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Volokh Conspiracy

The Difficulties of Teaching a "Hybrid" Class

The hardest type of virtual learning: with some students in class, and some students remote.


This fall, universities will adopt three general approaches to instruction: (1) in-person instruction, (2) online instruction, and (3) hybrid instruction. This post will focus on the logistics of "hybrid" classes: specifically, where half the class is in person, and half the class is watching from home. This approach is the most difficult method, by far. Strictly in-person classes will be made tough because of social distancing rules. But the general pedagogy is familiar. And strictly online classes face certain technical difficulties. However, all of the students are on the same level, with the same challenges.

The difficulty with any "hybrid" approach is that professors have to simultaneously appeal to two very different groups of students: those who are in-person, and those who are online. At any given time, half the class will feel neglected. Pedagogy aimed at facilitating online discussion (like checking the chat feature and waiting for a student's video feed to buffer) will annoy students in class. And pedagogy aimed at the warm bodies in the room (writing on the white board or calling on a student out of the microphone's range) will annoy the students at home. Pedagogy aimed at satisfying both groups will fail to satisfy either. All the while, the professor will have to keep his eye on the real hands in the rooms, and the blue hands in the queue. Professors will have to juggle a lot of balls in the air at once.

This post will address the challenges of hybrid instruction.

Three Types of Instruction for the Fall

First, some classes will be entirely "in person." That is, every student will be expected to attend every class in person. Of course, some of the students in that cohort may be forced to quarantine. As a result, even with strictly "in person" classes, a small number of students will be expected to follow along on Zoom. (I wrote about a typical day of live classes here). But the primary mode of education will be in-person. (Pity those stuck Zooming from home).

Second, some classes will be entirely "online." That is, the professor and students will never meet in person. All classes will be held on Zoom. (I offered my thoughts on teaching with Zoom here and here).

Third, some "hybrid" classes will meet somewhere in the middle. In any given session, half the students will be "in person" and half the students will be "online," watching from home. This staggered approach will ensure students are able to space themselves out in the classroom. The Professor may start off "in person," but, could be forced to quarantine. In such cases, the Professor will have to teach from home. That class may go fully "online," or half the students may watch a zoom screen from the classroom. (Some schools may allow half the class to watch the session from an "overflow room," rather than from home, as my co-blogger Ilya Somin suggested; but I will presume that some schools lack sufficient space).

Classrooms are not set up for hybrid instruction.

From 2010-11, I taught classes at the Penn State Law School with Judge Gibson. At the time, Penn State was unique: there was one law school, on two campuses (one in University Park and the other in Carlisle). I gained formative experience in online instruction. Half of the students in the class were in University Park, and the other half were in Carlisle. (I visited the latter campus a handful of times). Penn State had invested in (for the time) sophisticated AV equipment, which broadcasted a high definition stream on high resolution monitors. There were microphones at every seat. We never had any streaming issues. The class really felt natural. After a while, I forgot that half the students were two hours away.

Most law schools lack this sort of setup. I visit about 40-50 law schools a year on my travels. (Or at least I used to). At best, law schools have one or two virtual rooms. As presently constituted, law school classrooms are not set up for virtual instruction.

Most law school classrooms have one monitor on a podium, and a projection screen immediately behind the lectern. Some professors do not touch the computer at all. Other professors use the computer to run a powerpoint. But professors generally don't "use" the computer during class. At most, they use a clicker to advance slides. Many professors can't even turn the projector on or off–IT has to show up to take care of it for them.

That minimalism will no longer work. Consider all of the balls that professors will have to juggle at once.

  1. Professors will have to monitor the Zoom queue to check for blue hands.
  2. Professors will have to read sometimes lengthy questions on the chat, and decide if they merit attention. Doing so distracts from classroom flow. I find that ignoring a time-sucking comment saves time, but frustrates students who feels ignored. You can't win.
  3. Professors will have to keep an eye on the Zoom grid to see if people are actually on camera or not. Professors should be careful to look at the grid on the podium computer (perhaps several feet away). Professors should not turn their back on the students in the class to watch the Zoom grid on the projector.
  4. Professors will still have to run their powerpoint presentation, or other visual materials.
  5. Professors will have to keep track of the screen share feature so that the students at home can follow the presentation.
  6. Professors will have to use polling features to asses the performance of students in class and at home.

All of these step require the professor to keep his focus on the computer. And every second the professor is staring at his screen, is a second he is ignoring the students in the classroom. (Hence the fear of neglect). What I have described requires a level of multi-tasking that most professors generally eschew. We tell our students to focus on one thing at a time! Good luck. Impossible in a hybrid class. We have to walk, chew gum, and screen share at the same time.

What's the solution? You guessed it. More monitors.

Multiple Monitors Should Be Installed at the Podium

I have eight monitors at home.

But I have long used two in the classroom. How? I plug in my MacBook Pro via VGA or HDMI at the podium. I use my laptop display as the primary monitor, and the projector as the secondary display. I then drag stuff from my primary display to the project, as I am ready to show it. The students never see what is on my computer. When I am running attendance (through iClicker), I put that screen on the display. When I want to show some documents, I put that screen on the display, and so on. Indeed, early in my career, I used a "live chat" feature during class. I let students type messages during class, which I displayed on the projector. It proved unpopular for a lot of reasons, so I abandoned it. But having multiple displays allows me to manage this dynamic environment.

Law schools should modify classrooms. The podium should have at least three monitors.

  1. The first monitors is dedicated to the Zoom grid. That way professors can see, at any given time, all 36-odd students. This monitor should be as big as possible, so you can easily see each student's facial expression from a distance. A small 17″ screen won't cut it. Perhaps put it in front of the first row of seats along the desks.
  2. The second monitor is dedicated to the chat feature and the queue. There may be a temptation to put the chat on the same feature as the grid. Don't do it. The font size on the chat is generally quite small. Professors of advanced age (I am getting there) may have trouble reading the tiny print. Dedicating an entire monitor to the chat will allow professors to quickly scan and read a question, and decide if it is worthwhile. (You can increase the size of the Zoom chat by click CTLR and +).
  3. The third monitor should be dedicated to the powerpoint, or any other visual the professor wishes to show.

I'll be frank. I don't think most professors can possibly manage this sort of arrangement. IT Departments will have to physically arrange the windows, so that the professor can simply glance at each window. They can simply show up and teach. But at least a professor will not have to "Alt-Tab" and switch between screens. There is no way most professors can effectively toggle between a Zoom queue and a Powerpoint screen share. It may even make sense to add two computers with two keyboards and mice, to simplify the process for the professors. Or use a KVM switch. But IT needs to think carefully to help make multitasking as simple as possible.

Add dedicated projection screens for the Zoom grid, that are not behind the podium

Students who are in the classroom should not be looking at the Zoom grid on their laptops. They need every pixel of screen real estate for taking notes. (A lot of students complained that keeping Zoom on their screen made it hard to take notes; they need more monitors). Instead, students should be able to look at a dedicated projection screen to see the grid. This screen must be separate from the screen used for powerpoint presentations. Perhaps flat-screen TVs may be installed.

But here is a critical limitation: DO NOT PUT THE SCREEN BEHIND THE PROFESSOR. It is very, very disconcerting to see a professor live, and immediately behind him is own image projected, with a 1 second delay. I experimented with this feature on our last real day of class in March.

It was bizarre. I was looking one way in person, but my Zoom doppelgänger was looking the other way. Soon, the image formed an infinite regress. The Zoom grid must be off to the side, so it does not cause distractions. (Watch the first two minutes of the video to see). And professors should never turn their backs to the students in person to look at the students in the screen. Put the displays off to the side.

Add microphones throughout the room

Some students talk loudly. Other students tend to talk quietly. I usually handle the latter category by walking over to them, so I can hear them close up. Then I repeat what they said for the benefit of all students.

No more. Now, I'll be frozen in a plexiglass-enclosed fortress of pedagogical solitude. If a student in the last row speaks quietly, I will not be able to hear him. Oh, and by the way, students will have to wear face coverings. That will muffle voices further. If I can't hear the student, the students in Zoom land will be lost.

Law schools need to install microphones throughout the room–not only to broadcast to zoom, but to amplify the voice in the room. This approach may risk creating feedback. But if we are unable to hear students, professors will default to lecturing.

Add a camera to see the students in the classroom

Most classrooms will have dedicated cameras focused on the professor. And perhaps a dedicated camera focused on the center of classroom. But several cameras should be added with dedicated feeds for each section of the class. It will be difficult for students to form any bond if only part of the class is on camera at any given time. And professors cannot be expected to swivel a camera depending on who is talking.

So far all of my suggestions have been technical. The next is pedagogical.

Only "in-person" students are "on call"

In my class, all students are always on call. I traditionally go up and down the rows, and ask each person one question. In a good class, I can reach 40 or 50 students. (That approach also worked well on Zoom. I went down the roll, alphabetically.) Other professors ask for volunteers to raise their hands. And other professors designate certain students to be "on call" in a given class. Those who are "on call" will be expected to answer questions. Those who are not "on call" can sit back and relax. I generally disfavor this approach, but I think it will work well for a hybrid class. If you are in-person, you are on call. If you are on Zoom, you are not on call.

This dichotomy eliminates several difficulties. First, class discussion can be fluid. Professors can look at students, face-to-face (behind a mask), as they answer questions. This sort of dynamic cannot be recreated on Zoom. Second, this approach minimizes certain technical difficulties. There is no need to wait for a student to take himself off mute, or for another student's stream to buffer. It will resemble, for the most part, a live class. Of course the Zoomers can raise their blue hand and ask questions, but the expectation is that remote students will not be called on.

The downsides to this approach are patent. First, students at home will feel neglected. Even though they can raise their hands, they will still feel left out of the discussion. Second, other students, who are less motivated, will simply tune out. If they know there is a 0% chance they'll be called on, they will not pay attention. Of course, in many online classes, professors do not cold call; and that risk of slacking is always present. But if a student knows he is not on call, and can chill out, efforts to motivate will be lost. Third, coverage will be uneven. If students were "remote" for a fairly difficult class, they may miss a really important lesson. This approach will make it tough for students to stay on the same page.

Students should receive training on what to expect

So far, this discussion has focused on what professors can do. But we should not forget students. They need to play a role in making online education work well.

First, the administration should set appropriate expectations. Or more precisely, Deans should lower expectations. Instruction this fall will not be what students expect. Even classes that are strictly in person will suffer due to social distancing regimes. Deans should make students aware that professors are working hard (and we are) to prepare, but the situation still will be difficult. Plus, given that classes will be graded, the regular incentive structures are back in place.

Second, students should receive some training on how to use Zoom, Canvas, Blackboard, etc. These digital natives are not always equipped, or motivated, to learn how to use Learning Management Systems. They are clunky, ugly, and do not always load well on smart devices. I think it would even be helpful if a professors held a dedicated "pre-class" where he went over his approach to technology, and what he expected of students in and out of class.

Third, professors should go out of their way to meet with students, one-on-one in Zoom. It will be time consuming, but will help to build a bridge that would otherwise suffer in our social-distancing bubbles. Every students should feel comfortable enough to share concerns, face-to-virtual-face, and not through chat.

I hope to share more thoughts as I continue planning for the fall.