Why hybrid learning needs hybrid faculties
Online courses should be integrated into everyday faculty functions to improve remote and in-person classes as well as the overall student experience
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Universities are increasingly hybrid places of learning, where courses taught through face-to-face lectures and seminars comfortably coexist with online courses. Many UK universities now offer entire programmes through online learning, although the debate continues about their pedagogical effectiveness, educational quality and overall student experience. The “distant” aspect of online learning still presents challenges, so it is the integration of these courses into the everyday life of the faculty that deserves attention.
Hybrid faculties need intentional design to capitalise on the benefits and flexibility of online learning, while still offering a valuable student experience, parity for online and in-person teaching staff, and two-way knowledge sharing between these two “parallel” universes.
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In this integrated model, course design can be more closely aligned with course delivery. Lecturers responsible for course design are too often only marginally involved in the delivery of online courses. For tutors, delivering online courses that have been designed – and often continue to be owned – by someone else enhances the distance between them and the product. Online tutors’ lack of course ownership can affect their support or understanding of the course narrative and so have an impact on the quality of the delivery.
A better approach would be to incorporate online tutors into the processes of course design and course updates. This could enhance their ownership and ensure they buy into the product they are delivering. Frequent, planned discussions between module leader and online tutor would help establish a continuous line of communication between the online tutors and course owners and foster the feeling that online tutors are key to not only the product’s delivery but also its quality. Issues could include what works and what doesn’t, and which parts of the course require updating. Because tutors are often more aware of student responses to elements of the course, they can provide valuable insights for improvements.
Building bridges between online tutors and other academic staff
Second, a hybrid faculty could avoid a rift between those delivering in-person courses and those delivering online courses, especially if universities are more invested in the former. In the UK, more advertised vacancies specifically for online tutors indicate that the delivery of online courses is carried out by a separate team – members of the same department but with the sole responsibility of online delivery. Consequently, only the in-person courses seem to feel “real”, and staff and students on online programmes might feel they are playing second fiddle.
Building hybrid university faculties can be achieved by distributing online course tasks across the department and integrating them into the responsibilities of all academic staff. This way, the online tutor is no longer a separate role, but a responsibility shared across staff. While full integration of online delivery might not always be possible for practical reasons, ensuring online tutors are considered valuable members of the team and integrated better into the department will build an important bridge between the online team and the rest. Further integrating online learning into the everyday life of the faculty will create a more hybrid approach to teaching.
This integration would allow staff to find synergies for course design and assessment methods across the divide and adopt pedagogical features of online courses into the in-person courses. It would also challenge the assumption that online courses are an adaptation of in-person ones, suggesting that the former is derivative of the latter. The opposite is indeed possible, and online courses can be used and drawn upon to refresh the in-person delivery.
How integrating online teams pays off for students
Third, promoting the integration of online and in-person learning will directly benefit students. Universities use the overall student experience as a key selling point to attract prospective students. The online student experience, however, is substantially different and does not seem to receive the same level of attention. The assumption is that those taking up online courses are less interested in such a student experience and more interested in studying independently. While this might be the case for some students, starting from this assumption undermines the possibility of creating an online student community that would benefit the learning of those students.
There are ways not only to make online students feel part of the faculty and the wider university, but also to enhance the online student community itself. Online events, chat forums, student community apps and real-time meetings all help to promote community in online courses. This will provide online students with an excellent opportunity to make friends, expand their social and professional network, and feel more connected in their field of study. Positive (online and in-person) student communities make for happier students.
Fostering truly hybrid faculties could enhance both online and in-person student communities. Learning tools that allow students to participate asynchronously will encourage both groups to interact and learn from each other. Adopting a hybrid approach at faculty level could trickle down to the student body.
To sum up, a more integrated approach to online learning will enhance the learning environment for both students and staff and will help to build truly hybrid faculties.
An Jacobs is a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance at Loughborough University London.
Norma Rossi is an associate lecturer in international relations at the University of St Andrews.
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