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Volume 8, Number 6: March 20, 2002

Reflections on Teaching a Large Enrollment Course
Using a Hybrid Format

by John (Jack) Johnson,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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The easiest way to describe my experience teaching a large enrollment course using the hybrid format is to first reflect on my experience with the course prior to its hybridization.

After several years of teaching 245-105 Business and Professional Communication, a large enrollment course at UW-Milwaukee, I began to suspect that certain factors hindered my students' performance. Before its hybridization, this course used a typical large lecture format. Students would attend a single 50-minute lecture each week. The content of course was delivered via these large lectures and textbook readings. Two 50-minute weekly laboratory sessions conducted by instructors or teaching assistants supplemented the lectures.

Three Big Issues

My concerns for my students' learning in this large course seemed to fall into three categories. The first of these was accessibility to course content. Many of my students perform numerous roles each day, including being a parent, employee, spouse, and a student. When push comes to shove, caring and providing for their families often takes precedence over attending class. Missing even a couple of lectures resulted in these students falling behind; catching up often became extremely difficult, if not impossible.

My second concern was the effectiveness of large lecture instruction. While I thoroughly enjoy lecturing to a large number of students, and my students have reported that they enjoy my lectures, I questioned whether the lectures actually helped my students learn the course content. Students would dutifully file into the lecture hall, sit in their seats, take a few notes, and give the impression that they understood what I was saying. Even with the use of interactive question and answer sessions, small group discussions, and quizzes during the lecture, it was still a large lecture format where learning was largely a passive endeavor. The standard fifty-minute lecture period limited us further. When students needed content beyond what I could present in a lecture, we had to take time out of the two fifty-minute lab sessions. This meant reducing the amount of time spent on behavioral practice of the communication skills. Like most professors, I felt there was not enough time to explain the necessary knowledge sets and still leave time for adequate behavioral practice.

The third factor that concerned me was the low level of connectivity between my students and me. I would walk into the lecture hall, deliver a lecture, answer a few questions, and then walk back to my office. Once in awhile a student dropped by my office to ask a question, but, for the most part, my experience was reminiscent of the Maytag repairman. To overcome this problem, I held small, informal discussion groups with students at prescheduled times during the week. However, competing time demands prevented many of these students from taking advantage of the small groups. Once again, the issue of accessibility reared its ugly head. Regardless of how I sliced the pie, the facts remained the same: there were three hundred of them and one of me, and we had limited time to interact. Odds were, I would probably not get to know my students individually. Nor was it likely they would have the opportunity to know me as more than a conduit for conveying information.

These three issues of accessibility, effectiveness, and connectivity were the primary drivers motivating me to look at alternative instructional delivery methods for teaching large enrollment courses.

I had attended several conferences where online and hybrid course formats had been discussed. However, thoughts of using either of these instructional formats did not really bubble into my consciousness until colleagues from UW-Milwaukee's Learning Technology Center offered me the opportunity to learn about and actually develop a hybrid course.

A Continuously Evolving Hybrid Course

The 245-105 Business and Professional Communication course is a product of several evolutionary cycles. In one of its earliest forms, the course used live and video-taped lectures broadcast over local community and campus cable networks. A year later we began using audio-assisted PowerPoint lectures streamed over the Internet. Both of these formats offer advantages and disadvantages. The video cable broadcast lectures offer a "traditional classroom" flavor but without the capacity for students to ask questions or to interact with each other. Furthermore, students had to either remind themselves to watch the lectures on the days and times they were broadcast or remember to video tape them for later viewing.

When we moved the lectures online and used streaming technology we overcame some of the limitations of the video broadcast. Students could access the recorded audio assisted PowerPoint lectures 24 hours a day, seven days a week and could post or email questions regarding the content. While the streaming technology worked well in getting the lectures from the server to the students' computer, students dialing in from off campus often contended with poor Internet service connections.

By the end of spring semester 2001 approximately 33% of the course was delivered through online instruction. The remaining 67% of the course was delivered in the two weekly face-to-face 50 minute labs. I decided last spring that a more stable and reliable online delivery method was necessary and that my students would benefit, from the viewpoint of accessibility to course content and instructional effectiveness, by having more of the course content delivered outside of the face-to-face classroom setting.

In fall of 2001, I began delivering course lectures or content via an instructional CD and to increase the percentage of online learning activities from 33% to approximately 50%. Placing the course content on CD significantly reduced problems associated with unstable internet connections. I also changed the nomenclature used to describe course activities from "lecture" and "lab" to "learning modules" (objects). The course ended up with forty-eight learning modules that were distributed across 15 weeks. Each module was composed of smaller learning activities that varied in: length (from 7 minutes to 39 minutes), focus (knowledge acquisition-application, and skills development/assessment), and delivery method (online or face-to-face).

Plans for the next generation of this course, which will be unveiled in fall of 2002, include re-recording all of the online modules using video instead of still images of me delivering the PowerPoint presentations and increasing the number of professional development exercises. These video based online modules will continue to be placed on CDs rather than streamed.

Managing a Large Enrollment Hybrid Course

Development Time:

Managing the development of a large enrollment hybrid course requires a different set of instructional and project management skills than those required in a traditional course. For the most part, all development activities must be completed well in advance of the beginning of the semester. And the process of learning the technology required to create online modules is always slower than one expects. My best guess is that planning and developing a large enrollment hybrid course takes two to three times the amount of time that a traditional large enrollment face-to-face course would take.

Thoughts of recouping the large investment in development time by offering the same learning modules for several years should also be dismissed. Instructors of hybrid courses should plan to make small adjustments between semesters and major overhauls between academic years. Every year or so, the content changes, I have changed my opinion of the content and/or new and better technology necessitates course revisions.

Maintenance and Implementation Time:

Anyone who thinks teaching the online portion of a large enrollment hybrid based course will take less time than traditional face-to-face sessions will be disappointed to discover the opposite is true. It takes significantly more time, for several reasons. First, the amount of student-to-faculty contact increases with the hybrid format. Students are more engaged in learning activities and therefore will seek out more assistance. Second, there is also a significant difference in managing the instructional experiences of 500 students versus a class of 25 students. Getting 25 students online to view instructional modules is no small task. Getting 500 students from both on and off campus locations online--properly downloading and configuring software and comfortably working from a web based learning platform (e.g. WebCT, Blackboard)--is nothing short of a miracle. Third, more available course management tools leads to more work. For example, I review students' course progress by checking our online grade book. I then ask members of my teaching staff to contact students who are missing assignments or performing poorly to find out why there is a lack of academic progress. I also will check our "point of access" data to see where and for how long students are accessing our course site. If I find some students not viewing the online learning modules, I send them a reminder to do so. It's sort of like noticing that a student is not attending a class and contacting them to find out why. Students are often startled to find out that I know if and when they have been viewing the learning modules.

A Reassessment of Accessibility, Effectiveness and Connectivity Issues

How has moving this course into a hybrid format addressed my concerns of accessibility, effectiveness and connectivity?

Accessibility to the course content increased significantly when the course was re-engineered into the hybrid format. Students can access our learning materials and activities 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can view our learning modules or objects as many times as they want and can start and stop the learning modules to fit their schedules. While they are still required to have two 50-minute face-to-face sessions per week, the absence of a face-to-face lecture makes a big difference. Numerous students have thanked me for making the course content available online. I will never forget the email that I received from the single parent who said, "Just wanted to thank you for this course. It's 9:30 p.m.; I just got my boys to sleep, and it's time to begin your class. Thanks for making this happen. Without it, I would not be able to work, take care of my kids and finish my college degree."

As for the effectiveness of the course, I have compared student test and presentation scores, as well as their final letter grades between pre-hybrid and hybrid semesters. To date I have found no significant differences. Given that this was not a controlled experiment, caution must be taken in making any effectiveness claims. However, it is clear that the hybrid format is not leading to decreased academic performance. Furthermore, the use of the hybrid format allowed me greater flexibility in managing the amount of material I could teach in any one week. I am no longer at the mercy 50-minute lecture. The online instructional modules I use in any one week vary from a minimum of 20 minutes to a maximum of 140 minutes. This allows for more timely and pedagogically sound content delivery.

Finally, regarding connectivity, I have never felt more acquainted with students enrolled in a large enrollment course than I do teaching this course in a hybrid format. Simply put, my days as a lonely Maytag repairman are over. The use of email and the web-based learning has significantly reduced students' unwillingness or inability to communicate with me. During this semester I have averaged just over 20 emails a day from students requesting assistance on assignments, explanations of course content or assignments, quiz answers, and general career advising concerns. Some students take the time to stop by my office for face-to-face meetings, but the vast majority of them communicate with me via the internet. Without question, it takes quite a bit of sensitivity and communication savvy to make an impersonal communication device like email personal, but it is still possible. This year, I created a 15-minute online introduction of myself for this course. In the introduction, I talked about my childhood, career, personal and family life, how I ended up becoming a professor, hobbies, etc. Numerous students responded via email with questions and comments "So you were born in Petoskey, Michigan - didn't Ernest Hemingway live there?" One student wrote to say that her Dad had this fascination with wooden boats and that she was going to let him know that one of my newest hobbies was restoring classic and antique wooden powerboats. Darned if he didn't email me.

Teaching still remains for me one of the most difficult and challenging of endeavors, and my experience suggests there are no wonder techniques or "killer" instructional formats. What I did find in the using the hybrid format was something which significantly increased the accessibility, effectiveness, and connectivity of my large enrollment course. In my opinion, anything that does these three things is worth investigating.

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