Overcoming the Challenges of Hybrid Courses: 7 Takeaways from Science Instructors

Supriya Kamath, JoVE Writer | 14 min read
Supriya Kamath, JoVE Writer | 14 min read

Last fall, Dr. Meghan Porter (Lecturer, Department of Chemistry, Indiana University Bloomington) and Dr. Johnny El-Rady (Instructor, Department of Cell Biology, Microbiology and Molecular Biology, University of South Florida) adopted models of instruction that combined synchronous and asynchronous teaching, as well as face-to-face and remote instruction. The ongoing transition to blended learning, however, has its challenges. 

Dr. Porter primarily teaches upper-level courses in inorganic chemistry, and she is currently teaching an online lecture course with asynchronous and synchronous components for 200 students. She also teaches a lab course with 100 to 120 students, in which three experiments are conducted each week – two are completed virtually, and one on campus. 

Dr. El-Rady teaches microbiology and genetics courses, and students could choose to attend classes in-person or virtually. He has also led task forces to facilitate the transition of lab courses to virtual formats. 

During last week’s webinar on hybrid instruction, Dr. Porter and Dr. El-Rady spoke about the challenges of hybrid classrooms, and the many steps they took to overcome them. Below is a small selection of takeaways from their experience. Many more actionable suggestions and tips were discussed in the hour-long webinar, which you can view by requesting a free recording below.

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1. Encouraging student interaction in large online lectures

Dr. Porter notes that many students initially liked the idea of asynchronous courses, but soon began to miss live interaction with faculty and other students. While Dr. Porter’s lecture content is delivered asynchronously, she creates many opportunities for student interaction during her synchronous seminar and problem-solving sessions. 

Because her lecture has 200 students, she has divided them into three groups which meet over Zoom twice a week. Each group is then broken down into smaller teams of five, who work together on assigned chemistry problems in a Zoom breakout room. Dr. Porter has 23 undergraduate volunteers, each of whom moves between two rooms to provide instruction support to students. Dr. Porter also cycles through all the rooms to get to know everyone in the course. She uses a tool called Google Jamboard, which allows her to see students drawing inorganic chemistry structures in real time. This gives her a sense of what each group is doing, and she can easily see and correct any misunderstandings. 

“Students have really liked that touch point,” she notes. “They’re getting to see us, they’re getting face-to-face [interaction].”

2. Building student engagement 

To keep students engaged and attentive, Dr. Johnny El-Rady suggests “doing your lecture in small increments – 20 minutes and then an activity.” He also has students complete a number of group projects, although managing this can be particularly challenging in a hybrid classroom. Dr. El-Rady recommends that students be grouped together based on location, i.e., either on or off campus; group projects seem to be harder, he notes, when students on-campus are paired with students learning remotely. 

Dr. El-Rady also uses plenty of visual demonstrations using everyday objects. For example, he uses a pair of markers put together with tape to illustrate biology concepts and processes, such as the separation of chromosomes and binary fission. To him, however, having students conduct the demonstration is even better. “In a lot of the classes I have them demo, which is more important — have them demo this stuff, do a video about it, and post it on YouTube.” To encourage participation, Dr. El-Rady has even organized competitions for his students, where a panel of celebrity judges — such as the dean and the chair of the honors college — would select the prize-winning video.

3. Discovering and managing new online tools

Dr. Porter uses a variety of online tools to support her hybrid classrooms. In addition to Google Jamboard, which enables real-time interaction with students, she also uses Doceri to annotate slides, Menti for free anonymous polling, and Padlet, where students can anonymously ask questions and seek clarification on questions they didn’t understand during the course. 

Dr. Porter also recommends involving students in the process of discovery. “I’ve really heavily invested my students in getting involved and finding some of those technologies, because they search sites that I wouldn’t even think of searching,” she says.

Apart from these tools, however, it was particularly hard for Dr. Porter to find educational content that met her needs. Home lab kits and similar resources, which were available for other areas of chemistry, were difficult to find for her specialized inorganic and analytical chemistry courses. To save time on filming videos from scratch, she used JoVE chemistry videos as a supplementary resource. “One of the things I really liked about the videos is that they always tie it to what you can use it for me. So for me there was a suite of professionally done videos, questions already there if I needed question banks, and techniques. So that was huge for me.”

As for managing the steep learning curve of new technology, Dr. El-Rady notes that it can help to have a faculty support system. Dr. El-Rady’s institution has open labs where like-minded instructors work together to learn new technologies, and support others who are just starting out.

4. Making the hybrid classroom more student-friendly

Both Dr. Porter and Dr. El-Rady make note of how difficult this period has been for students. “In the classroom, a lot shifted onto the students in ways we don’t think about,” says Dr. Porter. For example, in a physical classroom, an instructor would have ample opportunities to remind students of upcoming tests or essays. In online asynchronous courses, sending frequent reminders via email can be overwhelming, or they may be lost; thus, students have to start keeping track of numerous upcoming assignments, in addition to managing their time well. “There’s so much that they’ve had to adapt to,” she says.

To streamline the course experience for students, Dr. Porter has some advice regarding new online tools: “Resist the urge to try something just because it’s there. I think you really want to frame everything you do in class as, “Do I think this is going to help my students learn?” Students also have to spend time on learning how to use new technologies, she notes, so instructors should carefully weigh the costs and benefits. In addition, she recommends getting student feedback early and often, especially when trying something new.

Dr. El-Rady and his colleagues sought the support of the Innovative Education unit at his institution, which helped them clearly spell out learning outcomes for students and make it easier to navigate courses in Canvas, their learning management system.

Dr. El-Rady also highlights the equity issues that remote learning has posed. Students may be sharing laptops with family members, for instance, or may not have a space of their own to study in. He notes that asynchronous learning can help with this to some extent because it allows students to manage their own time and watch lectures at their leisure.

5. Becoming a curator of content

“There’s so much information out there right now that if you’re an educator, you don’t have to create things from scratch, as long as you serve as a curator,” says Dr. El-Rady, noting that students may have many competitors for their time, such as having to work to make ends meet, or handling family responsibilities. “So if we can make it a little bit easier for them — here’s five short videos, watch them, you can learn about mitosis or meiosis — this goes a long way towards making the learning much easier, and frankly, more fun”

For Dr. Porter, curating content helps guide students to good-quality resources. Students might look to YouTube for educational videos, but those may be inaccurate or provide explanations at the wrong level. To avoid this, Dr. Porter curates a list of videos that her students can use instead. To reduce costs for students, Dr. Porter has also removed the textbook for her course; “that gap is being filled by more interactive, engaging media,” she notes.

6. Reducing cheating in online exams 

How can instructors reduce cheating in online exams? Dr. Porter does this in a number of ways. When she assigns her students weekly quizzes of 10 questions each, which are to be completed online at their own leisure, she creates 20 versions per question. This ensures that no more than 10 students had the same version. She didn’t create an answer key for every question, but created a general key that showed students how to approach the problem – they could plug in their own numbers or molecules, and see if they had the right answer.

For the exams, which were taken synchronously by all the students, Dr. Porter creates questions based on literature and allows students to refer to their notes. The questions require students to apply what they’ve learned to novel problems, making it harder to cheat. She also asks students to explain their reasoning, which makes it easier to see if similar phrases were repeated.

In addition, she used the Respondus software which records students as they’re taking the exams; knowing that instructors can go back and watch the recorded video helps deter students from cheating. 

7. Carrying new technologies and methods into the future

The new skills and tools that instructors have picked up during this educational upheaval won’t, and shouldn’t, go in vain, according to both instructors. For Dr. Porter, polling tools which provide real time feedback from students are one such tool, because it allows instructors to adjust their content delivery in real time as per student needs. 

“We have learned, we have adapted, and I think there’s a lot of good things that we can carry going forward,” says Dr. El-Rady. “We as teachers, I think, have to still be able to take advantage of the classroom environment, but we would be doing ourselves and frankly our students a disservice if we don’t use a lot of these platforms that are already available.”

To learn more about Dr. Porter’s and Dr. El-Rady’s approaches to building hybrid courses and many more insightful takeaways from their experience, request a video recording of their session here

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