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The Move to Hybrid/Online Teaching (or How to Avoid Being a Luddite) – Part 1

(Note: I labelled this post “Part 1” since there is A LOT for me to talk about regarding this particular topic. For now, I’ll focus on one of the courses I’ve been teaching lately and leave my other comments for future Teaching Circle entries)

For the past 3 semesters, I’ve been co-teaching Sociological Analysis – Soc 212 – with my friend and colleague John Furnari. As if the dynamics of having two instructors who present themselves as peers wasn’t tricky enough to manage (as opposed to the traditional “Teacher/TA” or “Teacher/Lab Instructor” relationship with clearly defined, yet distinct, roles), our arrangement is unique since John lives in North Carolina. He lectures from his home office via webcam on Skype. He’s patched in to the class using a webcam (which we purchased for this class) and using the in-class projector so there is real-time interaction between him and the students. This arrangement was somewhat similar to what he did when he co-taught the same course with TC’s very own, Phil Lewis. (He posted about this a week ago. Read a little about his experience here: http://teachingcircle.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/adjunct-co-teaching-model/)

John has been with the Sociology for over 10 years now. He moved to NC roughly 6 years ago after he got married but continued to teach online for QC. At the time, the Sociology department was one of the few departments that offered online courses. This included courses that are required for the major (not just electives). John was an integral part of those early days for us.

He and I hooked up to teach Soc 212 after there was a last-minute need before the start of the Spring 2013 semester. There was a sudden vacancy for a section of this course and there were less that 2 weeks before the start of the semester. John called me up and asked if I wanted to co-teach it with him. This would allow us to both add a few more hours to our course load without exceeding the credit/hour limit for CUNY adjuncts. We briefly discussed the logistics of teaching a class like this. Between my knowledge of on-campus computer/projector availability and his familiarity with the format (and course content), we figured we could make it work.

We quickly put together a syllabus and organized our course schedule. On my lecture nights, the experience would be like any other in-person class. On his nights, I’d arrive in the classroom, get John connected using my personal Skype account, take attendance, and leave as soon as my TA was able to get to class. My TA was responsible for shutting everything down and returning the webcam to me.

We understood at the start of our class that this set-up was extremely unusual and that students have likely never encountered a class structure like ours. We spent the first two weeks addressing their frustrations (“This isn’t what I signed up for! Why didn’t it say something in the course schedule”). We tried our best to ease the transition to a “John only” lecture by having the two of us in the classroom at the same time to manage any technical issues that may arise but also to gauge the student reactions. After a month, we felt confident that the format was working out and we continued on as we had planned.

When it came to the managing the course and teaching the course material, my original intention was to follow John’s lead since I hadn’t taught the course before. We realized – unfortunately close the end of the semester – that I should have taken more of the lead role. Although, John and I saw each other as equal partners, the students didn’t. They got to see me live in-person and, thus, treated me as the primary instructor. Questions were no longer directed to both me and John (whether in-class or via e-mail) but just to me. I felt even more pressure to make sure I knew the content inside and out and not seem as if I was just “getting by”. In hindsight, this probably had some residual (negative) impact on how I taught the material.

John and I had planned to continue teaching the course again and we asked for student feedback to determine what we could improve on. All of the comments, good and bad, were considered as we prepared for the Fall 2013 semester. We worked on maintaining the strengths of the course and finding ways to eliminate (or at least minimize) the weaknesses. I feel we have done a pretty good job of making the proper tweaks to improve the overall experience of our course.

Lately, John and I have brainstormed ideas for back-up plans in case we have equipment failure in the class and we kept going back to using Blackboard for an alternative interactive experience with the students…

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[Tangent: Before I go on, I need to discuss my personal bias when it comes to Blackboard!! My student experience with Blackboard was relatively limited. When I first started as an instructor I decided to embrace Blackboard and all the wonderful technical resources that lay within. I was quickly disappointed when I experienced repeated outages of Blackboard – often for days at a time – throughout my first semester. It had me so frustrated that I kept my contact with Blackboard minimal for years after.

I’ve started coming around on Blackboard once I noticed it was considerably more stable than before (over the last 2 years or so). The outages are far and few between now. I’ve gotten intimately acquainted with various features such as Grade Center, SafeAssign (to avoid plagiarism), using the Discussion Boards, Performance Dashboard to keep track of who is accessing BlackBoard, etc. Recently, I’ve started exploring the various tools available on Blackboard but haven’t had the proper motivation to actually use (yet!): creating and using ‘Self and Peer Assessment’ assignments; figuring out the difference between ‘Blackboard Collaborate’ and ‘Collaboration’; using ‘Journals’; etc.]

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…We’re now experimenting with the Blackboard Collaborate tool. This would allow him to connect with the class without needing to use a program – like Skype – and the students can still interact with him live. The degree to which they can interact with John (and the entire class) seems to depends on a variety of factors including whether they are using a webcam, have access to a microphone, or if they choose to call in via conference call. If we can get John to lecture via Blackboard instead of in a classroom, we could formally list the course as a Hybrid class with a slightly altered experience for the class (being home or in their office as opposed to a classroom).

I am stubborn and a bit “old school”. I would prefer to be in the classroom on my nights. But we’re much more open to this evolution of our course than we were before. If any of you have experience with that particular function on Blackboard and would like to share some info, we are ALL EARS!  =)

(This was the Cliff Notes explanation of our arrangement. I’m willing to explain, in more detail, some of the logistics of the course if you’re interested. Just leave a comment and I’ll reply.)

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3 comments to The Move to Hybrid/Online Teaching (or How to Avoid Being a Luddite) – Part 1

  • Naomi Adiv

    I admire this attempt to use hybrid in-class and digital instruction for learning, particularly because I have never had any luck with this.

    It sounds like one of the things that is missing is a robust digital interface with John, and that you are working on that. Perhaps students need to join him for small ‘salon’ style discussions or be required to ‘meet’ with him in virtual office hours (though I’m not sure how many students we are talking about.) Some personal interaction with John would probably make it seem much more like he is their actual teacher.

    Still, the online thing is tricky. I understand that we need to experiment with these forms as they become more ubiquitous so we (the instructors) can come to the table with some knowledge about what does/doesn’t work when administrators ask us to teach these kinds of classes.

    At the same time, if I were a student I would also be annoyed that I wasn’t told this is a hybrid teaching environment — even if you are confident that John offers better instruction b/c he is more knowledgeable, from the student perspective he is somewhat of a robot. Further, its hard for students to take the long view about academic education (though I’m sure you already know this) because they are only taking the course once.

  • Naomi – I appreciate your feedback. We’re kicking a few ideas this semester to enhance the interaction between John and our students. We typically have 20-25 students per semester for this course.

    I have taken greater responsibility for the course since I am the one they can speak to more readily. If we do test out any of our ideas this semester (or in the Fall), I’ll be sure to post the fallout (or should I say “results”?) on this blog. =)

  • Ray E. Skrabut

    Alan:

    I have taught a semester where one section was face-to-face (f2f) and the other was a hybrid, i.e., some of the material was completed online, yet both sections had the same material to cover. Let me stop a moment here and say that I teach Comparative Literature 102W, which is a survey of literature with a writing requirement. The online components were a series of questions each student had to answer after doing the reading + handouts, thereby testing the students’ knowledge of a synthesis of the text plus the material on the handouts.

    The questions were given as assignments on Blackboard, each assignment revealed by date. Each student then emailed the assignment to me. I covered 2 1/2 books this way in the hybrid course.

    The hybrid course was received well by the students, and both sections took traditional midterm and final exams in class. I did an analysis of the grades after the semester, and statistically there was little difference between all grades throughout the semester. The results led me to believe that students really did do the reading and/or put the necessary time into reading and studying.

    And Naomi: CUNYfirst does indeed indicate whether a course is classroom-only, hybrid, or online. Perhaps some students are not paying attention when they sign up for their courses.