Why Universities Should Maintain Hybrid Courses — and Create More

by Swati Carr, Ph.D. | April 13, 2021

Estimated time to read: minutes


In this piece, I make a case for why schools should lean into the hybrid and online course infrastructure that they have built during the pandemic. Hybrid and online courses and programs provide schools several advantages:

  1. Increased flexibility, for both long-term and short-term student circumstances
  2. Enhanced residential learning, by incorporating personalized course data, ongoing assessments, and richer media types
  3. Better returns on investments already made, through continued emergency preparedness and differentiated education offerings for price-conscious audiences

In response to a survey by Best Colleges, a majority of school administrators reported that they expected the need for online and hybrid classes to continue through 2022 and beyond.

Colleges and universities that moved away from the 200-person synchronous Zoom lecture in the Fall 2020 semester could do so because they had spent the summer developing their faculty’s online-teaching skills and providing instructional design and technology support. Online learning centers and teaching and learning offices created workshops for faculty on teaching effectively in an environment where students can’t ask clarifying questions mid-lecture. Whenever possible, faculty teamed up with instructional designers and technologists to build hybrid courses: parts of the course were available on-demand through the campus-wide learning management system (LMS), while others required participation in small group discussions or collaborative work in shared documents. 

Now that everyone in the United States is eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine starting May 1, we expect faculty and students to return to their campuses and classrooms. Some faculty have found technology-mediated, semi-synchronous adaptations of large, lecture-type classes so effective that they intend to maintain that model post-pandemic. Other faculty will likely return to the lecture halls where they conducted classes for decades before the pandemic.

So, what will be the fate of all the hybrid courses that U.S. colleges and universities have spent so much time, energy, and creativity to build? 


Alleviate student attrition

In an ideal world, every student would be able to return to campus for the Fall 2021 semester. Sadly, the lives of many students look significantly different today than they did before March 2020. Some students have lost family members to the pandemic. Perhaps their family’s primary breadwinner is un- or underemployed, and the student must help out by working on the side. Returning to campus just might not be possible. Without an online option, these students might be forced to defer their education. The expertise that higher education institutions have built with online teaching and learning over the past year can help these students stay in school and on track to graduating with their intended degrees.

Ease education stress during short-term emergencies

Back in the early 2000s, when I was in college and had to miss a week’s worth of lectures to attend a funeral, I had no choice but to depend on a friend’s notes for the classes I missed. I needed to make an appointment with a professor to get an extension on an assignment that was due the day after the funeral. If I were a student in 2020, I would simply email the professor with proof of the funeral and she would extend the assignment deadline in the LMS. I wouldn’t need my friend’s notes at all. I would log into the LMS at my leisure, watch the lectures I had missed, and read the corresponding documents. I might even attend a different recitation section than my own rather than missing it and foregoing the discussion.
Students know this level of flexibility is possible and have come to expect it from their education. And there is no reason not to provide it. The technology is there, and as long as courses are available in hybrid format, with a few adjustments students won’t have to choose between life and learning. They can live and learn.

Enhanced Residential Learning

Create opportunities for more interpersonal faculty-student connections

Large lecture-format courses have traditionally suffered from a lack of personalization. Shifting the content delivery to digital channels can open up time for faculty to engage students in active learning in the classroom, where the professor can guide and shape the students’ understanding of the subject. Faculty can assess students’ learning throughout the semester through low-stakes formative assessments and make adjustments to the curriculum accordingly or design appropriate interventions for students that need them.

Personalize education with data and instructional design

Alternatively, digital technologies can be used to deliver interactive and personalized content for students that are simply not possible in an in-person lecture.

For example, in a course called Colonial Latin America, the switch to remote instruction prompted one instructor to start using the LMS as more than just a place to store files. With the help of a learning designer from Extension Engine’s Online Learning Response Team (OLRT), she’s now collecting student work via the course site instead of email, and she has adapted course assignments to make use of collaborative and social edtech tools to bring the students together as they learn. She plans to apply the changes she made to this course to her other courses in the future, commenting, “My course has never been this organized!"

Leverage the advantages of each medium to create a superior and differentiated offering

Post-pandemic, schools should invest their efforts into creating hybrid models for all their courses. While never easy, converting large lecture-format classes into blended (a mix of both online and in-person, with the two formats not interchangeable) or hybrid (available interchangeably as either online-only or in-person) versions is the simplest evolution of the various types of university classes. Given that each delivery format brings different advantages to students, converting the more challenging types of courses (labs, for example) to online, blended, and hybrid formats will only enhance the residential experience for students.

Better Returns on Investments Already Made

Be prepared for future emergencies that disrupt on-campus learning

Throughout 2020, universities and campuses invested heavily in their faculty, training them in online course design, creation, and teaching. Although unequivocally made to meet a pressing need, these investments were not cheap. The ability to teach online is a bit like learning a foreign language as an adult: Practice regularly, and it will remain fresh as you continuously acquire new tidbits. Allow it to languish, and when you next pick it up, maybe a year from now, you will have to relearn more than you expected.

The training and resources that universities and colleges have given their faculty are investments in their professional development. If faculty stop using digital technology for teaching once in-person classes resume, the skills they have acquired will languish and be forgotten; schools will have earned no long-term returns on their investment in their faculty’s professional development. World leaders have begun talks that will allow them to be prepared for when — not if — a future global health crisis emerges. U.S. higher education cannot afford to allow online and hybrid learning skills and technologies to decay after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. The pivot to remote teaching in the Spring 2020 semester was completely unexpected. Although the original efforts at remote teaching left students and their parents frustrated, everyone understood. Nobody wants a “next time.” We all hope there is never another need to shutter schools for months on end. But if — and I sincerely do hope it remains an if — it does happen, students will not be as forgiving of the lack of emergency preparedness. Students are increasingly conducting most of their interactions — shopping, entertainment, communication, and now, education — through digital platforms and channels. They know what high-quality digital interactions look and feel like in other areas of their lives. They will expect the same high quality from their educational institutions if they ever need to return fully to online learning.

Increase reach and differentiate yourself from the competition

Setting up hybrid or fully online courses and degrees involves a steep initial cost. Technology and tools must be purchased, faculty have to be trained, systems need to be put in place. Once the initial set-up is complete, the cost of maintenance is low, and the infrastructure can be applied to other courses and programs. Universities and colleges can leverage this infrastructure to create alternative, lower-cost offerings and market them to people seeking an education but unwilling or unable to pay for the full, on-campus experience. This will not only enable schools to increase their reach and revenue but will also define what they consider a “premium” experience, which they can use to differentiate themselves from competitors.

In Conclusion

Without a doubt, the emergency pivot to teaching with technology these past 12months has been challenging for U.S. colleges and universities. Yet schools have adapted, investing in not just the technology but also the training and support that their faculty, staff, and students need to be successful. The result is rich, highly personalized, objective data on their courses and students’ study habits — data far beyond the scope of any student evaluations — and new and flexible models of instruction, assessment, and engagement.

The pandemic forced schools to use technology as an alternative to the residential learning experience. As life on campuses returns to normal, schools should use these new models of teaching — hybrid and blended learning — to enhance the experience of their on-campus students, as well as to imagine pathways for students who want an education without the on-campus experience or price tag. The question that schools need to answer is this: How can we maximize the returns on the investment in technology and training we have made during the COVID-19 pandemic? The answer: Use that technology to retain existing students — and to recruit new ones.

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Swati Carr, Ph.D.

Swati Carr is a former Research Fellow at Extension Engine. She took an unusual route into education design coming from a 10+ year stint doing bioengineering research through her M.S. and then Ph.D. While at Extension Engine, she designed and created effective educational experiences on digital platforms, and evaluated existing educational content against defined learning outcomes to find ways to improve them, bringing the scientific method and evidence-based decision making to all her work. Prior to Extension Engine, Swati designed authentic assessments for blended and digital learning in biosciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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