“Hybrid courses,” or courses that deliver part of their instruction in a traditional lecture manner and part in an online environment, are becoming increasingly popular among schools and colleges. Proponents of the concept say it capitalizes on the benefits that both face-to-face and online learning can provide—and now, there is some evidence to suggest that hybrid courses can help students learn more effectively.
Brian McFarlin, a professor at the University of Houston’s Laboratory of Integrated Physiology, decided to conduct an experiment in one of his classes to observe the strengths and weaknesses of hybrid courses. The project was partly funded by a faculty development grant from the university’s office of educational technology.
McFarlin found that final student grades were 9.9 percent higher (an increase of one letter grade on a standard grading scale) when the course was administered in a hybrid format.
A total of 658 final grades were used to evaluate the effect of the course-delivery format on academic performance. All exams used the same question bank for each course format.
“When I started, I just wanted to make sure that students did as well in the hybrid version of the class as the traditional. I quickly learned that technology is powerful when used properly,” said McFarlin.
Though the sample size is too small to draw any definitive conclusions, it raises some interesting questions to explore more fully.
Supporters of hybrid instruction believe that combining face-to-face instruction with online reflection and discussion can engage students in the content more effectively, while customizing the course to students’ needs and fostering a higher degree of interactivity than is possible in a large lecture format only.
These potential benefits were largely what inspired McFarlin to try a hybrid format.
“Students … had varying levels of background prior to taking the class, meaning that when I taught basic materials, [some] students needed more assistance than others—so essentially it would benefit some and bore others,” he explained.
Another reason he wanted to try a hybrid course was the increasing difficulty of trying to manage a continuously rising class size that reached up to 200 students.
McFarlin’s class was Physiology of Human Performance. Three hundred forty-six students took the course in the traditional face-to-face lecture format from 2004 to 2005. Three hundred twelve students took the course in a hybrid format from 2006 to 2007. The hybrid design included 1.5 hours a week online and another 1.5 hours a week in a traditional classroom setting.
In the traditional format, course lectures were administered using PowerPoint slides and Flash media-based animations whenever possible. Because the course had a large number of students enrolled, there was minimal interaction between the professor and the students.
The online portion of the hybrid class was delivered using WebCT Vista, enhanced with various instructional technologies.
McFarlin customized the WebCT environment for his course using course-specific banners and an interactive SitePal avatar on the home page to provide course announcements. The SitePal character was created by OddCast from a digital picture of McFarlin.
Once the basic WebCT site was created, McFarlin had to create, produce, and organize course material. He wanted to give students access to online lectures that would provide basic material in support of more advanced topics, which would be covered during the in-class lectures.
McFarlin used PowerPoint files similar to those in his lectures and narrated them using Articulate Studio. To complete the hybrid course online, McFarlin had to develop a rough storyboard, make the slides, write and record the narration, align the audio portion to the PowerPoint animations using Articulate Studio, incorporate learning games, and test the final product in WebCT.
In addition, McFarlin uploaded all in-class lecture audio to this WebCT course site for students to download in either WMA or MP3 format. McFarlin made this lecture audio available only to students who attended in-class lectures as an incentive to attend class.
McFarlin estimates he spent between 16 and 20 hours to complete this process for each lecture. Although that’s much more time than he used to spend preparing for a traditional lecture, once the material has been created, he would be able to use the same content with slight modifications or updates the following year. Eventually, this process would become a time-saver, McFarlin said.
Pros and cons
Informal student feedback revealed that students who took the hybrid version of the course preferred its self-paced nature and their ability to review course content as often as they liked.
Hybrid courses also resulted in greater student comprehension. On average, students in the hybrid format earned exam grades that were 14 percent higher than students who took the traditional course. McFarlin attributes much of this difference to online interactions that typically aren’t possible in a large classroom setting.
McFarlin believes the hybrid format is also good for the university; because half of the course time is spent online instead of inside a classroom, this frees up 1.5 hours per week of classroom space, meaning that more courses can use the same room.
“I liked the fact that the class was a hybrid,” said one of McFarlin’s undergraduate students. “He gave you all the tools you could possibly imagine to be successful in this class. He was extremely knowledgeable about the subject, and I feel I was able to learn a great deal in here.”
Another student wrote, “The availability of class material on WebCT contributed to my success in this course. Lecture audio was extremely helpful to review before exams.”
A third student said, “The hybrid format was an asset and helped me learn in various ways. It allowed for a more in-depth form of studying and helped my grade.”
However, the course was not without its problems. For example, online instruction makes it difficult to confirm the identity of the student who is completing an assignment. Also, the technology itself was intimidating at first and caused various setbacks, but McFarlin said he was able to manage his hybrid course successfully.
“I enjoyed using WebCT because you do not need to have extensive experience writing HTML code but can take advantage of [hyperlinking] using the built-in Java interface,” he said. “I experienced a number of setbacks with the implementation of technology; however, in the end, I expanded my own instructional capacities and provided a better learning experience to my students. … I now only offer [the course] in a hybrid format.”
Other hybrid research
McFarlin isn’t the only educator excited about hybrid courses. The University of Houston’s Graduate Futures Studies has been experimenting with hybrid courses over the last five years and has published an executive summary titled Exploratory Study of Hybrid Courses.
Over the last few years, the report reveals, the number of hybrid courses being offered in various disciplines has been steadily increasing, and overall, “the findings painted an encouraging picture of the current use of hybrids and the future potential.”
The university also has evaluated the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats involved in hybrid projects.
The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee already has a Hybrid Faculty Development Program, which has come up with a list of 10 questions for educators to consider before teaching a hybrid course. For example, one question states, “Online asynchronous discussion is often an important part of hybrid courses. What new learning opportunities will arise as a result of using asynchronous discussion? What challenges do you anticipate in using online discussions? How would you address these?”
McFarlin urges educators to remember, above all else, that the key to effectively implementing technology is to “keep the focus on student-related outcomes and learning.”