The 21st-century faculty member is faced with a challenging task.  Content must be relevant, experiential, and engaging for the 21st-century learner.  As such, this places an onus on classroom creativity and innovation.  Hybrid pedagogy has become an avenue for multifaceted instructional strategies and interactive instructional design theoretically enhancing the best of both the physical and virtual classroom spaces.  As administrators clamor for relevance in an evolving education landscape, the concept of a learning space that combines the on-ground and online classroom is appealing.  As an Instructional Designer for Online Projects, and an Assistant Professor, I have a stake in two camps. I am at once an “IT expert” (or that is what I keep hearing, whether or not it is true) and a faculty member. Within each role I have the opportunity to address a variety of audiences, primarily on the subject of teaching and learning.

At a recent meeting I posed a variety of questions to faculty as we strive for classroom innovation. The presentation to faculty was simple. It began with an overview of our technology resources including Moodle (our LMS), the One Button recording studios, a new licensing agreement with Microsoft where our institution can use Skype for Business and Microsoft Video, etc. The presentation then shifted from a here is what we have available “tone” to that of concern. I listed for attendees a variety of questions I often receive from faculty members when I do individual consults centered on moving a course or program online. Faculty, in a variety of contexts, will often ask these questions:

  • Can Moodle handle 2-3 hour recorded lectures? (As an aside, no, the 2-3 request is not a typo and occurs frequently)
  • How do I scan graded papers into Moodle?
  • How do I replicate class discussion?
  • How do I manage seat time/attendance?
  • How do I integrate ____ technology?

Unfortunately, these are the wrong questions. They are not inherently bad but they are certainly not indicative of a 21st-century classroom.  In a vacuum these questions are obviously troublesome but a bigger picture issue is the word bolded above, replicate. As I engage with faculty who want to put their courses online I often hear that particular word. It is loaded, it assumes that what we (in institutions everywhere) are doing in the physical space, the face-to-face classroom, is worthy of replication. It assumes success, sustained effective pedagogy and andragogy. Is it too bold to declare that replication may not be the proper end goal of hybrid pedagogy? How do we, as instructors, take what we do in the classroom and allow it to be enhanced because of the varying format? To do so we must answer audience analysis questions:

  • How do my students learn?
  • What do my students expect?
  • How do I deliver content effectively?
  • How can technology ease my workload?
  • What do my students need to know (or DO) to obtain 21st-century skills?

These questions go beyond “replication” and strike at the very heart of innovation. What are we doing, does it work, if not, how can I change? Instructors may be able to solve inordinate problems simply by completing a needs assessment of current instruction.

At our university students have consistently expressed an interest in classes that are flexible for their schedules and that meet the demands of the 21st-century workplace. 21st-century skills include, among others, team-based problem solving skills, the ability to work virtually or at least in environments that may be geographically distant, and soft skills like communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and engaging with experts from a variety of disciplines. For further inquiry, ASCD has several resources available that communicate the relevance and necessity of 21st-century skills, especially the application of technology in the classroom and workplace.  Mark Valenti, in his article Beyond Active Learning, further explores the technology-rich borderline-entitled (stress borderline) mentality of our students. Technology, for Valenti, is an enabler that enhances a positive classroom environment and reinforces a learner-centric environment.

The idea of a flipped classroom is one such example. In a flipped model,what was once homework time is now class time and what was class time is an opportunity to work collaboratively on projects or tasks that require higher-order thinking). Active learning has a primary focus — the learner — and the flipped model places the educational onus back onto the individual learner. As such, students can work in class on collaborative and technology-rich assignments, like creating digital projects or media-rich deliverables. Students expect technology in the classroom, and high-performance tools are commonplace. Our 21st-century students have grown to expect active learning, and technology can (if used correctly) facilitate deep and active learning. As a catalyst for learner-centric instruction, the hybrid model can infuse technology with deep and penetrating pedagogy. The hybrid format may have begun as a response to students clamoring for flexibility in terms of content, schedule, and style, but it has now become a phenomenal vehicle ripe for instructional innovation.

Instructors can, and should, step back and ask what is most important in regards to instruction.  Do rules, driven by outdated principles, drive the content (and pedagogy), or should we strive for a deeper, transformational learning that can be enhanced by situations and experiences outside the classroom?  It would seem that if we are driven by experiential learning then a hybrid format presents a wonderful opportunity for students to engage beyond their immediate capabilities and experiences.

It is clear that hybrid pedagogy, and hybrid course design, allows for experiences that can challenge and transform the 21st-century learner. Jesse Stommel designated “hybrid” as more than just a blending of online and on-ground learning. This kind of pedagogy brings the two learning environments together in a fluid, engaged, and dynamic conversation.  The very real physical boundaries of the traditional classroom are, in many instances, null and void.  The possibilities of the hybrid format only reinforce the necessity of sound design and efficient instructional strategies.  I contend, then, that replication is not, and should not be, the end goal of hybrid pedagogy.  Rather innovation, an engaging and relevant 21st-century model, should drive faculty to go beyond what they have done for decades and instead approach the current climate with a vigor for learning achievement.

Innovation may not come naturally for faculty members. Instead of promoting empty phrases emphasizing instructional models, innovation should spur on faculty to collaborate on teaching projects and — this may be the hardest of all — encourage failure. Complacency is bred by a fear of the unknown, an apathy that dictates action. Faculty (myself included) fear hybrid pedagogy because they are afraid to fail. I believe that a conducive environment for faculty will include professional development that is not merely theoretical, but also insanely practical. Maybe, just maybe, the 21st-century skills our students need (team-based projects, critical thinking, interdisciplinary collaboration) can also rescue our faculty members from the replication world that focuses on lecture (and lecturer) and course design enamored with the instructor, not the learner.