Day: May 28, 2020

The Hybrid Plus Strategy

As we move into an uncertain fall semester, a central question needs to be how we maintain a student centered approach to teaching and learning in the face of social distancing, whatever form that might take. In a recent survey 75% of students expressed dissatisfaction with the experiments undertaken in Spring 2020 collectively and aptly entitled “remote learning.” The students in this survey found “remote learning” unsurprisingly found the experience isolating and unsatisfying. The learning outcomes of the experience are also likely to be problematic as early indicators seem to be showing. For many, instructors and students alike, the experience was a frustrating one for entirely predictable reasons. We did the best we could. However, any good designer will tell you to learn from the flaws of your experience and iterate moving forward.

I have developed a strategy called Hybrid Plus to try to recapture some of what was lost in the transition. Hybrid Plus starts from a fundamentally student-centric position but recognizes the administrative challenges in what my friend Bryan Alexander calls the “toggle term.” The assumption under this scenario is an academic term characterized by unpredictability where institutions may be forced to shut down physical facilities unexpectedly due to localized outbreaks of the virus and/or a more nationalized shutdown. The Hybrid Plus strategy also assumes that no magical solutions such as an early or widely-distributed vaccine will emerge (a Dragon King event). It hopes for the best under such circumstances but plans for the worst.

Hybrid Plus is a holistic approach to teaching and learning that is designed specifically to address the problems of student connectedness coupled with the uncertainties of an environment characterized by the pandemic. At the same time, it recognizes that there are real administrative challenges in facing a “toggle term” effectively. The strategy has three elements:

  1. Create Student-Centered Instruction: First, faculty must thoroughly self-assess their classes and ask themselves the following questions. I discuss these in detail here.
    1. Which parts of instruction are best achieved asynchronously?
    2. How can I maximize the impact of limited synchronous interactions with my students?
    3. How can I structure assessments to be more authentic and meaningful and away from turning assessment into a game?
  2. Tailor toolsets around maximizing the impact of connectivity to our students. We need to assess the tools available to faculty and students with an eye toward facilitating teaching and learning. The goal here is to identify and rectify deficiencies before the semester starts. I have developed a rubric and survey to assist faculty and institutions identify and apply optimized toolsets for the types of teaching and learning they are trying to achieve. I will be holding an interactive session on this topic on June 11 as part of Arizona State University’s ShapingEDU initiative. Some key commonalities that should always be observed in this environment are:
    1. Technical barriers of all types must be minimized to the greatest extent possible. For instance, videoconferencing systems should be lightweight, system agnostic, have a dial-in option, and work robustly on mobile devices. Access to technology should not limit access to learning to the greatest extent possible.
    2. Whenever possible technology should prioritize student-driven functionality over other concerns. For instance, one of the issues that many students face is how to engage in informal learning with other students. Informal learning is critical to student success. Students should be encouraged to use, and be provided with, synchronous platforms for meeting with other students. One of the biggest victims of isolation from campuses is isolation from other students outside of class. A student-driven video conferencing solution coupled with an asynchronous, student-driven, chat and meetup functionality is key to developing communities of practice among students.
  3. Create flexible scheduling systems around physical environments to provide as much in-person, human interaction as circumstances permit. We should discard, for the most part, the synchronous in-person model for instruction and instead create flexible scheduling arrangements that allow teachers and students to come together on an ad hoc basis that complements their online experiences. These groups should be anticipated to be small in accordance with CDC and other health officials’ guidelines. However, the importance of this kind of human contact should not be underestimated. The challenge for administrators is to create the kind of flexible scheduling system and to communicate the availability of different kinds of facilities to faculty on an as-needed basis. This is a particularly important element to those courses requiring hands-on instruction such as many workforce programs as well as many academic courses requiring labs for experimentation. However, this kind of interaction is important to all kinds of classes. Attention to support services that would benefit from a physical presence should also be given.

Planning around these three elements will give institutions the most flexibility in meeting unexpected circumstances, while preserving the integrity of the teaching and learning process and, most importantly, engaging students to the greatest extent possible. If this crisis has taught us anything, it is that we can no longer afford to treat students like widgets being processed through the systems of learning. Covid-19 has blown apart the factory walls and the parts have been scattered to the wind.

Technology can provide a key linkage to building a new kind of learning environment. However, learning for many students will be crippled if those technological solutions are not paired with systemic adaptations. Teachers must adapt their systems of engagement with the communities of learning that they are responsible for. Students must be encouraged to adapt their systems of interaction with each other as well as their learning (learning to learn is part of any learning process). Institutions must facilitate constructive engagement at all levels and must therefore adapt institutional practices around maximizing systems of interaction in an environment without walls. We may have to let go of some already outdated systems to achieve that. However, the pandemic may provide a catalyst for an overdue reimagining of our learning ecosystems. There is great opportunity for innovation here.

Optimizing Instruction for Hybrid Plus

Transitioning to remote teaching has, to put it mildly, been a chaotic and uneven process. Those of us who look deeply into what we are doing in the classroom quickly recognized the shortcomings of teaching the same way via video conferencing. Of course, teaching is but a means to an end. The real question is how you preserve learning under these circumstances. The Hybrid Plus modality requires a deep re-evaluation of how we teach and learn and a recognition that adapting those practices to the shifting strictures of technology is essential to maintaining engagement and success in a particularly fragmented learning environment.

As I redesign my course for the summer and beyond I am applying design principles to the new sets of constraints and opportunities that emerged from the process. One way to approach this is to break down teaching into three elements that apply to virtually all classes: asynchronous elements, synchronous elements, and assessment strategies (which may be done both synchronously and asynchronously). Deconstructing classes into these three categories helps us understand how the different pieces will respond to the limitations of remote teaching best and which areas of student engagement are challenged the most by the shift in modalities.

Asynchronous Elements

Which parts of instruction are best delivered asynchronously? Most content distribution would fall under this category. While teaching Socratically is not possible asynchronously, its loss is partially compensated for through persistence and replay-ability of online content. Prerecorded videos are a good substitute for the scaffolding our lectures provide. They should be short so that the content is related in chewable bits (under 10 minutes is ideal). Obviously, written material can be used to supplement this. However, I encourage teachers to remember that the web of 2020 is a profoundly visual medium and this offers many kinds of opportunities to mix and match different forms of communication. Longer bits of faculty-generated content should be broken up and supplemented with visual media wherever possible. Finally, it’s important that content in a disconnected medium such as remote learning make narrative sense. It’s particularly important to recognize the narrative journey your students are on and to pay particular attention to highlighting the relevance of any particular piece of content or content module to the overall story.


Synchronous Elements

Synchronous interaction in a world of social distancing is a precious commodity. Therefore, it is essential to think carefully about maximizing the impact of synchronous interactions both between teacher and student(s) as well as among the students. The disinterest and distraction we observe in a physical environment is amplified in remote contexts. Instructor-led class meetings should be centered on an active project and should be designed for small (12 or less) groups of students. I plan to schedule periodic working sessions with the design groups in my class. The only will be the only instructor-led synchronous group activity. They will be incentivized, not mandatory in nature. In these sessions the groups will be working on specific activities directly tied to the completion of their projects.

Maximizing opportunities for individualized instruction should be prioritized in all synchronous class planning. There are logistical challenges in meeting with large numbers of students individually but mechanisms to target those struggling the most should be developed within the class structure. This summer I am partnering with a librarian who will be embedded in my class to complement my engagement efforts. Creating opportunities for individual interactions leverages the affordances of instructional methods that are divorced from the strictures of space and time. The most effective synchronous elements of my remote learning class were actually the one-on-one meetings where I checked in with my students, reviewed their work, and, most importantly, answered specific questions that they might have hesitated to ask in front of a larger group.

The most desirable, and hardest to achieve, synchronous interactions are student-initiated interactions. The existence of these indicates that the students are self-motivated to engage with the material socially. The problem is many of our online systems are not optimized for this kind of interaction. It is essential to encourage students to congregate on their own. Many institutions do not have student-driven videoconferencing platform or chat platform within the LMS. Although less-than-ideal, the only real alternative in those circumstances is to direct students to external tools such as Zoom, Slack, and Facetime/iMessage to give them the informal learning tools they will need. Institutions should prioritize giving their students this kind of functionality.

Assessment Strategies

Traditional assessments administered online are subject to compromise. Simply transferring in-person exams to an online environment invites gaming the exams (cheating). This is an unwinnable war. If for no other reason than the integrity of the class (and there are many others) reassessing your assessment strategy is a central part of this exercise. The online environment favors authentic assessments. If you think deeply about most in-person assessments, a large part of what they demonstrate is the student’s ability to take the test. The student’s mastery of the subject is often only a tertiary effect. Why do we test this way? In short, it’s what’s possible using the technology of pen and paper, which has characterized education in one way or another since Homer. New media opens up new possibilities in this area. Students can create meaningful artifacts to demonstrate their learning in a class that have a life far beyond the professor’s filing cabinet. Authentic assessment is more meaningful to students and therefore the incentive to cheat is lowered and, furthermore, their ability to cheat is compromised when they are creating something new. Finally, a properly structured act of creation is also an act of teaching. The best way to learn is to teach.

Poor assessment strategies are amplified online as courses quickly turn into a box-checking exercises with periodic assessments merely providing the more annoying box. Judgement from a distant instructor is also profoundly depersonalizing and disempowering, both of which are severely destructive to the learning process. Authentic, personalized assessment should therefore be central to any learning process. There are many ways this can be achieved. Students can record video submissions to assignments, create public blogs, or execute semester-long projects such as the Final Portfolio project in my class. The technology gives them new ways of expressing their understanding. Effective assessment strategies will leverage these possibilities.

Fundamentally, teaching in a Hybrid Plus world requires opening minds to the opportunities that the technology offers. Students and teachers alike will have to spend some time rediscovering what it means to learn. Not all things will be better in this environment, although I am confident that over time we will settle on a new normal that optimizes the best of both online and physical environments. Our sacrifices today may help chart a way into a new post-pandemic educational landscape that will be better than the pre-pandemic one. The world will never be the same. It is our responsibility to make sure that this change is for the better.

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