Hybrid Classes in College: What to Know


Well before the coronavirus pandemic shut down campuses and restricted in-person interaction in March 2020, hybrid learning was a part of the curriculum for Odessa College in Texas and Portland State University in Oregon.

But for many other colleges, online and blended instruction were new concepts that sent them scrambling to transition. Now, nearly two years later, as schools have adapted and implemented new technology in the classroom, experts predict that these remote learning options are here to stay.

“We are coming out of the pandemic with an even stronger commitment to the value of in-person-instruction as an essential component to our residential academic programs but that we also have a bigger toolbox of successful teaching methods available to us now,” Julia Thom-Levy, vice provost for academic innovation at Cornell University, wrote in an email.

“Teachers want to use the best of both going forward and will likely blend in-person instruction with digital tools that can engage students in and out of the classroom.”

What Is a Hybrid Class in College?

A hybrid course is a combination of face-to-face and online instruction that can come in a variety of forms. Some models offer in-person courses with online components while others have a mix of students who attend in-person or over Zoom.

“It can be used as a complement to in-person learning,” says Stephanie Riegg Cellini, professor of public policy and economics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and nonresident senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

“So for example, having videos that students can go back and look at after they have had class in person to reinforce concepts,” she adds. “It can also work as a substitute for in-person learning, and I think the research shows that it’s maybe less effective used as a substitute than when it is used as a complement.”

Thirty-five percent of courses are hybrid at Odessa College, with face-to-face instruction offered twice a week and the remaining time spent online, according to Brian Jones, the school’s director of professional learning. The remote aspect of classes is set up to be both synchronous, where participants log in at the same time, and asynchronous, which includes engagement at any time through discussion posts and other activities.

“The experience for students who take an online course, we know, is different,” Jones says. “When they are face to face, we know that experience is different as well. With the hybrid, it feels more blended in that you’ve got the instructor going over the resources, additional materials online and supplemental pieces with you. Just making sure that any learning loops are closed and reinforced throughout the lesson cycle.”

Building on existing hybrid courses, Portland State implemented Attend Anywhere, a pilot program for “flexible learning” that has enrolled 5,340 students.

Under the program, classrooms are equipped with Zoom and Global Classroom technology. Instruction is livestreamed so that students can attend class remotely, in person or alternate back and forth, according to Michelle Giovannozzi, the university’s associate vice provost for academic innovation.

Course layouts vary by professor but can include a short lecture followed by a class discussion with in-person and remote participants, or collaboration over Zoom breakout rooms.

Given a choice, one-third of students preferred a hybrid approach for the fall 2021 semester, three percentage points lower than in person only and 12 percentage points higher than online only, according to the annual Sallie Mae/Ipsos survey How America Pays for College.

With decisions to be made on what type of course to take, here’s what students should know about hybrid learning:

  • Increased flexibility and access.
  • Enhanced comfort in the classroom.
  • Challenges with technology.
  • Less campus engagement.

Increased Flexibility and Access

COVID-19 increased awareness of a digital divide in higher education that was especially prevalent among students of color and rural students. Schools reacted by distributing laptops and hot spot devices, as well as setting up additional outdoor broadband areas on campus.

But now, as campuses reopen, students can pick what works best for them: in-person, online or hybrid courses. This allows more nontraditional students, like those who work full-time or are parents, to access higher education.

“We have to understand that we need to meet students where they are and one size does not fit all,” Jones says.

Hybrid courses can be accessed on a desktop, laptop or even using a cellphone app. With the ability to watch lectures again and attend virtual office hours, coursework can be completed at a time convenient for the student.

Hybrid courses also reduce the need to commute to campus.

“For the most part, students express a willingness to trade the familiarity and other benefits of in-person learning for the opportunity to balance commitments such as work, internships, childcare, and commute time offered by Attend Anywhere courses,” Giovannozzi wrote in an email. “Time spent commuting to campus can instead be spent reviewing course materials. Students also indicate they miss fewer class sessions with the option of remote attendance and appreciate being able to rewatch class videos to review and reinforce complex concepts.”

Enhanced Comfort in the Classroom

While some students are the first to raise their hand or speak up in class, others prefer to stay under the radar.

Virtual participation can “provide a lower risk, more comfortable way for introverted students to ask questions and share their thoughts,” Giovannozzi says.

“Students learn in different ways, and some thrive in remote environments,” she adds. “For example, some students with disabilities have adapted very well to remote learning and find that they can thrive academically without the stress of commuting to a physical classroom.”

Challenges With Technology

Digital platforms such as Zoom, Global Classroom and Slack can enhance learning but come with a learning curve for students and faculty members.

Nearly 20% of college students reported struggling with learning how to use education technology, for example, according to a 2021 College Innovation Network survey.

Beyond digital literacy, occasional hiccups occur with technology usage like frozen screens, disconnection and errors that can result in a temporary inability to communicate with others in class.

Less Campus Engagement

Only 39% of college students who took either only online classes or were on a hybrid schedule strongly or somewhat agreed that they felt connected to their campuses, according to the How America Pays for College survey.

“So much of learning on college campuses takes place outside of the classroom in residence halls and cocurricular activities,” says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, an organization focused on advancing equity within higher education.

“For students who are doing hybrid learning on residential college campuses,” she says, “it is a radically different experience and can dilute that sense of community that comes with engaging with others around important issues outside of the classroom.”

Developing connections in the classroom also takes more intentionality in a remote learning environment, Thom-Levy says.

“Instructors want to circulate, listen and respond in the moment as students work together on complex tasks,” she adds. “This can be done in an online environment; it just takes a lot of planning and very clear directions to be successful.”


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