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Hybrid by Choice: Increasing Engagement in a High Enrollment Course

 Published on May 20, 2014 /  Written by /  5

Hybrid pedagogy does not just describe an easy mixing of on-ground and online learning, but is about bringing the sorts of learning that happen in a physical place and the sorts of learning that happen in a virtual place into a more engaged and dynamic conversation. ~ Jesse Stommel

With growth in student population, budget constrictions, and increased enrollment, more and more instructors are facing the challenges of classroom management and engaging students in a large format environment. The traditional and often most-efficient teaching method is the lecture, but Gehring notes this delivery can be “impersonal, anonymous, and permits passivity,” all contrary to optimal student learning. While not discounting the benefits of face-to-face interaction, in an effort to ensure participation, many instructors implement policies requiring students be physically present in the classroom. Some quickly see the futility of these efforts, realizing that expecting students to adhere to mandatory attendance policies is becoming less and less justifiable.

Pete Rorabaugh argues that our daily lives are increasingly “mediated through technology” and a heightened presence of flexibility and choice resulting from not being tied to time or place. We are free to choose whether and when to communicate in person, by phone, email, video, social media, text, etc. Many of us have the opportunity to work from home or participate in meetings by voice or video. We can imagine a future where students have similar true agency in developing individual knowledge, yet before that becomes reality, small steps can be introduced.

In many contemporary university settings, available course formats often present students and instructors with a binary choice in terms of participation: in class or online; with a rigid schedule determined by the instructor and/or institution. This article presents one possible innovation to that model, starting the process and championing the sentiment that agency must be granted in any reasonable way possible for progress to be made.

We know that learners have different styles. Some students thrive in the online environment, whereas others, although technologically savvy, prefer to personally interact with their instructor while surrounded by peers. Others succeed in a blending of physical and virtual settings. If we add the concept of choice into the equation, could we better serve all stakeholders by synching, as Rorabaugh says, the learning experience with “our own experience of the world, as non-scholarly humans?”

Set in a Fashion Design and Merchandising program with 1200+ majors, my Sophomore-level History of Costume course is offered once per year with an enrollment of 125 students. Heavily dependent on visual resources such as drawings, paintings, illustrations, and photographs, this course covers approximately 3000 years of historical fashions in 15 weeks. The challenges of auditorium-style teaching and the breadth of study were compounded by the student body composition and everyone’s limited time schedule.

History of Costume is a required course for Sophomore Fashion Design majors, who comprise approximately two-thirds of the enrollment. It is in this second year when design students come face-to-face with the demands and realities of studio courses. With rigid due dates in design courses, students are forced to choose between wrangling an uncooperative zipper and sitting in a lecture class held twice weekly in the afternoon. Over several years, it became apparent that if students felt pressed for time, History of Costume was the “first to go.”

This was something I experienced in another large format course, Fashion Fundamentals, with an enrollment of 220 freshmen, scheduled three mornings a week. Attendance was good on Mondays and Wednesdays, but Fridays became challenging for many reasons including weekends at home, work schedules, and social lives. The successful solution was to offer lectures on Mondays and Wednesdays with a choice of format on Fridays. On “Fundamentals Fridays,” students have the option of doing a short assignment and participating in face-to-face discussion, or taking an online quiz from the textbook. Attendance at five of ten discussions is required, but as to the date and the topic, the choice is entirely up to the individual.

This arrangement not only provides flexibility for the students, but also had unanticipated benefits from a teaching and classroom management standpoint. Doctor’s notes and time spent arranging accommodations were no longer necessary. If a student was ill, they could take the online quiz, available for 24 hours. What emerged was interested students attending a vibrant discussion, while those otherwise engaged chose the online option. The number of students attending any one Friday discussion was reduced from 220 to about 80, fostering better connections between students and the material, students and the instructor, and students and their peers. On discussion days, students experience a heightened learning experience, and many choose to attend all discussions, preferring them to the possibly more convenient option of staying home on a Friday morning and taking an online quiz.

With the goal of increasing agency and considering the realities of student life with what can often feel like a constant barrage of activities, having the choice to take care of one responsibility through an online quiz could be a welcome alternative, relieving pressure to concentrate on other things. The structure of allowing students the flexibility to cycle in various small groups for a more intimate conversation five times over the course of the semester, along with a predictable schedule of Monday/Wednesday lecture and variety on Friday helps to balance the impersonal, anonymous, passive characteristics inherent in the large format classroom.

Rethinking History of Costume offered an opportunity to integrate some best practices, including making the lectures more engaging by infusing them with additional classroom resources and giving students flexibility and choice. Over years of teaching Fashion Fundamentals, I developed a more dynamic lecture style which included abandoning the podium to take advantage of the stage and runway arrangement in the classroom. By walking back and forth across the stage, and down the runway to add emphasis, my presentation became more of a performance, and students responded positively.

Another improvement was to embed short video clips (3-5 minutes) in slideshows, so they could seamlessly appear with the next click. Previous attempts showing videos had positive results, but transitions were often cumbersome and gave students an opportunity to become disengaged. For example, showing a short excerpt from a period film was interesting, but before class students did not have the base knowledge, and after class they were thinking of the next activity. Illustrative clips from period films were identified, captured with Camtasia, annotated with salient points from course material, and inserted into PowerPoint slideshows. Annotations were in the form of arrows or callouts appearing at various timings to point out certain garments or styles from the lecture.

Screen shot from Alexander
Clip from film, Alexander (2004) with annotations from Crete and Greece lecture.

When available, artifacts from the adjacent museum were shown in a type of fashion show. Volunteer students walked the runway with period garments on hangers while the instructor provided commentary, reinforcing material from the slideshow. In my thesis, I found that students who saw garments and slides were better able to answer higher-level thinking questions than those who saw slides alone. In addition to increasing understanding, the addition of objects adds a measure of excitement, and benefits learning, too.

Each of the 20 lectures was accompanied by an “in-class activity” Turning Technologies Responseware (clickers). With notes and images posted on Blackboard Learning System (BbLearn), students could follow along, or experience the lecture similarly to how they consume media outside of the classroom — accessing digital media while viewing. In previous semesters, students often approached the instructor at the end of class to share information found on the internet to address a curiosity or a question that arose during the lecture. This familiar process was integrated in the classroom. Throughout the lecture, students were encouraged to search the internet and post images and interesting background related to the topic on the class blog. For example, while covering fashion in the 1920s, one student wondered when women began to shave their legs. He found and posted a link to this article. On the next day of class, the link was mentioned, which helped students connect their everyday lives to class material. This information will be incorporated in future semesters, improving the course through a process of co-creation between students and instructor.

For whatever reason, whether competing responsibilities, interests, or preferences, students had an alternative to “skipping” class — the opportunity to stay current with the course material remotely. In addition to having access to the posted notes and blog entries for each topic, students taking this option were required to read the related textbook chapter. To ensure the web-based students were “on track,” they completed a 10-question quiz on that day’s material, available for 24 hours prior to the end of that day’s class. The quiz period was set to expire at the end of class, to afford maximum flexibility, such as in the case when one student’s sewing project was not going well and required attention that crossed over the start time of the scheduled class meeting. There were as many reasons to choose the quiz as there were students. For example, a student athlete wanted to spend more time practicing high jump for the upcoming season. The increased flexibility provided by the “hybrid by choice” option allowed her to concentrate, resulting in a third place finish in nationals.

In essence, students chose to learn in the auditorium or online from another location, with no grade-related advantage for either format. Mirroring our lives out of the classroom, this choice could vary from day-to-day. There was no requirement to select a method of course delivery and stick to it for 15 weeks. They could participate as suited their individual situations. Evaluations showed positive reception to the “hybrid by choice” arrangement. For example:

I loved how this course was set up. It gave you the option of coming to class and benefiting from the activities that were being taught or allowed you to skip the class and do online work at your convenience. I think students learn differently and different opportunities are given to them. I wish more classes would be how this was set up.

As noted, when incorporated in the freshman course, benefits of the “hybrid by choice” format for History of Costume were not restricted to students. Previous to adding the choice component, students would miss class for whatever reason, and attempt to catch up by arriving to exam reviews and writing as fast as they could to glean information that would be on the test. This led to some resentment on the part of the instructor, feeling somewhat “ripped off” by students who appeared to have no interest in the lectures, but a desire to score highly on exams. With the choice format, if a student was uninterested in the course or even one of the topics, they were not compelled to attend class.

This enhanced teaching enjoyment. The result was that only those with real interest were in the classroom, and the large enrollment was naturally reduced. Even if only half of the students were in the auditorium, those individuals wanted to learn fashion history. The learning environment became more intense and focused.

“Hybrid by choice” comes with responsibility. Technically, we all have the freedom to miss class, but with this format, students could skip class, but not skip learning. This provides peace of mind for an instructor who may worry about students with poor attendance. With this type of choice, the instructor still knows that students have the opportunity to learn but does not have to police their behavior.

Large enrollment courses can retain the lecture format, yet become more user-friendly. One caveat: “hybrid by choice” needs to be coupled by a dynamic lecture. People can inexpensively listen to the Rolling Stones on various mediums, but spend hundreds of dollars to see Mick Jagger in person. Without the addition of an animated instructor, embedded videos, museum artifacts, and blog entries, there would be little competition between a podium lecture and the online quiz.

In a continual quest to increase agency among learners, this innovation is a start. To these ends, improving the traditional university experience can be as simple as observing how students and teachers organically use media and devising creative applications. Rather than gripping tight to conventions that education should be delivered in a specific place and time, we can allow the environment outside the classroom to inform and improve our mutual agency. The results could be surprising. The “hybrid by choice” format provides a more satisfying experience all the way around. The students in the classroom were there because they wanted to be.


Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Chris Friend and Adam Heidebrink-Bruno.

[Photo, Audience by nishir_rana, licensed under CC BY 2.0.]

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5 Responses
  1. Brian Dickson

    Thanks for this refresher on learner-centered learning and student choice. It reminds me of Maryellen Weimer’s studies in her book Learner-Centered Teaching. Good stuff. Attendance is a choice for students (not just a specific day) and she only has one required assignment, but students have a choice of a variety of assignments to get at the learning outcomes.

  2. Catherine, looooved the idea of hybrid by choice, and it seems like now that i have read it, we should have more (all?) our courses this way! I just had one question: why is the online option a quiz rather than an interactive forum discussion? I ask this because I feel the people taking “just” the quiz aren’t getting the “full” benefit of learning from colleagues

    1. Catherine Amoroso Leslie

      Hi Maha- That’s an interesting question and something I hadn’t considered. An online discussion could be a good option. In my case, with the high enrollment, I would need to figure out a way to contain the amount of time required to set up and maintain a vibrant discussion board as well as a solid method of assessment. I will admit, the BbLearn quiz is something that I can set up and it basically drives itself. This may not be the most engaging vehicle in terms of learning, but does free me up to concentrate on what is happening in the classroom. Thanks! -Catherine

      1. I just wanted you to know I have been talking about this post all over the place (esp at work, as we are starting to introduce blended learning). I had not thought of the issue of large class size, and of course you’re right, it would be difficult for you to facilitate (be like teaching two courses! One online and one f2f)

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