5 pivotal choices to help you create a top-notch hybrid classroom

“Not to decide is to decide.” When it comes to creating hybrid classrooms, these words of wisdom from Harvey Cox ring true.

In 2020, COVID-19 forced colleges and universities everywhere to make an abrupt shift. The pivot was necessary, and in many cases successful, but came with incredible challenges – for everyone involved. And with insufficient time and data to make decisions, many higher education institutions were never able to fully realize the potential of their hybrid spaces.

Now, with two years’ worth of learning under our belts, the opportunity is here to create hybrid classrooms that allow instructors to truly deliver high-quality education. What’s the first step? Deciding exactly what kind of learning environment will best suit your students and faculty.

Whether you are designing hybrid classrooms from scratch or upgrading the ones you currently have in place, here are 5 pivotal choices you will need to make.

1. Class participation or lecture based?

Methods of hybrid teaching vary widely, so this needs to be factored into your classroom design. If your instructors mostly deliver lectures – with little time spent on discussions or student questions – then room design can be centered on making sure remote students clearly see and hear them.

On the other hand, many hybrid courses – especially HyFlex ones – put a premium on student participation. If remote students struggle to hear each other, it’s next to impossible for them to take an active role in class discussions and activities. And when instructors need to continually repeat student questions and comments, or pass around a mic in class so people can be heard, it slows everything down. If students will be taking an active role in your hybrid classes, then full-room microphone pickup is essential. That way class discussions can truly involve everyone, without interruptions, and no one feels like a second-class citizen. (Here’s how we can help.)

Choosing to prioritize participation also means looking at new ways for students to share ideas and ask questions. An active backchannel lets students take part without having to raise their hand to speak. Often the easiest option is to use the chat function in your UC&C platform.

Student participating in a hybrid learning class

2. Individual work or collaboration?

A related question is whether small-group work will be included in hybrid course design. If instructors want students to develop collaboration skills during class time, you’ll likely need to incorporate breakout rooms into your plan.

Luckily this is getting easier and easier – most UC&C tools now make it simple to split students into small groups that each get their own “room” so they can review a concept or work on a project together. Once students get used to the online environment, group work can become as natural in a hybrid class as it would in a traditional one. (If instructors need some inspiration, here are 21 activities to try).

It’s also worth considering whether students will collaborate in mixed groups – with some remote and some in-person. Allowing for in-class students to also join breakout rooms builds stronger connections and helps develop communication skills. All in-person students just need a laptop and headphones to make this work.

Four students engaged in small-group work on a laptop

3. Physical whiteboards or online tools?

Some professors can’t imagine teaching without being able to write on an actual board. Others prefer digital tools that can be projected on a screen and shared over Teams, Zoom or Google. Classroom design will need to take their preferences into account.

Online whiteboards have the advantage of being easily seen by everyone – remote or in-person. Some can also be accessed directly by students, allowing for active collaboration, both synchronous and asynchronous. And it’s easy to switch between them and other classroom communication tools.

Physical boards, on the other hand, require a classroom camera that offers a clear view of the content being demonstrated. Ideally the camera would have several preset views, so that students can see both their instructor and a zoomed in view of the content, as needed.

4. Mostly synchronous or mostly asynchronous?

Many hybrid classes have a synchronous and asynchronous element. It’s helpful to dig into what role each form of instruction will play in your hybrid classrooms.

Synchronous teaching – with content being delivered live to in-person and remote students – may involve icebreakers, small-group discussions, idea generation, polls and more. Students really do need to participate live to get the full value of the course, so the remote experience cannot have technical issues caused by insufficient bandwidth, poor quality video or inconsistent audio.

Asynchronous teaching, on the other hand, is designed to be consumed any time. Usually, the chunks of information are shorter, and they don’t require active participation. For this to be effective, you need a good way to capture class sessions – using UC&C or lecture capture tools – and an easy way for students to access the videos.

Few classes will be 100% synchronous or 100% asynchronous. When building your hybrid classroom, it helps to decide which format you will prioritize and make choices accordingly.

Higher education student joining a hybrid classroom remotely

5. Short term or long term?

This may be the most important question of them all – is your hybrid classroom mostly built to help manage the pandemic or is it a key part of your teaching and learning strategy going forward?

Hybrid and HyFlex courses have been offered in universities and colleges for a while now. However, the pandemic brought hybrid into the spotlight and exposed many more people to this way of learning. Now a growing number of students (68% in one poll) have expressed their desire to keep attending hybrid courses in the future.

Deciding whether hybrid is part of your short-term or long-term strategy can help you make every other choice. It can help determine the investment you make in both the space itself and the training of faculty. It can also help you determine the scale of your hybrid classroom rollout.

This doesn’t mean you can’t shift directions down the road. But asking the right questions now can help you move forward with committed and informed action. And that gives you the best chance of creating a hybrid classroom that will deliver value to your students for a long time.

Tricia Whenham
By Tricia Whenham