Combining the Virtual and the Personal

Rutgers embraces a hybrid approach to learning

By Carla Cantor
Tisha Bender
Credit: Nick Romanenko
Tisha Bender, assistant director of the Rutgers Writing Program,
trains instructors to teach a hybrid expository writing courses.
The program has steadily been offering eight to 10 hybrid
classes each semester.

A teaching method that combines online education with face-to-face interaction has found its way onto Rutgers’ campuses.

The approach, called hybrid or blended learning, offers students and faculty the convenience of an online course, where they can log in from anywhere with a computer, without losing the personal touch of classroom instruction. Most hybrid courses meet in a traditional classroom setting at least once a week.

There is no official data as to how many educators at Rutgers have adopted this model, according to Gayle Stein, associate director of the Office of Instructional and Research Technology,  which provides technical support for instruction and research across the university. But those who have tried hybrid teaching like it, they say, because it integrates the best of two worlds: the powerful tools of today’s communication and information technology and in-person meetings, two styles of learning that feed off each other.


Instructors find that students who may not speak up in class will share their thoughts in the online format; students report finding it easier to critique the work of their peers communicating via the web.

“Communicating via technology is what students are used to,” says Stein, who has taught an undergraduate hybrid course, “Information Politics, Policies, and Power” for four years in the School of Communication and Information. “A lot of the students have full- or part-time jobs, and being able to do the work on their own time makes them happy."

What’s more, she says, the virtual classroom requires students to think critically and independently. “There has been an emphasis in higher education on ‘seat time'; but what we’re discovering is that learning occurs all the time – not just during the 80 minutes in the classroom,” Stein says. The hybrid model gives student the time to absorb the material, gain insight, and measure their responses. It also prepares them for the jobs of the future. “In a global economy so much of their experience will be collaborative and interactive,” Stein says. “They will be communicating electronically – across different cultures and time zones.”

Tisha Bender, assistant director of the Rutgers Writing Program in New Brunswick, is also is a fan. Bender, the author of Discussion-Based Online Teaching to Enhance Student Learning (Stylus, 2003), has trained faculty to teach effectively online at New York University, Cornell University, the SUNY Learning Network, and elsewhere.

In 2007 she proposed introducing a hybrid expository writing course in the Rutgers Writing Program, in

Theresa Guadagno
Credit: Darcy Gioia

First-year student Theresa Guadagno, right, takes
expository writing as a hybrid course: half in the
classroom and half online. With her is Laura Smith,
her hybrid 101 instructor.

which students meet in the classroom once a week, and participate online asynchronously (at their convenience) the rest of the week. The first hybrid expository writing courses were piloted in Fall, 2007. E-learning takes place via Sakai, a collaborative software program that includes an online discussion board.

Bender runs a three-week training workshop for new hybrid instructors in the Rutgers Writing Program just prior to the semester in which they will teach, in which the instructors learn about how to adapt pedagogy so as to be an effective online teacher, as well as how to seamlessly blend the campus and online environments.

Faculty and students have reacted positively to the hybrid curriculum, saying the format facilitates an exchange of ideas and issues. Many say that “the online experience enriches subsequent classroom discussions,” Bender says.

In course surveys, students report getting to know each other in a more complete way by interacting within two environments and having more time to interact with the instructor. Students also commented that when writing their papers, the archives of the online discussions helped them enormously.

"In the [online section of the] hybrid, you get everyone's answer to a question, whereas on campus you would never hear what most of your classmates think," said  first-year student Theresa Guadagna, who took a hybrid expository writing class this past semester.

Several students remarked that they found it easier to critique and evaluate peer work in an online setting. “I know that sometimes, in-person, I tend to hold back for fear of hurting someone’s feelings or coming off as rude,” one student commented.

Instructors have discovered that students who may not speak up in the classroom are more willing to share their thoughts in the online format. Nearly all of the instructors who teach the hybrid enjoy it, and believe in its benefits, so that they want to teach it again, Bender says. One hybrid teacher even told her recently that the written environment of the online component is ideal for a writing teacher, as it offers an environment in which to model good writing for her students, in a way that just would not be possible in a traditional campus class.

Bender, along with a colleague, Darcy Gioia, associate director of the Writing Program, are conducting an in-depth evaluation of the hybrid experience, by running online questionnaires for students and interviews with both hybrid students and instructors. Results so far look very positive and encouraging.

Of course, the hybrid model has its challenges. Having students completely understand what a hybrid entails before registering for it can be difficult, Bender says. “It’s important to let students know that a hybrid class is not a ‘soft option,’ she says. ”In many ways it is harder. It requires mature, responsible, and motivated students.”

Updated from April 2008