Mixed-mode is not really new. Universities with multiple campuses have had remote and on campus students participating in classes together for years. But with the ever-present uncertainty of the current crisis, and digital technologies more efficacious than ever, could now be the time to give mixed-mode classes a try?

Why now?

As our university prepares for the return to campus of many labs and tutorials, some complications will require creative solutions. It’s realistic to anticipate that some students will studying from overseas, self-isolating, or preferring to stay home due to being in a high risk group. There may also be space restrictions on campus. We want to ensure that students who can’t participate on campus don’t miss out on engaging with their peers and teachers in real time discussions and activities – the collaborative experience that is intrinsic to UTS learning. Mixed-mode classes, combining online and on campus through Zoom or other synchronous learning technologies, may be able to help with that.

Another factor pointing to a move in this direction might be that teaching staff may not be able to rely on tried and true classroom patterns. Physical distancing measures mean it may be more workable to have students on campus interact via digital technologies anyway. Technology (especially mobile technology) is increasingly interwoven with our lives and in how students interact in a ‘normal’ on campus class – why not extend this to allow more flexible participation from students, wherever they are?

What do we mean by mixed-mode?

A quick perusal of the landscape offers up a range of blurry definitions, and a wide spectrum of teaching approaches that might be labelled ‘mixed-mode’. 

Roughly, at the whole subject level, ‘hybrid learning’ uses a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online participation paths to accomodate students both on and off campus. There are variations to how this works, depending on how much choice students have about switching back and forth between participation modes. In ‘Hyflex’, students have maximum flexibility to switch seamlessly between modes, or remain fully online or on campus.

At the individual class layer, a synchronous class with face-to-face and online students participating at the same time is sometimes known as ‘blended synchronous’ learning. Unless you had the benefit of a crystal ball, you likely haven’t planned out your whole subject as hyflex, so this is probably closest to what we are talking about with the catch-all term ‘mixed-mode’ (see also: ‘dual mode’, ‘mode neutral’) in the current context. In general, whatever flavour of mixed-mode you select, there is plenty of evidence that it can be effective for student learning.

Some design considerations…

Equivalence is the overarching pedagogical consideration in designing a mixed-mode class. If remote and on-campus students need to achieve and be assessed on the same learning outcomes, how can you ensure that they have an equivalent opportunity to learn, despite their different experience? How will you ensure that those joining online feel the same level of inclusion and connection with the class and their teacher? The short answer seems to be consistency – keep the strategies you use as consistent as possible across the online and on-campus participation, and the academic performance of students can be very similar (see Soesmanto & Bonner, 2019).  

One idea for achieving this in the current circumstances might be what Washington State University’s Mike Caulfield terms a ‘Zoomflex’ model. Caulfield suggests planning on a digital-first basis, beginning with interactive Zoom classes at the core. Then think about how you bring the face-to-face students into that experience, rather than the other way around. Are there teaching strategies (such as group discussions) and digital artefacts (such as Google Docs) that can be shared or reused across both participation modes? Watch Caulfield’s short video ‘How I would approach Fall semester’ for a walkthrough.

University of Sydney’s Danny Liu and Jessica Frawley have also put together a helpful list of some common activities that are ‘online by design’.

Another unique pedagogical consideration for mixed-mode is the composition of groups for group work. Will you mix up remote and on-campus students, or group them separately? According to case studies in the Blended Synchronous Learning Handbook, there are pros and cons either way. Mixing up the groups may improve the sense of community and engagement for remote students, but risks reducing the naturalness of interaction for face-to-face.

In some ways, the design considerations are nothing new. Underpinning the effectiveness of any approach will be the use of active learning techniques to engage learners. For instance, breaking up a traditional lecture into smaller chunks, with participatory activities that work online and face-to-face. Steven Mintz recently published a long list of ideas for making online learning active, many of which could be adapted to accommodate students participating on their mobiles in a classroom.

….and a whole bunch of logistical ones

In reality, whether or not you go for mixed-mode will very likely hinge on the not insignificant logistical considerations. Some questions to consider:

  • How much time do you have to prepare? While a well-designed mixed-mode approach shouldn’t actually take twice the work, there may be a learning curve, especially if you are not very confident with the technologies.
  • How will you cope with the additional cognitive load, distractions, and split focus of managing both modes at once? Are you good at multitasking? (Spoiler alert: you’re probably not).
  • Are you part of a teaching team you can call on? With the above point in mind, a backup facilitator on hand to manage technical glitches and respond to student questions is recommended. 
  • What room will you be teaching in? Is it Zoom-enabled, or are there technical limitations? Is there additional equipment that you or your students will need? 
  • How will you manage the audio in the physical space so that those participating online can hear and follow everything adequately? (LX.lab team members say this is crucial).
  • How well developed and signposted is your subject site on UTSOnline or Canvas? In a hyflex pilot at LaTrobe, a central ‘spine’ or online component including detailed guidance for students on how to navigate the subject was seen as key to success (see Bevacqua & Colasante, 2019).  
  • What if the Covid-19 situation changes again? It’s realistic to anticipate that at some point at least some (if not all) students will not be able to attend any kind of synchronous class (for instance, students living in a different time zone). Is it better to invest more time in designing asynchronous learning to cater for those students, rather than aiming for the perfect mixed-mode class?

What next?

If you’re thinking about getting your feet wet, or just curious about the approaches others are taking, come along and dip your toe in the mixed-mode waters at our upcoming Zoom session.

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