By: Linda Dale Bloomberg

Linda Dale Bloomberg holds the positions of associate director of faculty support and development, and full professor of education in the School of Education, Northcentral University, San Diego. Dr. Bloomberg received her doctorate in 2006 from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she completed the AEGIS Program in Adult and Organizational Learning. Her new book is titled Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners.

The process of creating high-quality hybrid instruction necessitates a shift away from thinking and reflecting on how to translate the content of a face-to-face course to an online environment. It instead focuses on answering the question of how to maximize the opportunities available to students to achieve learning outcomes. Since the onset of the pandemic, many instructors have developed and applied online course design in their remote courses, and as the crisis phase of the pandemic begins to fade, many educators are emerging on the other side with new knowledge and insights. Many faculty have focused their energy around creating more effective online experiences based on evidence-based practices. In addition, many are leveraging digital technologies to improve student outcomes and ensure that learning environments are equitable for all learners, especially for minoritized students. Faculty may have also begun to reflect on what worked best in their synchronous and asynchronous online learning environments. Many institutions have emerged with an opportunity to evaluate how well they were able to implement emergency remote teaching (ERT) to maintain continuity of instruction. Some are able to identify gaps in their knowledge and practices regarding online learning, and have started setting goals toward improving purposeful and intentional design and practice.

Research shows that many learners value both the richness of interactions in a face-to-face environment and the flexibility and convenience associated with online learning. This combination may be why most research finds high student satisfaction with hybrid options. With courses that mix remote and in-person sessions, designing content that is equally effective for students in the classroom and those sitting in their living rooms can be challenging.  Adding remote students to a physical classroom does introduce complexities, but hybrid teaching can be done well with careful planning and adaptation. This is true whether you are teaching set groups of remote and in-person students or accommodating the occasional remote student who may be unable to be in the physical classroom. We can offer students an engaging, productive course—no matter how they are participating—to ensure that they all meet the learning goals. How similar the experiences will be, depends essentially on your choices. The key focus is on accessibility and inclusivity!

Synchronous and Asynchronous Tools

When courses are held fully remotely or in a hybrid setting, most class sessions and discussions happen over Zoom or a similar videoconferencing platform. These live virtual sessions can allow for a synchronous learning experience enhanced by other digital tools, such as whiteboards and other display technologies, but they cannot be considered a replacement for in-person discussions. With a synchronous session, you have a live cohort, with some students attending in-person, some of whom are participating from a distance (online), and those who may watch the recording later. You will need to know how to set up your technology for optimal student participation, how to clarify expectations for how the class will run, and how to seamlessly manage class discussion. As I write in my book, Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners, the question is how to capitalize on everybody’s presence at the same moment in time, and provide a meaningful learning experience for all.  Conversely, material taught asynchronously, be it through videos, assessments, or quizzes, is typically chunked into much smaller segments. There, you want to focus on keeping your students engaged in multiple mediums. That said, variety with no clear goals will seem forced and can fail to successfully teach students what they need to learn. Make sure every activity you select has a clear purpose, and that each activity addresses the key learning outcomes you are striving to accomplish.  Most important is to focus on developing community by promoting both individual and collective learning! Connections can be fostered before, during and after class. Especially after class, you have an opportunity to encourage students to reflect on the course material, which allows for higher level of engagement and the establishment of meaningful peer connections.

Sculpting a Successful Hybrid Environment

  1. Ensure instructor presence and a sense of community. Build student engagement and community by integrating active learning experiences through facilitating a generative group activities. Remain visible, available, and accessible. Provide multiple regular opportunities for connection and support via email, virtual office hours, prompt feedback, and virtual study sessions or student conferences. Send weekly announcements or a weekly task checklist to your students to remind them of their goals, assignments, and tasks for the week. These also may be used to provide encour­agement and present tips for the challenges that students may face in working through the weekly assignments and materials.
  2. Autonomy as a key to motivation. Researchers have correlated student engagement with many positive outcomes including academic achievement, satisfaction, and persistence. Address individual learning preferences and needs and offer different ways to engage with the course material. When students have more choices about their course materials and activities, they are more engaged and motivated—which translates to increased learning, persistence, and ultimate academic success.
  3. Keep lessons varied.Keep it varied, but always on point! Break your class into different components and try to keep it moving. Spend time upfront with everybody, then designated time for breakout sessions. Integrate multimedia including video and audio materials. To maintain interest and engagement be careful not to linger on any one component for too long.
  4. Teach to all students. If you only play to the camera you will lose opportunities for in-person engagement. Balance your attention to be sure you are connecting with all students, in person and remote. Encourage students to address both in-person and remote peers similarly. This is a great opportunity to elicit more student-to-student discussion rather than interactions just with you.
  5. Use break-out sessions thoughtfully. Breakout sessions offer students a chance to establish closer connections, work on focused tasks, and build momentum for broader discussion within the central room. Additionally, breakout groups offer opportunities to engage more deeply, debate, or take on a role as a team. Be thoughtful in your use of this modality! The easiest solution for breakouts is to group in-person students together in the physical classroom and remote students into virtual-only groups. However, this can make remote students feel excluded from what’s happening in the classroom and create missed opportunities for learning.
  6. Don’t get caught up on the “tech”.It’s okay to experiment with teaching tools, but take it gradually; see what works, and don’t try too much too soon. Simplicity has power. By carefully considering the pros and cons of each available technology, choose those tools that will best support your lesson plans, making each stage of your course as effective as possible. Keep your focus on the course content and the most meaningful and inclusive ways of engaging with all of your students. Capture teachable moments as these arise!
  7. Combat Zoom fatigue. Activities that are be assigned to be completed outside of class can later be discussed with the entire class or in smaller groups. But too much zooming means that some students will just “zoom out” and have difficulty following the material. You can compensate for this by setting more realistic expectations of how much you can cover in any given session, and dividing group discussions into shorter chunks.
  8. Seek and utilize feedback. Create a course revision plan that involves gathering and actually using feedback from your students.  Although your own observations can inform course changes, a course revision plan goes beyond one’s own impressions and makes the revision process more explicit, consistent, and objective.  An effective course revision plan includes both formative feedback, which is gathered during the course to make changes to a course in progress; and summative feedback, which is gathered at the end of the course for purposes of improving the course the next time it is taught.

In April 2020, just after the onset of the pandemic, McKinsey & Company produced a report titled “Getting the next phase of remote learning right in Higher Education”, stating,

“Often with limited experience and training, US higher education institutions have hustled to shift to remote learning and teaching. Many have done so in an exemplary manner; others have not been as successful, at least so far. All of them, though, have more to do to achieve the excellence and collegiality that should define the university experience”, and

“This forced and abrupt move to remote learning has not been easy. However, it can provide institutions with an opportunity to experiment and innovate. Piloting new approaches and building on practices that are proved to work can help create positive and enduring changes. Universities may find that they have a new remote-learning capability that can be integrated with on-campus instruction, to everyone’s benefit, when this crisis has passed.”

Lock in your Learning!

In contrast to experiences that are thoughtfully planned and designed from the start, emergency remote teaching (ERT) was a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances. The immediate crisis of the pandemic may have passed, but there are still significant ongoing concerns, and still much to do and reorganize. With the slow move back to traditional classrooms, there are endless opportunities for educators to engage in intentional and purposeful design by leveraging and–indeed extending– the powerful advantages of online and hybrid learning experiences; thereby combining the best of both worlds.  Remember, innovation is not exclusively based on technology. Rather, innovation is about the use of new technologies as conductors to achieve higher education goals more fully and effectively for every and each individual. Don’t forget the importance of cultivating community and the importance of building strong meaningful relationships! By leveraging technology in smart ways, and making conscious choices about our processes in the classroom, we can build productive and rewarding hybrid learning experiences. Don’t focus on the limitations of the technology. Instead, focus on your new teaching opportunities! The key to success is the same storyline it has always been in any educational context: Remain present and available, facilitate multimodal engagement, practice active listening, provide students with ongoing encouragement and motivation, and be inclusive in your pedagogical approach.

Reflect on the following:

  • How do YOU plan to create opportunities for more students to become actively engaged even beyond what your physical classrooms could contain?
  • How can you ensure that those students who are learning remotely are—and feel—included?
  • What strategies can you implement to ensure inclusivity and student engagement before and during class, as well as after class?

Bloomberg, L. D. (2021). Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners. Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

This publication has been nominated for the 2021 Division of Distance Learning (DDL) for the Association of Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), one of the premier international organizations for instructional design and ed-tech.

McKinsey & Company (April 23, 2020). Getting the next phase of remote learning right in higher education.

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