos and suggest that such freedom must be supported by what they call "scaffolding" (Dwight & Garrison 2003).

By scaffolding, we mean something like Rosenshine and Stevens' (1992) method for preparing learners for higher-level cognitive strategies in loosely structured learning environments. They stipulate that learners' individual readiness levels for the intended learning needs to be assessed, that the instruction needs to be modeled, that students' agency needs to be promoted by removing well-defined structures, and that "just-in-time" interventions should occur when learners become stuck or frustrated. (p.723)

Scaffolding, in this sense, refers to various learning supports, including relevant and immediate instructor intervention. Other supports could be additional links, synchronous chat sessions, self-reflection opportunities, asynchronous discussion, and collaborative knowledge building opportunities. In other words, a course of study progressing in an ongoing dynamic process of learning relies upon a variety of inputs, learning supports (scaffolds), and interaction. Each of these aspects of the dynamic process cannot exist without the other; however, together, they maximize the students' potential for reaching a high level of learner autonomy through self-directed choices, and customized application or outcome. In hybrid, all of the dynamic interaction does not have to happen online but can also integrate classroom time as an opportunity for another form of interaction, thus making the learning even more interesting for the student.

In hybrid courses, face to face class meetings should be a method of scaffolding learning rather than the central instructional arena as in conventional courses. That is, if students are provided with online material, online learning resources, and time to reflect, interact, and produce learning objects or evidences of learning, then class time should not resort to passive learning such as lecture. Class time should be an important piece of the learning process for students and should provide dialog, group work, or lab work or demonstrations of practice. That means the learning will continue to be active, and students will be able to use the class time effectively as part of the overall experience.

Framework for Dynamic Hybrid
The framework I have developed is based on several key characteristics that emerge from the theory of distance learning (Moore & Kearsley 1996), as well as my own modifications based on student feedback and expectations as I have taught hybrid courses.

  • Varied inputs for content construction. To maximize a dynamic framework for learning using Internet tools, content should not be presented only one way. That is, the use of Internet tools allows for content to not only be delivered, but to be engaged with by learners through discussion, dialog, and personal research. Content can be provided through hyperlinks to text, multimedia resources, online discussions, chats, personal blogs, wikis, etc. Throughout the process of exchange, content is worked on and applied by the learner. The more varied the inputs, the more likely that students will engage with content more effectively.
  • Relevant learning scaffolds (including instructor intervention, collaborative knowledge building, and meaningful, self-directed research). Research into online or distance learning shows consistently that students look for teacher intervention more directly in an online environment than in a face to face environment (Moore,1993; Reynard 2003). That is, when learning is self-directed, students know exactly when they need the instructor and why. Additionally, students will look for relevant learning supports as part of their learning process. Hyperlink technology can of course provide much in way of online support and resource; however, teacher intervention should always be in a timely manner and directly addressing the questions or queries of the students. Additionally, projects or assignments that promote students working together on the construction of new ideas for knowledge building create immediacy to the learning and a continual connection with their peers throughout the process.
  • Heightened interaction (with self, with instructor, with other students, and with content). As already discussed, an effective and dynamic learning environment should provide heightened interaction for the learner. The synchronicity of an online environment allows for flexibility for the learner but also an open connection to the learning at all times. Synchronous connections provide an immediate connection that promotes a sense of community for the learners. Throughout my eight years of teaching hybrid, I found the synchronous chat session one of the most dynamic interactions with students. The chat session would run for one hour and thirty minutes with a specific discussion topic and using a chat technology that provide electronic whiteboard as well as text. I would lead the sessions or have a student group leader lead. The class was divided into smaller groups and would be asked to read certain readings or research certain topics before the discussion. While anxiety was usually present with students prior to the chat, once these were experienced, students found them to be really helpful. I found, as an instructor, that these sessions helped me "hear" each student; sometimes students can remain quiet in a class setting yet will become quite verbal online. I also found that when the discussion was extremely directed and in the online chat, we covered more topic area than in a typical class discussion that would typically have more people and more distractions. In fact, it was quite usual following a chat session for students to feel "exhausted" because they had focused intensely for that period of time.
  • Transformative learning outcomes (applied directly to relevant practice). Each course I designed included Web logs (blogs) as self-reflection spaces for each student, online discussion, knowledge building space using Learning in Motion's WebKF software to support group project work, synchronous chat discussions based on course readings, and in class sessions. All course content was available freely through the course, and students are encouraged to develop individual bibliographies from their own research and include those in their blogs. Students exchanged additional readings and external website links through the online posts and reached new knowledge through the WebKF environment. Group projects worked through a collaborative knowledge-building process, chat planning, and final presentation to the class. These projects demonstrated democratic methods of research, design, and production, using every member of the group. The group projects linked the online knowledge building to real life applications of practice. Final exams were in the form of individual research papers that included self-reflection from the blogs and the self-researched bibliographies that supported a direct application of the learned concepts in a real life and meaningful context. These often helped students to realize the relevancy of the course for their specific interests, and it was often not until their learning has been summarized and synthesized and applied through this paper that the students appreciated the learning that had taken place. In other words, simply to have tested students on course concepts would not have had the same benefit as their individualized application through the paper. Also, the paper would not have had the same relevancy to their professional life without the prior engagement and interaction with course content that had taken place throughout the course.

Increasing Learner Autonomy
Learning autonomy is a dynamic, multidimensional process in which learner and instructor are equally active. The challenge to reach learning autonomy is for students of all ages: learning how to learn for oneself is the foundational challenge of all education. In a hybrid model that maximizes student self-direction, content choice and organization and heightened interaction, students become central to their own learning process. This, in turn, increases autonomous learning skills and students become more aware of how they learn, what they want to learn, and how they need to apply their learning to their own life.

The Bottom Line
While there may be financial benefits and program benefits for educational institutions to pursue more hybrid delivery, I would suggest that this model of delivery is one in which the actual learning context can be improved for both teachers and students. Teachers can become more connected and more aware of each student, and students can become more aware of their own learning and take more responsibility for it. This is only possible, however, if the technology is integrated into the actual course design and used for instruction, rather than simply used to deliver and distribute content. It is vital that teachers are given time to explore the different pedagogical implications of both environments, and think through how the two environments can be brought together for students. Hybrid is presenting teachers with an opportunity to increase student participation and maximize the learning potential of each student; however, teachers need the professional development support in redesigning instruction and modifying their teaching methods accordingly.

References

Dwight, J. & Garrison, J. 2003. A Manifesto for Instructional Technology: Hyperpedagogy. Teachers College Record Vol. 103, No. 3, June 2003, pp. 699-728. Teachers College, Columbia University 0161-4681.

Moore, M.G. 1993. Theory of Transactional Distance. In Theoretical Principles of Distance Education, edited by Desmond Keegan, 22-38. New York: Routledge.

Moore, M.G., & Kearsley, G. 1996. Distance Education: A Systems View. Belmont California: Wadsworth.

Reynard, R. 2003. Internet-based ESL for Distance Adult Students – A Framework for Dynamic Language Learning. Canadian Modern Language Review. University of Toronto Press. Toronto, Canada . Vol. 60 No. 2, December 2003.

Rosenshine, B. & Stevens, R. 1992. The use of scaffolds for teaching less structured academic tasks. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco.

Scardamelia, M. 2002. Collective cognitive responsibility for the advancement of knowledge. In B. Smith (Ed.) Liberal Education in a Knowledge Society (pp.67-98). Chicago, Open Court.

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About the author: Ruth Reynard is the director of faculty for Career Education Corp. She can be reached at rreynard@careered.com.

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