In the autumn semester of 2021, students and teachers at the ZHAW’s Institute of Translation and Interpreting were faced with a new challenge – teaching occurred on-site, but access to the physical classrooms was restricted for some due to COVID-certification requirements or individual health concerns. It was necessary to enable all students to continue following their studies – but how can this be done without compromising the quality of teaching and learning for all students? Would offering a live-stream for lectures and seminars actually work? Morgan Kavanagh and Paul Kelly embarked on a pilot project to offer their first semester grammar course in the BA in Applied Languages through a variety of channels – on-site, online with live-stream and through pre-recorded lectures. At the end of it, they asked students about their experiences in this hybrid mode. Did the extended offering help the students with their learning, or did it undermine the building of a learning community? Why did students choose to follow online or on-site? What were the advantages and disadvantages of each setting?
Author: Morgan Kavanagh
The course that we chose for our pilot was a first semester analytical grammar course. Students attended a traditional lecture, where they received input on the analytical framework of grammar, and accompanying seminars, where they applied this framework to language analysis. The course had already been developed and implemented as a blended learning course, with lots of asynchronous online practice each week. Over the past two years, I had also made videos of the lectures for the online semesters. Due to this lecture/seminar format, and considering the resources already available, this course seemed to be a good candidate for a hybrid* classroom pilot in the BA in Applied Languages. Nevertheless, we set forth on this venture with some trepidation.
One of the things that I was concerned about was whether I was able to cognitively manage two separate groups at once. In the lectures, I decided to tell the students from the start that the online group would be just watching the lesson and would not be able to actively participate. I was convinced that, both technically and cognitively, I would otherwise have had trouble answering questions from the online group and the group attending in person at the same time. I would certainly have struggled with asking the on-site group to talk with a partner and putting the online groups into breakout groups, all while monitoring and participating in a chat stream.
In the seminars, however, we actually tried to do all of these things because the groups were smaller and more manageable. It was certainly difficult to always be aware of what the two groups were seeing and hearing – whether I was sharing my screen correctly with just the on-site class, or with the online participants as well, whether the people at home could actually hear me, and whether I could hear them if they tried to say something. I also needed to repeat what the students in the classroom were saying so that the people at home would hear. With the rapid switching between group discussion phases and feedback phases in plenum, there were a lot of technical settings to be constantly managed. A big concern for me was, and is, that I feel that so much of my mental energy would be engaged in ensuring the technical staging of the class that I would not have the mental capacity to pay attention to the students and their learning needs, not to mention the pacing of the class.
Too much focus on the teacher
In lectures, it is clear that the teacher stands and talks at the front most of the time, with students simply listening. However, I have always tried to make my lectures a little more interactive, asking questions of the students present and encouraging them to talk with each other occasionally in groups. But in seminars, the focus is clearly on the students and their active processing of the material through working in groups. A particular concern that I had about having a live-stream for the seminar groups was that I felt it would send out the message that learning in seminars is achieved through passive observation as opposed to active involvement. Indeed, I felt that I was pulled a little more into the focus when I was working with a live-stream. A good example of this is the fact that I would have to repeat what the people in the classroom said for the students at home to be able to hear. This put me into the role of the mediator of the discussion and even the filter of what was passed on.
I was also worried about the effect that being able to study from home would have on how engaged students were with the material and with the class in general. There were many students participating online who were clearly very engaged – and participated actively, asking relevant questions and making important contributions. But there were some who were passively listening while (probably) doing other things. Perhaps they were travelling, working, or having a bath**. I could not be certain. And while on one level, it is really none of my concern what the students are doing while listening to the lessons, on another, their engagement (or lack thereof) affects the group dynamic. It deeply affects the development of a learning community.
Student’s voices on the hybrid classroom
At the end of the semester, we asked students about how they experienced the hybrid teaching and learning setting. Of the 73 students in the course, 44 responded to the questionnaire, giving us a very well-balanced representation of student experiences.
We asked these questions:
- Why did you participate online, on-site, or not at all?
Students who participated on-site did so because they felt that they learnt better, that they were more motivated, and that they could concentrate more. Students who participated online did so because of the convenience, in order to avoid a long commute and for safety reasons related to the pandemic. Interestingly, students’ reasons for coming to class are clearly pedagogic choices – related to how the students feel they learn better. Reasons for attending online were practical or access choices.
- Did the combination of on-site and online learners affect your learning experience?
The vast majority of students said that the combination on online and on-site learners did not affect their learning experience negatively (80%), with 20% even saying that it was a positive influence. This result somewhat calmed my anxiety that I was less competent as a teacher in this setting, and that the flow of the lesson was not greatly disrupted.
- Was your learning experience better***?
Students who participated on-site strongly felt that their learning experience was better. Students studying online also thought their learning experience was improved, but they were less convinced than the on-site participants.
- Were your individual needs addressed more?
Those participating on-site strongly felt that their individual needs were addressed more, while students studying online thought that their individual needs were addressed less, though only weakly.
- Were you more motivated?
The on-site participants felt more strongly that they were motivated. Those studying online also felt more motivation, but less strongly than the on-site students.
- Did you communicate with other students while doing exercises?
Both groups reported that they communicated with others while doing the exercises. However, the on-site group reported doing so more than the online group.
- Did you ask more questions?
The on-site group felt that they asked more questions in their settings. By contrast, the online group believed that they asked fewer questions than if they had participated in the other mode.
- Did you do the tasks that other students were doing?
Interestingly, the online group reported a stronger tendency to perform the tasks that other students were doing, although both groups indicated clearly that they did this.
- Did you multitask more?
The online group indicated very strongly that they multitasked more, while the on-site group reported multitasking, but to a far lesser extent.
- Were you more distracted?
The on-site group reported very clearly that they were not more distracted, whereas the online group were neutral about this. Here we have an interesting distinction in the students’ minds between multitasking and being distracted – the online group stating that they multitasked a lot more without being more distracted.
- Was it easy for the teacher to provide you with the live-stream option?
The vast majority of students felt that it was easy for me to provide the live-stream option (79%). This contrasts starkly with my own perceptions. I myself found it rather difficult: It is not technically difficult to turn on the live-stream, but it is difficult to prepare the lesson to suit both groups and, as I have mentioned already, to manage the lesson.
Summary of results on the hybrid classroom
So, in general, students have a positive view of hybrid formats with live-streams, but underestimate teacher workload (or overestimate my cognitive capacity). They choose online learning for convenience and safety, and they think on-site study motivates, improves learning, heightens concentration, and addresses individual needs. They also indicated more interaction, communication, and involvement, and less multitasking and distraction on-site.
Almost all students want classes to be offered on-site with live-stream in the future (90%).
Where do we go from here?
The reasons that students give for choosing to come to class are strong and pedagogically grounded. They believe that they study better on-site. The reasons that they give for attending online are important considerations related to access to their studies. Both are important – mutually exclusive.
So, how should I respond?
I am continuing the experiment and offering my next lecture/seminar course with hybrid learning settings. In my first lecture of the current semester, attendance was split 50-50 between on-site and online. I am currently a little concerned about fostering a supportive and motivating learning community, but we still have the seminars. Above all, we are still managing to work and learn together, despite the geographical and logistical barriers that the setting creates for a significant part of my target group.
But one thing is certain. In the longer term, different models of teaching need to be explored in order to overcome the intrinsic conflict of access versus community. One way to overcome the communication gap between students on-site and those online could be to develop peer-coaching teams, another would be to use lecture time for project-based learning activities. Whatever actions I and my colleagues decide on, they must be continuously monitored, evaluated, reflected on and, if need be, adapted to maximise learning benefits and minimise unwarranted stress and strain on us teachers.
*The meaning of the term ‘hybrid’ in learning settings has not been definitively settled on in the literature. I am using ‘hybrid classroom’ here to mean a learning setting which is held simultaneously on-site with a live-stream for students to follow online.
**Taking a laptop into the bath is not recommended for health and safety reasons.
***The comparative in the question relates to the students’ perception of their experience in the setting that they chose compared to what they believed their experience would have been in the other setting.
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