The Challenge for Hybrid Instructors

by Jeff McQuarrie, adjunct instructor at Centralia College

(THANK YOU JEFF for allowing us to share this)

AWOLAWOL is a military acronym for “absent without leave,” and it has been one of my biggest challenges in teaching hybrid courses.  The first hybrid I taught met face-to-face (F2F) for 2.5 hours every Monday evening, and students were required to work online the rest of the week. I quickly saw a negative pattern forming.  Students would go AWOL from Tues-Sat, and suddenly reappear on Sunday evenings, when assignments were due.  Although many stayed on task, it didn’t sit right with me, and here’s why:

  • Cramming at the last minute is a poor way to absorb and retain information.  This is well documented, but it’s worth re-visiting.  According to a 2006 study by Purdue professor Jeffrey Karpicke, PhD, and Henry Roediger, PhD (Yale ’73), students retain two-and-a-half times more information when they study in intervals (as opposed to cramming).
  • A good instructor knows the importance of cohort camaraderie.  Likewise, he or she knows there will be critics who question the lack of face time in hybrid courses.  When students go AWOL it exacerbates these challenges.
  • Fewer “touches” devalues your course, but only if you let it.  Let me put this into context for you.  Say I sell you a cheap health club membership, but you can only use it on Monday’s and Saturday’s for a total of five hours per week.  I sell your spouse the same, but she can go any day of the week.  If you perceive your value to be less than your spouse’s, even though you both get five hours per week, you catch my drift.

So what’s the solution?  The obvious answer is to remove any chance of AWOL, and the good news is that it’s very doable.  Here are a few tips (and there are many more)…

  • Post a video lecture online, but only make it visible on Tues/Wed/Thurs.
  • Have a weekly online “Water Cooler Discussion.”  Students study a course related video, or journal article, and post an initial response to your discussion starter by Wednesday at midnight.  They must return to comment on two classmates’ posts by Sunday at midnight.  To earn their points, students’ posts must be thoughtful, as opposed to, “Yeah, I agree John.”
  • Online Journaling?  In grad school, I had an innovative professor who gave us online “journals.”  Every other day we were required to make a journal entry pertaining to what we had learned in the last 48 hours.  Every now and then he’d ask us to exchange journals.  It wasn’t a time consuming thing, but it kept us from going AWOL and helped us connect with, and learn from each other.
  • Assign students to four-person teams.  Build each team a wiki site where they can collaborate. is a great resource for this, and it’s free to educators.  When the instructor builds the site, he/she becomes the site manager and can opt to receive e-mails that show individual student activity.  By assigning a team project that must be produced on the wiki, and requiring each team member to contribute twice per week (M-F), you enhance collaboration and avoid AWOL.  In other words, it’s a “two-fer.”

NY Times best-selling author and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen predicts that online learning will begin to “flip” in 2012, and online enrollments will increase from 5% to 50% in secondary schools by 2019 (Christensen, “Disrupting Class,” 2008).  This is encouraging, because those high school students are likely to create a bigger demand for hybrid and online courses in higher education.

Aside from the obvious benefits of saving time and fuel, there are other factors that often go overlooked in online learning.  For example, it levels the playing field for shy students.  These types are often excellent writers, and don’t hesitate to mingle with classmates or ask questions via the written word.  And, think about our human nature in F2F classes – we tend to sit by the same 2 or 3 classmates all quarter.  Conversely, a wise online instructor will have the entire class introduce him/herself on Day 1, including a family photo.  And thereafter, the instructor will devise team activities and online discussions that encourage interaction with the entire class.  The relationships I’ve made with classmates as a fully online graduate student in two years have equaled or surpassed those I made in four years as a F2F undergrad.

Hybrid courses will change the lives of people who might otherwise be stalled in their careers.  But just as we shouldn’t let students go AWOL, neither should we.  We have the knowledge and the tools, so now all that’s left is to embrace hybrid courses, and design them properly.


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