The Nature of Hybrid Courses in Writing
Doug Hesse, Former Executive Director of Writing Program (2008-2020); email@example.com
Written in 2020;
This page has three long sections: a general discussion of hybrid courses and issues of in-person learning and online "equivalents"; a discussion of the nature of instruction in writing, with a broad discussion of values (and limitations) of face to face instruction in Covid times; and a table explaining all the different ways writing teachers use class time, with notes about the affordances and constraints of these ways
General Discussion of Hybrid Courses and In-Person Meetings v. Online Activities
Hybrid courses meet in person only part of the time, with the rest of instruction occurring online. DU has had hybrid courses for years, and those courses have operated quite successfully in various configurations and no more specificity than provided in the previous sentence. With Covid-19 driving a large transition to hybrid courses, some faculty and chairs have called for definition beyond ad hoc arrangements that have served the campus well to this point. We're happy to be specific:
- Hybrid courses shall meet in-person only once a week, for a maximum of two hours in that meeting. (Courses needing addition in-person time should be scheduled as HyFlex.)
- The teaching and learning that would traditionally occur during additional in-person meetings shall instead happen online.
- The form that the online component takes (whether as additional homework or as a virtual version of a class meeting) is matter of departmental and individual design, provided that
- The course meets establishing learning outcomes for content and skills and has the same expectations for student effort (the amount of homework, for example) as traditional courses.
- The DU Teaching Toolkit, put together by OTL, contains further resources for Hybrid teaching. See especially Section 4, which provides worksheets and strategies for designing hybrid courses
Following are some conceptual background and practical considerations.
College Courses and Credit: Class Meetings plus Homework
For decades, if not centuries, college professors have designed courses with two main modes of teaching and learning, classes and homework. Class meetings require students and professors to gather at designated times, traditionally one hour of meeting per one hour of course credit. Those meetings consist of lectures/presentations, discussions, project completion or problem solving, studio/lab/performance time or so on. Homework requires students to study and learn on their own: completing assigned readings, writing papers or presentations, solving problems, practicing skills, conducting research, doing group projects or so on. Typical rules of thumb suggest 2 to 3 hours of homework per week for each hour of time in class meetings. So, in a 4-credit class, students generally expect 4 hours of time together in class, plus an additional 8-12 hours of homework: 12-16 hours of learning/work per class.
In Hybrid classes, which have existed at least 20 years in higher education, only a fraction of the time traditionally allotted to in-person meetings is, in fact, spent in-person. The rest of the class conducted online. So, for example, instead of a four-credit class meeting 4 hours per week, it only meets 1 or 2. Students are still expected to complete 12-16 hours of learning per week. What, then, becomes of the "missing" 2-3 hours of class time?
Two Main Possibilities for the Remote Second Class
- Remote learning hours may simply be added to homework expectations. Students may be assigned additional readings to "cover" content that might otherwise have been covered by presentation during the second in-person meeting per week. Alternatively, they may do additional projects, problem sets, research or so on: things that look like homework. As an aside, we note that there was a long tradition of correspondence courses in which students never gathered as a group, let alone with a professor.
- Professors create experiences that translate class meetings into online versions. The most obvious example is lecture-based teaching that has students watch a second lecture—just not in person. They may watch it synchronously, in real time with other students online, or they may watch a recording asynchronously, whenever they feel like it. Of course, they might even read a transcript of the lecture, in which case it becomes a semantic debate about whether students are "doing homework" or "doing class."
- But obviously, lecture is not the only way to conduct class meetings. Professors may organize discussions, projects, applications, scenarios, problem-solving, studio/lab/performance time or so on. Professors may design online activities to emulate those of the in-person modes that make sense. So, for example, they may facilitate discussions online, through speaking or writing, synchronously or asynchronously.
- At some point, the question may arise whether online activities, especially asynchronous ones, are "class" or "homework." Essentially, the distinction does not matter. Are students physically present one course meeting per week, for at least an hour or two? Is the course fully achieving specific learning outcomes, in terms of both content and skills? Are students in a 4-credit class devoting 12 to 16 hours per week to learning activities? If so, the course satisfies DU's minimal criteria for hybrid courses. Departments or programs may stipulate other criteria—or not—as makes sense to them.
Synchronous Hybrids v. Asynchronous Hybrids
In synchronous hybrids, students and professors gather at the same time, in a shared virtual space, for the second class meeting each week. There's no second physical meeting. In fact, Hybrid Synchronous sections will be assigned a physical classroom only one day a week. Students are expected to be present virtually in the second time and will register for the course with that expectation. Professors, accordingly, should plan teaching activities that warrant synchronous gathering. Generally, this should include some kind of interaction, in real time, that cannot reasonably take place asynchronously: Discussions, Q and A sessions, demonstrations that involve questions, student virtual presentations with feedback, or so on. It's not unreasonable for students to expect sessions that are purely presentations to be available for asynchronous viewing; professors may seek the advantages of presenting to a live (if remote) audience rather than to a camera, so inviting students to be present makes some sense. If there's no expectation for interaction, however, professors might rethink requiring synchronous remote attendance. There is, of course, the customary amount of homework required in synchronous classes.
Asynchronous hybrids gather students and professors together as a whole class only once per week, in the physical meeting. Everything else (watching lectures/presentations, participating in discussions, peer response, recording presentations, and so on) happens when and where students choose to complete it, although many faculty assign windows or deadlines for completing activities. It's possible to have occasional real-time interactions even in asynchronous courses; students may sign up for small group conversations at times convenient to them, for example.
The Covid-19 Complications of In-Person Teaching
Logistics necessitated by Covid complicate planning in-person meetings. Social distancing adds considerations for traditional lecturing; students will be spread across rooms, student and professor movements will be restricted, masking will make certain nonverbal cues more difficult to discern, paper handouts or physical artifacts will be impossible, and so on. Many active-learning strategies that professors have come to rely on in their classrooms, as well as many class-time innovations will need rethinking.
Flipped teaching is a relatively new name for an old pedagogy that has been practiced in several disciplines. Rather than spending class time covering material, professors expect students to cover material on their own, prior to class. If students can read a chapter on their own, the thinking goes, then it's not the best use of in-person time for the professor simply to summarize that chapter. Instead of making presentations, faculty design active learning engagements: structuring discussions, answering questions, initiating small group projects/breakouts, devising scenarios, providing studio or lab time, problem solving, and the like.
Obviously, many pedagogies that are effective in flipped or engaged classrooms are problematic in socially distanced ones. Have students pull chairs in small circles for break out discussions? Pair students in think/pair/share activities? Have students gather around a flip chart for a design thinking activity? All would need to be rethought. Even whole-class discussions can be difficult when students are dispersed across wide areas, with visual and auditory challenges.
The Nature of Instruction in Writing--with Specific Considerations for Hybrid Courses
Central to writing courses, even traditional 4-hour-per-week face-to-face courses, is students practicing writing and getting feedback on their efforts. To be sure, students must learn vital knowledge about writing: strategies, techniques, principles, and contexts derived from 2000 years of rhetorical theory and practice and a century of writing research. But knowledge about writing contributes to writing skills only when accompanied by practice. Writing is a skill developed significantly through doing, much like developing musical skills, artistic or performative skills, or laboratory techniques. As a result, writing classes have been "flipped" for fifty years, with class time involving relatively less lecture than more active modes of learning, often centered on students' writings themselves. In addition to presentations and illustrations of concepts, time in writing classes involves, discussing strategies in example texts, peer reviews and workshopping of student work in progress, and in-class studio time to practice techniques with immediate feedback. Many of these activities are actually better performed in online environments than in socially-distanced classrooms. For example, a 4-student peer review group meeting distanced in person would likely need to carry out their work via screens.
What are the basic, minimal requirements of hybrid courses in the Writing Program?
All DU writing courses defined as hybrid will be identified as Hybrid Asynchronous. All hybrid WRIT courses require a single in-person meeting each week, for one or two hours, of the professor and all students, at the regularly scheduled class time. All other class activities will take place online. Hybrid courses must meet all the existing Course Goals and Course Features. Four-credit WRIT courses traditionally require about 12-16 hours of student learning each week: 4 hours in class meetings and 8-12 hours of homework. Hybrid courses must be designed with an equivalent amount of student learning.
Why Face to Face at All? The Classroom as Agora
We acknowledge that many of our teaching practices are probably better suited to online environments than to face to face classes that are socially distanced. (Unrestricted F2F meetings are another matter, providing additional affordances.) So, what might be the benefits of F2F? In-person experiences can strengthen online interactions by allowing all classroom members relief from screens and constituting a learning community outside the digital spaces we now inhabit. Face-to-face meetings in a shared space, even distanced, creates community affinities, responsibilities, and accountabilities that differ from ones constituted through virtual spaces alone. The physical presence of others allows people to shift attention, read physical cues in three dimensions, and enter a specially demarcated physical space and time, separate and apart from the routine of online life. Seeing photographs or videos of Rocky Mountain National Park is different from being in Rocky Mountain National Park. There is a complex ethos and eros of physical presence and engagement, of "being there" with others. In the spirit of the classroom as agora, a guiding principle of in-person meetings should be to foster writing development within an embodied, diverse community as well as a virtual one. The question to ask: When you have people in the same physical space, even under distanced conditions, what's important about using that space and time?
Affordances and Constraints: Writing Instruction Distanced F2F v. Online
Following are the most frequent instructional modes and activities in writing classes, with comments on the affordances (the possibilities/advantages) and constraints (the limitations/disadvantages) of each instructional setting.
Time Individuals/groups working on projects; professor circulates for short conferences
F2F: Studio time a synchronous activity that’s hard to reproduce in a distanced classroom, given that the pedagogical aspect occurs with the professor pulling up a chair, looking at a screen, and having a short conversation. Social distancing mitigates against intimate conversations. This could be done, but students would have to share screens. There still may be value in having students writing at the same time, even if interactions are diminished.
OL: A version of this can work through Zoom, with the class convening for simultaneous writing. If students are drafting in google docs or teams, they can invite the professor to see their screens. Side conversations can happen through chat rooms. However, the better approach is to give short writing assignments—five-ten minutes—and invite sharing, at least until students see benefits for more sustained writing.
Whole Class Discussion
Entire class involved in teacher-led conversation about a reading, work in progress or so on
F2F: These can happen, although classroom arrangements and social distancing will complicate lines of sight and hearing. There will be fewer visual cues for professors in terms of calling on students or for students knowing when to defer to a classmate.
OL: Can be done synchronously through Zoom or organized asynchronously through various tools, though this latter loses some of the power of give and take in real time, and it can devolve into the kinds of flaming/shallow positing that happens in social media. Students regularly perceive discussion board postings as wastes of time, and while they’re wrong in most cases, professors will have to careful structure them and be present.
Individuals or small groups read one-another's drafts and offer feedback
F2F: The kinds of oral exchanges that make this activity powerful in class are more difficult in distanced environments; space may prevent pairs or small groups to be far enough from other pairs/groups for ease of hearing. This can be done via screens in class, although that obviates much of the reason for meeting in person, since comments are mediated by a screen. Still, there are some affective advantages in being physically present while reading one another’s work.
OL: Can be done asynchronously, through various tools.
Whole Class Workshop
Teacher-led whole class discussions of a student work in progress
F2F: This can work, although the considerations of Whole Class Discussion come into play.
OL: Can be done through Zoom sessions, either with shared screens or Team or Google docs.
Whole Class Invention/Problem Solving
Teacher-led whole class idea-generating session on how to address a particular writing challenge; brainstorming ideas, strategies for a given rhetorical situation, usually as preamble to writing
F2F: This activity certainly can happen F2F, with the challenges of Whole Class Discussion (above) being a serious consideration.
OL: The activity can happen synchronously if the class is small enough, and the 15 or so students in writing courses constitute a small enough group. Probably use a screen share to gather comments/ideas.
Small Group Invention/Problem Solving
Teacher-led whole class idea-generating session on how to address a particular writing challenge; brainstorming ideas, strategies for a given rhetorical situation, usually as preamble to writing
F2F: Not particularly well suited to this. As with Peer Response, social distancing creates barriers. Usual techniques such as using flip charts or white boards aren’t available. Would require screens, etc.
OL: Can be done in small synchronous groups, perhaps using Teams or Google docs rather than Zoom shared screens.
(Less common in Writing) The professor lectures on course material. Or students make a presentation to the class. Often involves projection or white boards.
F2F: This can work, though depending on the size of the distanced classroom, there may need to be amplification. Screens may be too small, so projection on individual laptops might be better.
OL: This can work through Zoom. There are some considerations regarding screen fatigue or participant drifting; perhaps this is no more than happens with attention spans in F2F courses
Reminders to the class; upcoming events; elaborations on common difficulties; clarifications; student questions
F2F: With all the familiar provisos about sight lines, hearing, visual cues, etc, the in-person classroom can work well for this, as an immediate way for students to get cutting-edge information, elaborations, and answers to question. Students probably attend to these better than they do to online messages and reminders. Productively done in class.
OL: It can be difficult to get students to pay attention to these sorts of things asynchronously, though some strategies can help: a regular, twice-weekly contact from you, an ongoing “Questions about the class” space, and so on. Synchronously, this can work the same way as in-class, with a chat feature allowing reluctant students to write queries.
Visiting speakers or performers
F2F: Certainly can work in class, though visitors may be reluctant to come in person, and they may require some orientation/help adjusting to the situation.
OL: Many online courses have had success with synchronous guest speakers and visitors.
Watching films or hearing recordings together, when the shared experience is important; perhaps attending events or field trips
F2F: With widespread digital availability of films and recordings, the idea of spending large swaths of class time watching a movie (“Let’s roll in the 16mm projector”) is less productive than other things. However, there’s a place for that, especially if the instructor pauses after sections for discussion or comments, etc. What constitutes good pedagogy in traditional F2F will also constitute good pedagogy in distanced courses.
OL: Having students gather synchronously to watch a film, etc, is probably not very productive—UNLESS you’re going to have some interactive element that is important and well-staged: a parallel discussion chat, pauses for commentary, etc. If it’s just viewing, you can generally have students access materials asynchronously—unless they’re rare or in some specialized format.
Bringing in material objects, archival materials, documents for examination, discussion, writing; at a lower level, paper handouts; creating posters, etc.
F2F: Students can’t handle paper or any other material objects in class, so usual manipulations/investigations are off-limits. If the physical presence of something in the class is important, it would probably take a document camera to share it.
OL: Any objects or artifacts obviously would need to be shared as images, unless your computer has a Star Trek-grade transporter built into it.