Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

How can hybrid (and online) courses be better than campus courses?

Many institutions want to offer hybrid and online courses in order to improve the economic bottom line: to make better use of expensive campus space, increase enrollments, and allow working students to carry bigger loads and graduate sooner. Those aren't bad motivations.

But it's also the case that, in selected ways, good hybrid and online courses can be better than campus courses that rely mainly on lecturing, textbooks, and students doing homework alone.

By "hybrid" I mean courses where the instructor allocates more time to work outside the classroom by shrinking the time that students and the instructor spend on the classroom. The goal: improve learning while not increasing total time spent on the course by students or faculty.

Here are a few ways in which such hybrids and online courses can be superior to traditional classroom formats (especially when classes have more than, say, 30 students). Can you suggest others?
  • Large campus-bound courses teach one message to all students, a message which may motivate some students more than others, at a pace that may be right for some students, too fast for others, too slow for still others. In contrast, courses that do more (or all) of their work online enable faculty to offer more than one version of lectures, assignments, and even tests. The goal: to excite and engage a larger fraction of all students by giving them challenges that mean something at a pace they can maintain. For example, a class in biology might offer three versions of some lectures or assignments: one version pitched more toward future health care practitioners, another for future engineers, and another for future scientists.  (These different versions need not be created by one faculty member all at once. Faculty might split the effort, or a single faculty member might develop different versions over a period of years.)

  • Just in time learning: In order to motivate students to come to the class sessions prepared, use online quizzes, discussions, or assignments that are due just before class.  Gathering data just before class can also help instructors create classroom activities that respond to what students have learned, or  what they still misunderstand.

  • More thoughtful pace of discussion: Traditional classrooms, especially when classes are large, offer few students a chance to answer questions, or discuss issues.  Online discussion (e.g.,, threaded discussions on Blackboard) give all students a chance to talk, with each other, and with faculty. The time-delay gives students a chance to think about what’s been said, and to think about what they want to say. Many faculty have observed that students indeed become more thoughtful when the pace of conversation slows down, and there’s no danger of being interrupted.

  • Expand the visual dimension: Traditional classroom formats are dominated by words.  But the visual dimension (still, motion) is potentially crucial in many disciplines (e.g., art history, health care, sociology, engineering, ...). For students to develop an educated, intuitive understanding of visual materials, students must be able to (a) call up one or more visual artifacts, (b) discuss those artifact(s) with other students and the instructor while pointing to elements of the visual materials ("Notice the contrast between this and that."). Student discussion of visual materials can often be done more easily and inexpensively online (e.g., using Elluminate, Adobe Connect, Wimba, or other real-time conferencing systems or created narrated presentations using software such as PowerPoint or Prezi.)

  • Open the conversation: Traditional classrooms have a closed door: discussion is limited to the faculty member and students registered in the class. Online discussions are more easily expanded to include significant others outside that group: outside experts, students who differ from those in class, members of the public.  For an extreme example of this, see my previous post.

  • Expand the variety of students and classwork settings: Online and some hybrid formats enable a program to recruit a student body of unusual talents and diversity.  For example, some hybrid programs (often masters programs) combine substantial online work with periods when students and faculty gather in one instructional setting (not always on the home campus). For example, Prof. Maida Withers, at George Washington University, leads a new blended (hybrid) master's program in dance. Students applying for admission were required to have identified their settings near their residences where they could practice, choreograph, and present their dances.

  • Expand the expertise used in offering the program: the more interaction is online, the easier and more natural it is to use instructors and guest experts selected for their fit to the program. Guest experts can speak with a classroom from a distance, but it's even more natural if everyone is online, as natural as a conference call. Some instructors use a 20 minute guest presentation or discussion, involving a different specialist, every week. Assign a reading, and then give students an opportunity to interview the author online.

  • Increase the specialization of the program: Put all these pieces together: it's possible to offer incredible programs that can be be unusually specialized in order to attract (distant) highly motivated students-- interdisciplinary degrees in HMO management, sustainable recreation, 21st century literature and culture, ...  Such programs might be targeted at small, high-paying, recently created job markets. Such programs could be taught by a combination of local faculty and top experts from around the world. The program design would ideally be hybrid: a mix of online education with gatherings of faculty and students at appropriate sites for intense work and coaching.