The hybrid learning landscape at SFU

Hannah McGregor and Brian Lorraine share their perspectives on hybrid learning

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An image of a brown woman professor trying to command the attention of the in-person class in front of her and the zoom class behind her and looking calm but holding her hand out questioningly
The pandemic has highlighted existing accessibility concerns that were not widely considered until they affected the majority of the population, igniting questions of how to move forward. ILLUSTRATION: Angela Shen / The Peak

By: Olivia Visser, Staff Writer

What does the future of post-secondary teaching look like? Hybrid learning has been a hot topic since the transition towards temporary online learning due to COVID-19 and the subsequent return to in-person studies. Some have felt that pushing for permanent hybridization would be unreasonable or unfair to staff, while others believe in the practice yet critique its execution.

 

Pro-hybrid learning

Between January 11 and 22, the Simon Fraser Student Society collected survey responses about returning to campus in the midst of the pandemic. According to their results, nearly 80% of over 5,300 respondents desired some level of remote instruction. On top of that, 66% of respondents reported different degrees of discomfort regarding the return to in-person learning, and 94% reported they would benefit from having recorded lectures. 

The SFU Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance (SFU DNA) also released a statement criticizing the return to campus in Spring 2022. They said forcing all students to return to in-person instruction is “deeply ableist and ageist” as it puts vulnerable community members at risk. SFU DNA writes online learning increases accessibility because of captioning and lecture recordings. It also allows students to avoid “physically inaccessible campuses” while providing “more flexible lecture and assignment schedules.” This is particularly important for disabled students, but can benefit many other groups. 

Their statement pointed to a report from the Stronger Together Party which found hybrid learning was the most desirable course option for respondents. This opinion is also reflected in the multiple petitions created in favor of hybrid learning. SFU DNA created a list of demands to make the return to campus more accessible. Among the demands were calls to provide a mix of online, in-person, and hybrid classes, assist instructors in providing accessible content, and expand online course selection. 

Proponents of hybrid learning believe it provides the best of both worlds. Those who have long or complicated commutes, are immunocompromised, live with people who are immunocompromised, or have other responsibilities have the flexibility to attend from home. Students who have mental health concerns due to isolation, do not have proper access to the infrastructure necessary for at-home study, or don’t have a great study environment can attend in person. 

 

Against hybrid learning

While some students have been enthusiastic about incorporating hybridization, not everyone shares these feelings. In a Facebook comment responding to one of the pro-hybrid petitions, one student wrote hybrid would mean paying exorbitant tuition fees for a reduced quality of education. Others have shared concerns about divided attention from professors and the logistics of translating courses that require labs or hands-on learning to a hybrid model.

Additionally, SFU instructors have shared that hybrid learning would increase their workload without increasing pay or resources and make it difficult to organize classes and lesson plans. The mandatory recording the hybrid learning petitions advocate for may make it more difficult to address sensitive topics and add to concerns over intellectual property. Other professors like Orion Kidder echoed that sentiment. Kidder told Tri City News, “Remote learning has put an added burden on instructors and staff.” 

One instructor, posting on a Facebook undergraduate group, wrote that demands for hybrid learning without considering instructors “devalues teacher effort and reduces [them] to unseen, unpaid labour.” A student who had been enrolled in a hybrid class said of their experience: “The poor professor was sitting in front of a computer and trying to engage with students online and at the same time the students who were there in person.” They added they don’t feel hybrid is the “solution to this complex problem.” 

 

Hybrid learning in action

I spoke with Hannah McGregor, publishing professor at SFU who recently self-hybridized two of her courses, PUB371 and PUB448, to find out more about her experience. McGregor clarified hybrid status can be set by SFU but her classes did not have that official designation.

She made the decision to offer hybrid options to increase accessibility for students who might not be able to attend in-person. For her, this meant giving students the option to attend classes remotely. Her course used Discord for class communications, and took advantage of the microphones and video capabilities that SFU classrooms already have to livestream the class.

For the type of conversation-driven classes McGregor was teaching, a hybrid model “wasn’t ideal.” However, she stressed that lecture style courses can allow for less dependence on in-person attendance: “I don’t understand why anybody would deliver a lecture in person anymore.” 

While the hybrid approach may sound preferable for students, McGregor said this meant “teaching two courses simultaneously.” She added this approach also put stress on in-person students who had to participate in the Discord and in-person discussions at the same time. According to her, keeping the online students engaged felt “really unfair” because it involved more labour from the in-person students. Because of this conflict, McGregor gave up her hybrid group work approach over the Spring semester. She said this resulted in the online students being “a lot less engaged” because they didn’t feel like they were “in a community” with their other classmates. 

 

Potential solutions

According to McGregor, increasing resources is one of the ways hybrid learning can be expanded fairly into our institutions. Hybrid course delivery “requires some fairly significant redesign of your courses and creation of new materials,” which is a lot of work for instructors. An “ideal hybrid class,” McGregor said, would have two professors to engage the two groups of students. Moreover, before the pandemic, “there were resources in place to help instructors develop online courses, and that was considered to be work that one should be paid for,” she said. Due to the sudden transition to online, staff were expected to do a “significant amount of extra work for free,” she added. 

“We do it because we care about our students [ . . . ] but I would really like to see hybrid course development being recognized as work because it can be done really, really well. You just need time and resources to actually figure out how to create those courses,” she said. McGregor’s experience speaks to the need for resources to facilitate fair course hybridization, which is still in its early phases.

 

Blended learning: SFU’s alternative to hybrid

SFU’s solution to the hybrid learning debate has been to implement blended learning through the Centre for Educational Excellence (CEE). Project manager for online and blended learning, Brian Lorraine, had some helpful information about the program. 

Lorraine explained hybrid models usually involve the simultaneous delivery of a course to an in-person and remote audience. Alternatively, blended learning offers a set schedule alternating between asynchronous online classes and synchronous in-person classes. Simply put, blended learning reduces the “portion of the regular face-to-face class sessions in a given course,” Lorraine said.

This option offers greater flexibility for students with scheduling conflicts, disabilities, and other considerations. According to the CEE webpage, blended courses are “associated with higher student satisfaction” because they allow for flexibility and community.

As an alternative to full-scale hybridization, blended learning can be effective when thoughtfully designed, he said. Lorraine said the CEE “leads a 10-week blended learning design cohort of instructors every semester, with an offer to collaborate for an additional semester on building course components in Canvas.” 

SFU is “in the early stages of a 2-year pilot of blended learning,” having offered over 30 blended learning courses, Lorraine said. He anticipates “significant growth” the longer the program is in use.

 

Moving forward

Universities can create a more equitable learning environment by providing choice surrounding in-person attendance. For students with accessibility needs and scheduling conflicts, the flexibility of hybrid learning seemingly offers a viable solution. At the same time, hybrid learning is not a perfect system and adopting it without proper resources can be stressful for instructors. 

Blended learning may be an effective alternative that supports the needs of both students and professors through its intentionally mixed course design. However, it’s not perfect either as it still requires some in-person learning. 

Another solution may be increasing the number of remote courses available.

Online learning is a new and evolving field, and many of the practices we adopt will be through trial and error. While SFU students, administrators, and instructors have different perspectives on hybridity, a need for resources for students and professors should underline the continuing conversations about online learning.