One of those very interesting things that has come from the forced synchronous hybrid model that we are now doing is that I have actually been able to experiment with something that I have been wanting to do for a long time. I have really been wanting to have a back channel for communication in my hybrid classes.
When I started teaching hybrid, I originally had it as a discussion-only class. The highest grade came from coming to class every day and talking out loud in class. As I came to realize that I was disadvantaging students who either could not or did not want to participate in an oral discussion, I have added an online discussion forum that runs along with the course. I first had just a single discussion forum that the students could use at any time in the semester. Since the pandemic, I have moved to weekly forums, but they are still open the whole semester. The weekly format allows each one to be topical rather than just a broad discussion that could include anything. That has solved the problem of giving a place for students who either can’t or won’t participate in an oral discussion.
What had been missing was a synchronous way for my students to participate in class without having to talk. I had considered some options, such as Discord or Slack, but I really didn’t want to add yet another technology for my students to have to manage. As well, I just wasn’t sure if I could manage students in class and a text chat at the same time. So, this had been an idea that had just been running in the back of my head for a while.
What has happened this semester with the new synchronous Zoom hybrid course is that I now have that back channel discussion. With the students on Zoom, they have the full capabilities of Zoom to play with. And, since many of them don’t want to have their cameras on, and it is hard to manage them talking along with the people in class talking, they have been using the chat to contribute in class. And, it has been great!
It is actually pretty easy for me to manage having about 1/3 of the students in class, while the rest are on Zoom. With most of them typing rather than talking, it actually is pretty easy to then manage the 2/3 on Zoom. I actually can call on the people in class by name more easily, and I have a better ability to memorize their names, as fewer are there. Then, with the ones typing in the Zoom chat, I also have a name associated with each one. So, I can read what they write out to everyone, and I can also call on them by name as well as get to them for follow-ups.
Even better, Zoom automatically sends you a transcript of the chat, so I don’t even have to keep track of who participates in the chat in real time, as I can get their names and what they said afterwards. That actually frees me up to pay more attention to the actual conversation, as I don’t have to worry about keeping track of participation from that part of the class.
So, in summary, this has been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as something that I had been looking to do just fell into my lap.
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.
Thoughts on Teaching – Teaching in a Pandemic – Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Hybrid Courses – 02/18/2021
As things have “normalized” in this Spring semester, a decision was made that we needed to teach all students at the same time. So, instead of doing what I did last semester, which was splitting my hybrid courses into two different cohorts meeting on separate days with those who could attend neither essentially doing the course completely online, I now have only one session a week for my hybrid courses, and every student either needs to be there in person or on Zoom.
I have gone back and forth on whether that is a good thing or not. I will definitely say that, when presented with this idea, I was not in favor of it at all. In fact, it would be safe to say that I both hated the idea and dreaded having to do it. By the end of the fall semester, that previous model had me teaching only to about 3-5 students in person each session, leaving about 75% of the students essentially using my hybrid course as an online course. There are definitely reasons for this —
- For some students, they were either quarantined or tested positive, meaning they would be out of in-person class for 2-3 weeks depending on when it occurred.
- For others, as it became obvious that in-person classes were leading to spikes in exposures and cases, they chose not to come to class to stay safe.
- I also had a couple of students who were taking care of relatives or had relatives in the hospital, and they did not want to be in public for fear of exposing those they were taking care of. One student noted that his/her parent was in the hospital, and if he/she left the hospital, he/she would not be allowed back in without a quarantine period.
- And, finally, I very simply had students who had signed up for a hybrid course but realized that they could do the course completely online and decided they would rather do that. Two thoughts on this one:
- First, we were specifically asked to have a fully online version of the course ready to go so that if we did get shut down, we would have alternatives for them ready to go. As that alternative was up and ready to go, I let my students know that they could move online-only when they thought it was necessary. For a number of students (especially those who might have dropped the course otherwise), this was a good alternative.
- Second, and this is a much broader thought on it, it allowed for students to change their minds on what they wanted out of the class. Every semester I have 2-3 students who at some point come to me and say they would rather be in my hybrid course if they are online or would rather be in my online course if they are hybrid. This is because they either realized one mode did not work for them or their circumstances had changed and the other mode worked better. It was kind of nice to have this alternative of a course that could be either. (As a note, I am going to explore this idea more in a later blog post.)
This semester, because of the decision that I said at the beginning, we have had to move away from that model of allowing for different modes. Now, we have synchronous-only classes. Every session of my hybrid course this semester has all of my students in it, either face-to-face in front of me or online via Zoom. It has certainly been a mixed bag so far on working in this format.
I’m going to explore more in how it’s going and what thoughts I have on the format over the next couple of blog posts.
One of the issues the I keep coming back to in thinking about the past semester is how we teach online. Much has been made of the difference between online teaching (which I have been doing for over a decade now) and remote learning that was forced on everyone in March of this year.
The difference between the two is vast, as a true online course is one that needs to be created from the ground up as an online course and cannot be a quick move over of face-to-face content to an online environment.
One of the real differences that I noted in the approaches to online vs. remote teaching is the question of how the learning takes place. In my online course (and as echoed by my friend Mike Smith at McNeese State University), I have taught almost exclusively asynchronously. Most of the design books that I have read and resources that I have accessed over the years have confirmed that this is the best format for fully online instruction, as it allows for the flexibility in completing work and interacting with material that many online students are looking for.
Before I go any further, however, I do want to provide some definitions here:
- Synchronous Learning – Learning that takes place in a format where both the instructor and the learner are in the same location in time and/or space. This can be a traditional classroom format or something like a Zoom session that delivers content in real-time.
- Asynchronous Learning – Learning that takes place where the instructor and learner are separated in time and/or space. This is seen very often in online courses, where resources and assignments are provided for students to access and complete on their own time.
As I stated above, my online class is completely asynchronous. The students are given the resources, assignments, lectures, textbook information, assessments, and discussion space all online with no expectation that there is a specific time or place where they will all come together for instructions. This does not mean I am not involved, as I generally work inside my classrooms for 1-4 hours each day, depending on the time of the semester, and am constantly monitoring both my classrooms and other messaging that I get from students outside of the classroom (such as email).
The only real point of direct, face-to-face interaction would be office hours. I also do hold more traditional office hours. This is a bit of sticking point for me, as my department had up to March of this year not allowed online office hours, which seems to me to be a blind spot to where our students actually are. Since March and probably for a while after, we now can have online office hours, which would actually be the only really synchronous material for any students who would come into those office hours and get instruction or have questions answered by me in real time.
One thing that I do differently than a lot of people in their teaching is hybrid learning. I have been teaching hybrid classes for about 6 years now, and my model is roughly a 70/30 model, with 70% of the learning taking place online and 30% in class. Thus, like what I noted above, all of the online portion for the hybrid course is asynchronous. That 30% is the hour and fifteen minutes that I meet with them each week, and that is the only synchronous portion of the course.
My hybrid students are more likely also to come to physical office hours than traditional online students, meaning that they do also have those synchronous options.
The Change in Learning with the Pandemic
As we moved to remote learning in the pandemic, everyone had to scramble to figure out how to make those changes. I have already detailed some of this in previous posts in this Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic series. Since a lot of those who were guiding this move were focused on how to move the face-to-face classes to online, much of the assumption was that the remote learning would be at least somewhat synchronous. Since this is the assumption that many have of what online teaching looks like when they have not taught online before, I saw this all over the place – the assumption that we would all just schedule Zoom sessions during our normal class time and then lecture to the students as we would have at the same time and same place.
For better or for worse, this has become part of the story of what has happened – with a narrative emerging of how challenging, or even ineffective, Zoom learning (as it so often came to be) is. In my opinion that is because online learning is not meant to be synchronous. There can certainly be successful synchronous elements in an online course, especially if students are notified up front and early that there will be certain times or certain assignments that are going to require their presence. I don’t use any, but I know of a number of successful online instructors that do use synchronous discussions, group work, and the like in online classes. However, even those classes remain heavily asynchronous overall.
So, What’s the Point?
Why am talking about this somewhat weedy subject? I think that why so many faculty and students were unsatisfied by what they saw in the spring of 2020 is because of this synchronous vs. asynchronous distinction. I have heard, even from my own sons in college, that the learning situation in the spring was not very good. Both of my sons recounted having to get up for 8am classes from home and then sitting there with a lot of random banter, technical problems, and then not learning much overall. Now, could I say that every class experience I have had has been worthwhile and engaging, but there is something different about trying to do it online vs. face-to-face. Especially for my son who is going to a very (VERY!) expensive private university, he felt he was getting very little value out of his education for those last months. A lot of the “value” comes from being on campus and having access to everything there. Sitting at home in front of a screen when that is not what you signed up for is going to be rough no matter what. The insistence on holding classes at the same time and in the same format as before seems to me to be a recipe for discontent overall. It’s not the fault of the professor or of the university, as everyone had to figure out how to do this in a week or two. So, if it didn’t go well, then it just didn’t, but at least everyone knew that we were all doing our best in a difficult time.
What I worry about in the summer and fall. The easy path will be to try to continue on as if nothing really happened and feel that we can all just turn on a dime and teach online again if a second wave breaks out. I only hope that some lessons have been learned about what works and what doesn’t. This summer has to be one of reflection and reworking of courses for everyone. If change isn’t made, it is the students who will suffer. Both of my sons have said that they are worried if it will be worth it to go back to their four-year universities if it is going to look like it did in the spring. I am certainly not trying to say that the question of synchonous or asynchronous is the only issue in making a strong course that can be presented online only or moved online if needed, but it is an issue that needs to considered by everyone who wants to teach in any online format for the future.
We have come to the end of our semester of craziness. The breaking of COVID-19 and the push to abrupt remote teaching at Spring Break made this a semester like no other. I was luckily more able to make the transition than many, as 3/5 of my sections were already online. The other two sections were my hybrid sections, and those are already about 2/3 online in the way that I teach them. Thus, for me, the personal transition was not as hard as it was for many.
There were still some challenges, for sure.
- My three online sections were still somewhat impacted, as the extended Spring Break moved their assignments back a week and that pushed closer together a lot of the assignments for the last part of the class. It also grouped together my grading more and made it to where I did not have as much time to get comments back to students on their thesis and outline so they could work with them on the final paper.
- As I noted above, the hybrid classes were already about 2/3 online. It was, however, one of the most important components, the face-to-face discussions, that got dropped. To make up for that, I substituted online discussions each week and a weekly optional Zoom session. These went reasonably well. I don’t think it went nearly as well as if we had been in class, but it was at least acceptable. The big thing that I noted was that I did not have nearly as much time to devote to participating with them, as the pushing together of assignments that I noted with the online class happened here as well. I was grading more, and because of that, I was doing less other things in the class. There is another reason as well, that I will put in the third note here.
- The thing I spent an unusual amount of time on is the helping of others in the department and keeping up with both the changes and trends in higher education broadly and with COVID-19 in specific. My energy level and attention level were drained by both of these, and that also contributed to me not interacting as much in discussions with my students. I still did all of my Zoom sessions, held my online office hours, and answered student questions in a timely manner. I would even say that I got things graded faster than I would normally at the end of the semester. But I definitely participated less in discussion forums, both with my online and hybrid students. In fact, in grading them in the last couple of days, I see that I missed a number of places that I might have responded, either with information or with prompting questions to get them to go further.
Working on all of this from home was also a challenge, of course. While working from home did take out many expenses in time and gas for travel, sitting at the office, and eating meals/snacks there, there were also costs to being at home. I have four kids, two in college, one in high school, and one in elementary school. Everybody was home (and still are) since the start of Spring Break. The three older kids have had their work to do, but they are relatively self-sufficient with their work. We are, however, full-time teaching our 7-year-old. Her Montessori school has been sending home packets to complete, and they are keeping us busy.
Being at home all the time is not a big problem for my own work load, since so much of it was online already. But it still was quite different from the norm. How has everyone else’s experience been? For those of you who teach, what was the impact on your teaching?
I will be back for a couple of more of these as I reflect on the semester and start preparing for the next one, whatever it might bring.