Rutgers begins to embrace a hybrid approach to learning

A teaching method that combines online education with face-to-face interaction is gradually finding its way onto Rutgers’ campuses.

By Carla Cantor

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.

“Communicating via technology is what students are used to,” says Stein, who has taught an undergraduate hybrid course, “Information Politics, Policies, and Power” for three years in the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies. “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, 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, and elsewhere. Last year she proposed introducing a hybrid expository writing course at Rutgers in which students meet in the classroom once a week followed by continuous online sessions throughout the week. E-learning takes place via threaded discussion using Sakai, a collaborative software program that includes an online discussion board.

Bender ran a three-week online training workshop last summer and again in the fall, and a number of Rutgers Writing Program instructors signed up, enabling the department to offer six hybrid sections of expository writing during the fall semester and 15 this spring.

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. 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. Instructors have discovered that students who may not speak up in the classroom are more willing to share their thoughts in the online format. In evaluations, several students said 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 wrote.

Nearly all of the instructors who taught the course during this academic year have signed on again for fall 2008, when the department expects to offer 20 hybrid courses, Bender says.

Of course, the hybrid model has its challenges. Getting the word out about the offering, as well as describing the experience to students, has been difficult. “It’s important to let students know that a hybrid class is not a ‘soft option.’ In many ways it is harder. It requires mature, responsible students,” Bender says.

Faculty comfort also is an issue. When it comes to using technology in the classroom, instructors introduce video, podcasts, and online learning modules into traditional lecture courses at different rates. But those who have taught hybrids say the challenges have more to do with learning how to facilitate discussions and building online community than the technology itself.

Bender’s recommendation to faculty is that they create their first online discussion forum as a “virtual lounge,” in which students and the teacher can introduce themselves, sometimes through icebreaker activities, and continue running the “lounge” for at least the first three days. “This helps everyone not only get to know each other, but also to become familiar with the technology before the course content begins,” Bender says.

There are no set rules, however, and instructors can fashion a hybrid to accommodate their own teaching styles and course content. Shaheen Ayubi, a political science instructor in Camden, teaches a hybrid, “Rich Nations, Poor Nations,” in the Rutgers at Atlantic Cape Community College program. Ayubi meets with her class during the first two weeks of the semester while students get used to communicating online. The third week takes place via threaded discussions with students posting thoughts on assigned texts and topics. From then on, she convenes class on campus every other week. Students respond to each others’ analyses and to Ayubi’s questions, and the content of their discussions count toward the final grade.

“It is a wonderful learning experience,” Ayubi says. “The students are much more relaxed without the pressure of traveling to campus – and so is the teacher.” The blended course, she adds, is an ideal introduction for students who eventually want to take a course completely online.

Judith Barberio, an assistant professor at the College of Nursing, has been teaching graduate-level nursing courses in a hybrid fashion since 2002. She posts lectures and other materials for her "Primary Care I" and "Primary Care III" classes weekly on Rutgers Online, the university's entry portal for e-learning. Each month on a Saturday, Barbiero and her students come together for an all-day workshop on campus. "Here's where the students get to apply the skills they've learned online," Barbiero says, interpreting X-rays, EKGs, and labs; taking part in grand rounds; presentimg cases from clincial practice and discussing diagnoses and treatment plans.

This year Barbiero made one important change. Instead of serving as the online moderator in her Primary Care I, she asked her students to take turns serving as moderators. Each student-moderator took charge of a case study, posing group questions and commenting on student responses. "With students reponding to students, the conversations were much more dynamic conversations. Rather than getting two posts per student, at least half the class [of 32] was posting 10 times." She plans to introduce the concept to other classes next fall.

In the coming weeks, the Office of Instructional and Research Technology will be surveying departments across the university to find out how faculty are using technology in their face-to-face hybrid and online teaching. “What we learn will help us target our services so we can support faculty where they need the most assistance,” Stein says.

The office would like to begin a discussion on the impact of technology on learning outcomes as well as its potential for easing stress on facilities. Putting courses at least partially online can reduce the need for classroom space. “Just think of an introductory class with 400 students,” Stein said. “What would happen if half the class worked online once a week so that there were only 200 students in the classroom at any one time? It could open up new possibilities for closer faculty-student contact and collaborative activities.”