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Hybrid Hiccups vs. F2F Courses

This year has been a study in contrasts. I chose to teach a traditional technical writing course in the fall and a hybrid course during the spring semester. The differences in student projects, the quality of their analyses, and general attitudes is remarkable.

I know research found no easily quantified differences in learning outcomes. However, I think anyone could compare the group projects between these courses and see a difference in the products. While the lessons learned and the facts students retain might be similar, the results do demonstrate something.

Some elements of are "intangible" because they are social and philosophical. For example, groups struggled online, even with guidance and gentle remainders to establish schedules and routines. In the traditional course, groups developed stronger bonds and worked together frequently. It should be noted that the face-to-face (F2F) students exchanged more e-mail and chatted more often than the students on the officially hybrid course.

Students in the traditional course met in a computer lab once a week. This allowed them time to help each other with desktop publishing issues. Both courses included design students, but in the F2F course these students were leaders. In the online course, leaders failed to emerge. (I try not to influence how groups function, but maybe I should be more proactive online.)

The hybrid students did the bare minimum on assignments. They counted words, literally, and seemed driven by convenience instead of a desire to learn something new. Online was, as several admitted, perceived as "less work" because there were fewer in-person meetings.

I had not registered D or F marks for nearly three years. Unfortunately, the hybrid course had a high number of incomplete and missing assignments. Ten percent of the students will not receive credit for the course. I am told that the failure / drop rate approaches 30 percent online.

The best students in both classes were definitely equal. For some students, the online space was not problematic. The problem is that the average grade was approximately six percent lower. Sure, a 81 versus an 87 seems minor, but it is significant to me.

I like online content. As a teacher, I was able to post my lectures as audio, include supplemental videos, and I could return papers easily with comments. Students could easily check the calendar, announcements, and obtain handouts. Unfortunately, even with those materials available, less than half of the students downloaded all the materials I offered.

Students have to be self-motivated for online learning to function. I am disappointed, but I realize I did all that I could. I sent students e-mails to remind them of due dates. I asked questions when they seemed to struggle. I posted leading questions, imagining they would realize I was hinting they needed to communicate better within groups.

Maybe it is because so many parents, working students, and students with misconceptions about online learning were in the hybrid that it had a slightly shifted grade curve. The convenience was essential to some of these students, but that meant they were balancing a lot in their lives. If students who could not otherwise take the course were able to complete a requirement, I suppose that is a good thing.

Though I like the hybrid model, with both online and traditional meetings, it is clear that I need to consider that the students attracted to such a course might have different needs and expectations. A course with group projects is not like a computer programming, math, or statistics course. One of my students said his online econ course was great because he worked ahead. Group work online, in his view, was annoyingly complex.

I kept student comments, with their permission, and hope to write about this in a more formal way. Who takes a course affects the dynamics more than I anticipated. It might not be the format caused the reduced grades, but the student population attracted to the format.

It would be nice to discuss this with other teachers of hybrid courses.

The change I would make is to have more F2F meetings before switching to an online course. I think the students needed a greater sense of community that requires more time to develop online than in person. I would have six consecutive traditional courses, at a minimum, if group work is to remain a component of the class.

I admit, the social aspects are not "officially" part of a class on writing, but they are important to the future success of graduates.

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