Noah Faison graduated virtually from Columbia University in 2020. William Pang is a final year student at McGill University.
Back in March, as professors hurriedly transitioned from in-class lectures to Zoom-based virtual learning, many college students – ourselves included – were forced to get a glimpse of what a part in-class, part virtual learning experience was like.
The experience was far from perfect: Some professors streamed math lectures with their web cameras awkwardly angled at a chalkboard or piece of paper, while others hurriedly condensed hours worth of class time into an hour-long Zoom session. Collaborative exercises, such as conferences and lab sessions, were cancelled or significantly retooled, depriving students of a valuable experience to retain and apply lecture material with friends and peers.
It is no wonder that many students and parents have expressed serious misgivings about technology’s ability to enhance education, given the impromptu attempt at virtual education last spring. But what if there was a way to deliver a seamless hybrid of online and in-person classes – while making university more affordable?
This is not a radical idea. In fact, it is a transition that has already begun in graduate-level education. Many graduate programs across North America have implemented hybrid models, with the main selling point, as University of British Columbia’s website puts it, of “providing the flexibility that students need in order to balance their studies and other responsibilities”. The financial flexibility such programs offer is also significant. In the United States, the average price per credit for an online-centric degree program offered by private universities is at least US$750 cheaper than for on-campus programs.
Given these advantages, why hasn’t hybrid education been offered to more undergraduate students? First, there remains a huge stigma within the education sphere, especially at elite schools, that equates online education to an inferior education. Many institutions maintain that the on-campus experience with professors and peers is irreplaceable, but this claim is dubious. Even before COVID-19, students were regularly crammed into crowded auditoriums where a professor’s ability to interact with students was hamstrung by time constraints, while interactions with peers in class were often reduced to a perfunctory greeting.
Another selling point of the “traditional university experience” is that students will gain irreplaceable experiences by spending their four years exclusively on campus. Indeed, keeping undergraduates cloistered on campus probably held water in an earlier era in which a university degree was itself enough to place graduates ahead of competitors in the job market. However, students today are more than willing to simultaneously juggle work and school, pouncing on work opportunities – even unpaid internships and volunteer research positions – because employers expect work experience even for entry-level positions. More undergrads, especially those that take on debt to finance their education, have woken up to a reality where they require the flexibility to balance work and school life. The pandemic is likely only to exacerbate such pressures.
If educators take the pandemic and the pressures it puts on students seriously, they will seriously reassess the value of hybrid education. This will require leaders in undergraduate education to be as creative and flexible as students. Thankfully, a growing number of universities have proved that, with technological finesse, it is possible to create dynamic and engaging classes that are superior to the in-person experience. We’ve also seen how our professors can still record quality lectures on their personal laptops.
But more has to be done to avoid repeating the same mistakes we saw last semester. Given that technological expertise is more commonly found among students than professors, teaching faculty should be especially open to sourcing ideas from their students about how to deliver content online in a clear and engaging way. Faculty should lean into the benefits of asynchronous learning as well, whereby students can listen to online course material at their own pace and as many times as they want.
One silver lining of the pandemic is educators are provided with a unique opportunity to reshape the role of the campus as a place to provide targeted support for students. Having online lectures shouldn’t mean students have to sacrifice the one-on-one interactions that are a hallmark of the university experience; on the contrary, we students would have a better experience if we could use the online learning portion at our own pace and use the on-campus portion to receive targeted support from faculty and teaching assistants. This means that we should gradually phase out 600-person auditoriums; instead, campus spaces should be reconfigured to facilitate small group collaboration and one-on-one discussions with teaching assistants.
A hybrid learning model can benefit universities as well. With the technology to monitor student engagement baked into online learning platforms, universities might be able to refocus their resources where students need them most and cut unneeded costs. Leveraging the benefits of an online platform also translates into universities being able to increase their enrolment numbers while reducing the cost of administering lectures (is it really necessary to deliver a new iteration of introductory calculus every semester when the subject hasn’t changed much since Newton?).
We know that hybrid education is not a revolutionary idea, as some professors have attempted to complement in-person classes with some form of online component. But rather than relegating hybrid education to the status of a pet project among select faculty, administrators should acclimate to a new reality where classes are no longer held in jammed classrooms. This means universities have to seriously invest in training and technology that will last beyond the current pandemic.
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