Enhancing Classroom Instruction One Click At A Time

Introduction: Alan Aycock's perspective on going hybrid

Although it's often useful (and reassuring) to offer broad generalizations about the hybrid model of teaching and learning, I find that personal narratives are in some ways more valuable, because those of us who have taught hybrid courses are able to convey the experience to those who have not. In addition, I note that over the past eight or so years I have taught and supported many faculty who wished to go hybrid, so I feel at least somewhat confident that my experience of going hybrid is not entirely idiosyncratic.

I began teaching in hybrid mode, as many do, before I knew this sort of teaching had a name (and indeed in the late 80s when I first began, it did not). My initial purpose was to break free of the limitations of the face-to-face classroom — the requirement for everyone to be in the same place at the same time, to be well prepared, to be articulate, interested, and attentive. In other words, face-to-face teaching presumes a number of conditions that can rarely be fulfilled: students (and teachers) are sometimes busy or distracted or simply too slow of thought and speech to conduct a richly textured dialog in which everyone participates. We don't often realize how contingent a face-to-face class is because we paper over the cracks with the stern disciplines of lecture, note-taking, and examination, not to mention a rather fearsome form of interrogation and recital that masquerades as Socratic, but indeed is often more redolent of Hobbes.

I started by asking students to complete assignments outside of class that required them to carry out research, then discuss it among themselves before returning to class for professorial scrutiny and further conversation on the matter. In the beginning we used email and hand-coded HTML pages. One of my early online assignments, for instance, required students to work in small groups to present a chapter-by-chapter review of Sherry Turkle's then-recently published Life on the Screen. After they had reviewed the entire book, I invited Dr. Turkle via email to our crude class Web site to examine their comments. She was kind enough to do so, and the class immediately went into a sort of collective cyber-shock at the way in which traditional limits of space and time had been somehow transcended, or even violated. I knew then, at that highly teachable moment, that online learning had much to contribute to pedagogy.

Nowadays we have sophisticated course management systems and Google and Wikipedia and nearly 100 million registered domains, but the underlying pedagogy remains the same: students can work outside the classroom at their own pace and bring extraordinary resources to bear on the most exotic issues. Virtual and face-to-face conversations, if well framed by the instructor, can reinforce, extend, elaborate, and contest one another. No one need be shy or ill-prepared or disengaged unless they wish to be; hence active learning represents a model of accountability and enfranchisement for the majority, rather than a fortuitous agglomeration of circumstances available on any given day only to a lucky few.

The instructor, moreover, can readily experiment with assignments, making demands on students' attention and understanding that would be considered outrageous in a face-to-face classroom, and observing the results both online and in real time. In other words, what we want to know as instructors — not only what students know, but how they come to know it — is made far more visible in a hybrid course. Reasoning and argument are both more protracted and more concrete. Results still count, of course, but not only may we assess the product of learning, we can scrutinize and intervene as required in the process itself.

To be sure, the hybrid is artifice through and through, both less and more than Nature — would Rousseau approve? Yet this brings me to what may be the best of all features of the hybrid, its effect on our understanding of traditional face-to-face learning in the classroom. The hybrid is an art that reveals art: going hybrid delivers an immediate apperception of all that is overdetermined, stultifying, and oppressive in face-to-face learning, yet as well, all that is valuable about it — the spontaneity and empathy that can lend itself to a sense of shared undertaking in the classroom itself. Going online intensifies opportunities for communitas in an alternate register, a freeing up in time and space of learners to work alone or among peers, to accrue timely feedback from the instructor, and to reply in kind, evaluating the course currently in progress instead of the course that exists only in retrospect.

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