The Challenge of Hybrid

Update Oct 2020: I recommend reading this article about merging modalities by Valerie Irvine.

At my University, our Academic Technologies team, Academic Development Centre and temporarily formed Learning Design Consultancy Unit have been creating guidance and training to support a wide range of practices suddenly made essential because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I talked about some of them at the Jisc conference back in June.

The last few months I have been circling around the challenges of “hybrid” teaching and that’s the focus of this post. I am currently awaiting feedback from my colleagues on some guidance I’ve drafted but I thought I would also share my thoughts in the open. Comments very welcome.

The challenge is how to plan for, and deliver, taught sessions to a mixed cohort where some students are present in-person on campus and some are not. There are difficult choices my academic colleagues are having to make.

This isn’t course design from scratch, this is adjustments to existing approved modules, part of existing approved courses that students have already signed upto. The guidance pre Covid doesnt cater for the current scenario. Whatever the academic’s intentions and whatever the student’s preference, there is a chance that a proportion of any class will not be present in-person, due to delayed arrival on campus or quarantine. This is inevitable and somehow needs to be catered for.

We want to support these difficult design decisions with clear guidance but it’s hard to do that with confidence. Its made harder by a lack of agreed terminology in the education community and by some nuance between different technical set ups.

This QAA taxonomy is helpful but I disagree that hybrid and blended are interchangeable terms. To me, hybrid is a word specifically to describe a teaching session with an in-room audience and a remote audience. I don’t know why I think of that definition so strongly: clearly not everyone does. But we need a word for dual audience / dual mode / mixed mode teaching events. This would aid conversations between academics and their collaborators, and make for clearer design decisions.

There is a whole set of challenges to delivering a hybrid session in that sense. How meaningful is the participation for the remote audience? How does trying to accommodate remote audience particularly impact on the participation in the room? How much better is the student experience of a scheduled online synchronous option with limited participation, as compared to a recording watched after the event?

A related question around remote participation is the variety of options. What is the difference between using a livestream model with controlled participation options, or a passive broadcast without expectation of remote audience interaction? There is a spectrum within hybrid sessions between broadcast at one end and meaningful synchronous interaction at the other, particularly peer learning. If the student experience is at the broadcast end, it is worth considering whether  recording the session and releasing it afterwards would actually make for a better experience for both in-person participants and remote participants.

The next contentious word needing definition is hyflex. To me, hyflex is a characteristic of a course/module design where an individual student can switch between modes for different activities. They might switch day by day, or week by week. The key is they can choose whether to engage with online asynchronous, online synchronous, or in-person if that’s an option. A skilled teacher can design that. But not everyone has that level of skill (yet) AND it challenges of practices around student timetables and attendance monitoring. So I see hyflex as desirable but difficult to design. Once it’s designed though, I’d suggest that it’s easier to deliver an online asynch, online sync and in-person session than a hybrid taught session. It might take more time though and that’s a problem of logistics and workload.

So … in my mind:

Hyflex is a characteristic of a module/course, not a particular session.

Hybrid is a characteristic of a session.

A hybrid session might be a component of a hyflex module/course, but does not in itself make a course hyflex, because it’s only on component of the course.

A hybrid session is difficult to deliver without another staff member.

The best tool in the world can be used poorly if the session design isn’t clear.

The level of meaningful remote participation in a hybrid session will be determined by the skill of staff and availability of additional staff, mixed with the appropriate use of audience feedback methods and functionality. There is a threshold of meaningful participation, below which it might not add much value.

The ability to provide a hyflex course requires institutional capability around timetabling, attendance management, and quality assurance methods as well as real design skill by academics and their collaborators.



3 thoughts on “The Challenge of Hybrid

  1. Hello
    I believe hyflex is a new word in learning and so it is necessary for myself to arrive and demand a precise meaning
    Thank you

  2. On another note, I would worry that hybrid is ‘separate, but equal’ and close to Board Vs Brown.
    This is a video of a talk I did (COME ON THERE IS NOTHING ON NETFLIX)
    about how we did our MOOC teaching. The metaphor I used was V = I/R with voltage here being the effort spent to get round the course and resistance being the structural challenges the course presented. The goal was, as best we could, identify and design out resistance. You wanted to go faster, here you are, you wanted more reading on this, here you are.
    I wouldn’t have called it hybrid, because like electrons, the number of routes is infinitesimal. If I had to name it, I’d have called it plural. But I think plural underplays the listening stance we took and the proactive responses we made. Which struggles when the word carries perhaps the weight of the mode of presentation and consumption and not conversation

  3. Hi Amber, I found this really interesting to think about. If any students has to self-isolate at any point, is it not likely hybrid will have to be hyflex in practice though i.e. the switching will be unpredictable and enforced under these circumstances?

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