Following the disruptions of the pandemic, most of us moved our teaching online. As the health situation changed, so did our practice and many started to implement hybrid modes of teaching. The roll-out was fast and efficient though not without teething problems. We wanted to reflect on staff and student experiences of hybrid teaching in this pandemic-impact context, so we set about to do some interviews, focus groups and surveys. The results pose some interesting questions for the higher education (HE) sector.
First up – what is hybrid?
Hybrid teaching is teaching in which learners can choose to engage with the same course either in-person or remotely. There is plenty of uncertainty in the literature about such definitions and hybrid is often conflated with other forms of digital-enabled learning.
Before 2020, hybrid was invariably something delivered after much planning while during the pandemic there was a mixed approach. It is important that educational institutions take stock of non-ideal scenarios, reflecting on the impacts of decisions made so as to inform future decision-making. Such evaluation processes should demonstrate a commitment to listening to the staff and students who are affected by rapid and holistic changes to their work and study experiences.
Recognising the pedagogical and technical challenges of implementing it successfully, hybrid teaching was initially discouraged at the University, but interest grew during 2020-21 as it was carried out, often very successfully, by individual innovative lecturers, using a range of technological and pedagogical approaches.
In the run up to academic year 2021-22, with international travel severely restricted, hybrid provision was introduced as an option to support those cohorts with a high proportion of international students. The decision by schools and faculties to make use of hybrid approaches was largely driven by considerations of efficiency, cohort cohesion (in-person and remote students as part of the same learning experience), and change resilience (students were able to transition from remote to in-person when they were able to travel). Where provided, the flexibility of hybrid learning was also utilised by students who were unable to attend campus, typically due to illness.
Staff recognise that hybrid is good for some students (62% agree) but does not work for all (66%). Only 15% of staff are in favour of hybrid use for the long-term, while 60% are against it. Staff note the importance of reliable support on the use and provision of relevant hardware and software. A notable issue is that 96% of staff state that hybrid teaching increases their workload.
For students, three major themes were identified across the dataset:
- educational experience (e.g. flexibility, autonomy, interaction)
- student life (e.g. convenience time saving, sociability, Covid-19 risk, commuting)
- technical experience (e.g. audio-visual matters, digital course content)
Like staff, students felt that the classroom experience was far superior to the digital experience in hybrid situations.
Two themes emerge from the data. First, structural and technical considerations. This included Covid-19-specific concerns about shared lapel mics. The second theme concerns pedagogic matters which are more complex to resolved. They include differing experiences of engagement, how interactions are facilitated, and learning design. How students engage with each other and with their teachers, whether online or face-to-face, poses problems of equitability and parity of experience. The literature and this study confirm that online-only experiences are considered less engaging and sociable than “traditional” face-to-face learning. It is, therefore, important to create spaces and activities that facilitate a sense of community and social cohesion in support of hybrid learning. Learning design should also consider the nature of activities in sessions, focusing on active and collaborative pedagogy.
There is scope to consider how institutions define hybrid clearly to manage expectations and communications between staff and students. Definitions also extend to articulating expected benefits and limitations of approaches as such considerations affect students’ emotions, motivations, achievements, and perceptions of teaching effectiveness.
The question arises, what hybrid will be offered and to whom?
Towards the end of the pandemic, considerations of future implementation of hybrid were understandably focused on a need for business continuity, especially in terms of the ability to attract and teach international students, raising important issues of parity and equitability. In a difficult financial climate, universities value growth business models, so may be tempted to offer hybrid at high cost to the student, while cutting operational costs by avoiding campus space use and relying on reused asynchronous content. Post-pandemic, many UK universities are finding that student attendance is often lower than previously at on-campus sessions, and some are considering whether a hybrid approach would encourage more students to attend, enabling them to cut travel costs and fit study around paid work and other commitments. There are many attendant risks, in terms of lowering in-person attendance still further and impacting on the feeling of belonging of all students, but particularly those who have more commitments to manage and are most likely to need to attend remotely. More generally, there is a quality risk. If, as the data and the literature state, hybrid is typically considered as an inferior student experience, why should hybrid be offered? Who benefits and who loses out? Universities need to establish a philosophy of compromise that articulates not the oft-spoken business-speak of excellence and sector-leading best practice, but communicates the reality of the hybrid offer.
Check out the full peer-reviewed paper on our work here (open access):
Tierney, A., Hopwood, I., & Davies, S. (2024). Staff and student experiences of hybrid teaching in a pandemic-impacted context. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, 19, 017. https://doi.org/10.58459/rptel.2024.19017