Thoughts on Teaching – Teaching in a Pandemic – Synchronous Hybrid Courses – 02/21/2021
With this semester introducing the new mandate of all-synchronous hybrid courses, it has caused some changes to my teaching. As this was a decision made in the week prior to classes starting, there was not a lot of time to think about the various options, and so I settled in on what is one of the standards out there today – teaching simultaneously to students who are in class with me and with students who are on Zoom with me at the same time. We have an institutional subscription to Zoom, and so this was the most logical format to work with.
To do this, I had to split my classes. Back in October, when the schedule was built, we planned for 75% capacity for rooms. That meant that each of my hybrid courses was capped at 22 rather than the usual 30. I’m certainly not going to argue with that, as I have a very writing-intensive class, and 8 fewer students each across 3 hybrid sections is a nice little reduction in the number of written items that I am grading. However, as the spring semester actually started, the idea that we could have 75% capacity in rooms was something that just was not going to work. That meant that, in order to split my class, I had to divide them into two cohorts, with each cohort switching off as to when they would be in class versus on Zoom.
The process of splitting into cohorts went reasonably well, but the chaos of the first week of classes nearly messed everything up. Among my three classes, I had one that had its room moved in December, one that had its room moved in the week before classes, and one that ended up being double booked with another class. So, in the first two, I had students all over the place, depending on when they had last looked at their schedule. It took to the second week before I actually saw all of those students. The one that was double booked ended up with me having to find another room, which we did, but that was also a very chaotic start to the semester.
After all of that, I really felt like we were on a path to disaster this semester. If you had talked to me by the end of that week, you would have found me to be very worried and pessimistic that any of this was going to work out as the semester went on.
This is a completely discussion-based class, and so that worry was enhanced by worrying just how this was all going to work out.
However, as of week 5 of the semester, I would say that things have settled down nicely in this new format. I say week 5 because, even though we just finished up week 6, that week was lost to all of the ice, power outages, water outages, and the like here in Texas for that week.
To set up a completely discussion-based class as a synchronous hybrid was a logistical challenge, for sure. I have to get to classes early enough (especially hard when two of these are back-to-back in rooms in different buildings) to get everything set up to two simultaneous courses — one in person and one on Zoom. I have determined that the best way to have Zoom work with in-person classes is to have the Zoom classes projected on the screen in the classroom so that they are all part of the class together. Then, I have a microphone hooked up to my computer that is aimed out at the room, so that when people speak in class, they can be heard online. I also have a rotating camera on my computer so that I can turn it to the people in class so that the ones on Zoom can see who is speaking. I then have the computer hooked up to the speakers in the classroom so that when people speak on Zoom, they can be heard by those in class.
This set up seems to work ok. I get feedback each week from the group that was on Zoom the previous week, and it is going ok so far. I think I need a stronger microphone, as my little one isn’t great at picking up the whole room. However, we have now missed 3 class days in a row — the Thursday of week 5 and both Tuesday and Thursday of week 6 — due to weather, and so I have not had a chance to try out a stronger microphone.
In looking at how it has been working this semester, I would say that I am surprisingly pleased with how it is going. I have had some students who want to be on Zoom the whole semester and some who want to be in person all semester. What that has meant overall is that it is really varied as to how many I might have in class with me. I have had as few as 3 and as many as 12, just depending on the class and week.
It is actually nice to have the class split up this way. With the students on Zoom, I have all of the names there for me, allowing me to see exactly who is speaking. That also means there are fewer sitting in front of me, allowing me to have a simple seating chart that lets me also identify they by name easily. Most of the students choose to have their cameras off, especially knowing that they are being shown on the screen for everyone in the classroom to see. And, there are definitely some of them who are obviously just there and attending because they feel they need to be, as I never hear or see them at all.
The same goes for the in-class students. Some are just there because they have to be, but I am getting pretty decent participation out of them as well.
My conclusion? It’s not been nearly as bad as I was afraid it would be. It is challenging, but it has opened up some opportunities. I will talk about those opportunities in my next post.