Monday, June 21, 2021

Teaching Hybrid Mode is More Work But Double

Naaman Zhou and Soofia Tariq have reported that hybrid learning will double the workload of academic staff (Australian universities ramping up ‘hybrid’ learning means double the work for same pay, staff say, The Guardian, 20 July 2021). Also known as "dual delivery", hybrid is where the instructor(s) and some students are in a classroom on campus, while others are remote using a video-conference system such as Zoom. This will take some increased staffing and  new skills, but not many or much. An instructor who has a well designed lesson plan and engages with students will have few difficulties. Unfortunately many Australian academics lack these skills, even for classroom teaching. One solution is to keep the hybrid short, simple, and as much like classroom teaching as possible.

Having to do hybrid teaching is a good problem to have. The low prevalence of COVID-19 in Australia allows a return to the classroom. However, not everyone, particularly some international students, can get to an Australian classroom. So there is still a need for remote education. Also, some students will never be able to get to a classroom due to disabilities, work and family commitments. So remote provision of edition is something which should be routinely provided by all universities permanently.

Alternatives to Hybrid

Hybrid mode is not the only option. Universities could decide for some courses that face-to-face classes are not needed. I designed a course in ICT Sustainability for online delivery in 2008. This course has been run each year for a decade, without ever having a classroom component.

Later I completed a whole degree online in another country, without setting foot on campus, or getting a student visa. However, there are many students and topics which would benefit from face to face activities with other students. Direct contact with a teacher is less important, but also useful. While I was already an experienced online learner, and was studying how to teach online, I still yearned to be in a room with my fellow students and lecturers.

Another alternative to hybrid mode is to offer separate on campus and online classes. This is simpler to deliver, as the instructor doesn't have to keep switching their attention from the local and remote students. However, it requires almost twice as much staff time, as classes have to be delivered twice. Almost twice as much, as the preparation time can be shared by using the same lesson plan for both online and face to face. Also hybrid mode may require more staff for the live delivery, due to the added workload.

Teaching Techniques for Hybrid

The Australian National University has been equipping what it calls Dual Delivery rooms since 2020. However, as the ANU Centre for Learning and Teaching points out, much depends on the way the learning is designed, not the hardware setup. However, I suggest there is little difference between a class in a large room and a hybrid class: both require preparation and  techniques to get students to actively participate.

A major challenge is to get students to attend class at all. Before COVID-19, students would typically attend only about one third of lectures. Of those who did attend, it was difficult to determine how many were actively engaged. The solutions for a room, online, or both, are much the same. Lecturers need to give students a good reason to attend class, such as by linking it to assessment (but not giving marks just for attendance). Students should be given something to do in class, not just listen to a slide show, which could have been prerecorded.

In 2019 I redesigned my learning delivery to allow for face to face, online or hybrid modes. As the design was already blended (a mix of online and face to face components), this was not difficult. This is an approach I suggest is simplest for academics to implement. 

With this online plus approach you design for online asynchronous delivery, then add synchronous or classroom components, as required and where possible. This is essentially an adaption of pre-Internet distance education. With this approach you do not have to change any materials or plans, or divide students into different categories, to change modes.

This approach requires a level of discipline. Course materials need to be produced well in advance of when they are needed. This does not require everything to be pre-scripted. There can be placeholders with just a topic and some general preparatory materials for when the lecturer was to ad-lib. Obviously the recording of what they did say needs to be made available after the live to air event.

Lecturers also need to avoid the temptation to produce broadcast quality video. The quality makes no difference to student's learning. There is no need to edit live presentations.  

MidFlex Minimal Hybrid Format

The minimal format for a hybrid version of a "lecture", I suggest is to have the lecturer present from the lectern. Their voice can be captured both by the room audio system and the videoconferencing system. These systems may be linked, requiring just one microphone. The visuals on the lecturers computer will be display on a room screen and sent out. The lecturer will also see text comments from students on their console.

What is not needed in the minimal format is vision of the lecturer for remote participants. A still image of them at the beginning of the lecture is sufficient. Also, while desirable, the lecturer does not need to see the remote students, and the students do not need to hear or see each other. This minimal hybrid format could be called MidFlex, in contrast to the HyFlex approach (Beatty, 2007).

If there is the capability a hand held or ceiling mounted microphones can be used for student questions to be heard both by those in the room and remotely. However, this requires a well setup audio system, to prevent feedback. Even if the sound is working well the lecturer should still summarize the question or comment, as they would do in a conventional lecture 

If possible remote participants should ask questions with audio. Otherwise the lecturer reads out the comment from the text chat. However, this can be very distracting and ideally there will be another staff member, or a student, monitoring the chat and relaying questions.

When it comes time for group discussion, those in the room should be formed into groups separate from those online. Quizzes and polls can be conducted using the same online system for those in the room using their smartphones and those remote.

Much more sophisticated setups are possible, if equipment and trained staff are available. At the ACT TAFE (now Canberra Institute of Technology) I learned to direct live-to-air TV productions. These had at least three cameras, each with an operator, in touch with a director who would be setting up the shots. However, a university needs to have many hundreds of students enrolled in a class to be worth using this approach. Professor Samuel Richards used it to good effect at Penn State University for his large scale, lively, sociology lectures.

Example of a Good Hybrid Presentation

Dr Fatemeh Vafaee, UNSW, presented a seminar on Big data and AI – driving personalised medicine of the future” at ANU last Friday. This was a good example of the use of the hybrid format. 

The invitation to the event contain a brief summary of the topics to be covered, a link to the speakers lab, a photo and biography. The latter two are often forgotten for regular universality lecturers, with it assumed the students know who the lecturer is. However, students need reminding that lecturers are not just teachers, and are experienced professionals worth listening to.  

The event was held in Seminar Room 1.33 in the Hanna Neumann Building (145 Science Road). This was equipped for videoconferencing when built. That hardware has now been integrated so it can be used with Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

The room has multiple cameras, but only one is normally used, showing the lectern and space between it and the projection screen. This allows the presenter some space to walk around, while still being in shot. Otherwise not much of the presenter can be seen over the lectern and presentations become very static.

The room's audio system has been integrated with video conferencing, so the lectern microphone and handheld microphones can be used both for sound enforcement in the room and for remote participants.  There is a computer monitor on the lectern to display what the audience sees. 

The master of ceremonies for the event, Professor Steve Blackburn, welcomed the local and remote attendees, gave a rundown of what would happen when. He also explained he would be monitoring the text chat from remote participants and would verbalize questions for the speaker. Steve sat in the front row right in front of the speaker, so he could easily get their attention. He sat a laptop on an empty chair next to him, so he could occasionally glance down to check for questions (a smart phone or tablet would be easier to hold but less capable).

At the end of the presentation, Professor Blackburn reminded participants in the room to wait to be handed the microphone, so everyone could hear.

The microphone has an on/off switch, so that there is a way to mute extraneous sounds. However, apart from that all the controls for the A/V are on or near the lectern, which is ideal for just a face to face presentation, but a problem for hybrid mode, where a second person will be assisting.

Flip Your Thinking

Before COVID-19, about 30% of Australian university students attended lectures. With online learning now proven at scale, and universities set up to provide it, the proportion of students attending on campus could be expected to drop to around 20%. This is not to say that for the 20% students attending on campus this is not important, it will be more so. But universities and academics need to flip their thinking: normal learning is online, and in a classroom is something different. 

It is a waste of resources for universities to routinely book a room for 100 students knowing that about 20 will turn up. It would be far better to accept this reality and provide correctly sized rooms, well equipped for online delivery (where most of the students will be) and a comfortable space for those who can get to campus.


Beatty, B. J. (2007). Hybrid classes with flexible participation options–If you build it, how will they come. 2007 Annual Proceedings-Anaheim: Volume15

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