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Online Learning

War of the Hybrid Worlds 2024: Going Where We've Never Gone Before

The global pandemic thrust online teaching to the forefront. Online enrollments rose while campus enrollments declined. Is face-to-face teaching doomed? Will virtual campuses be the norm? Is there no middle ground?

War of the Worlds-themed face-off between an online professor and face-to-face professor

Someone once said academic battles are so intense because the stakes are so small (Quote Investigator 2013). But where the battle between online and face-to-face teaching is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. The stakes are enormous. Worldwide, online courses enroll hundreds of millions of students and generate billions of dollars in revenue (Statista 2024). By contrast, dozens of colleges have recently closed their doors due to low enrollment (Marcus 2024). Much has been written about the future of traditional campus-based learning and its death at the hands of online learning. It's an argument that goes back, well, to at least the early 2000s.

In the early 2000s, online teaching had emerged as a contentious alternative to lecture halls and face-to-face teaching. Some hailed it the great savior of higher education, while others hissed at its lack of quality and susceptibility to nefarious activity. In my 2001 Campus Technology article "Face to Face vs. Cyberspace: Finding the Middle Ground" (Chamberlin 2001), I argued that online and on-campus teaching can co-exist. By combining elements of both — the so-called hybrid approach — students would have greater access to courses and achieve greater success.

But the pandemic thrust online teaching to the forefront. As new-to-online instructors struggled to convert traditional campus classes into online ones, they realized there's more to online teaching than meets the eye. Lecturing over Zoom can be tedious, ineffective, and exhausting. As long-time online instructors know (I've been teaching online for more than two decades), creating an active and engaging online environment requires thoughtful consideration of how students learn best. The pandemic vindicated what we'd been saying for more than two decades. When done properly, online teaching can be just as effective as on-campus teaching. It can deliver rich and rewarding educational experiences to a more diverse audience of students, particularly those who may — because of work, family responsibilities, or health reasons — can't attend classes on campus. And students appreciate the convenience and flexibility of online classes.

So, whereas online teaching was met with skepticism two decades ago, the chorus has now swung to praise of the virtues of online teaching. Some argue that face-to-face teaching is old-fashioned, boring, and environmentally unfriendly. Why should students drive to campus, sit in a lecture hall, and listen to the homily of an outdated instructor? Must we still learn like it's 1999?

Then as now, there is a middle ground to consider. These past decades have witnessed the quiet rise of a panoply of hybrid alternatives:

  • Web-Enhanced Courses: One of the initial forms of hybrid education, these courses utilize a website or course management system to supplement traditional classroom activities. They offer additional resources such as formative assessments and supplementary materials online to enhance the learning experience.
  • Flipped Courses: This approach rethinks classroom time usage by having students watch lectures online (usually delivered asynchronously via videos) before class. Classroom time is then devoted to discussions, problem-solving, and applying what they've learned, contingent upon students preparing by watching the assigned materials in advance.
  • Flexible (Flex) Courses: Flex courses reduce the requirement for physical presence by allowing students the choice to either attend live classes or view lectures online at their convenience. Assessments may still require physical attendance, providing a blend of traditional and digital learning environments.
  • Hybrid-Flexible (HyFlex) Courses: Representing the zenith of flexible course delivery, HyFlex courses stream lectures live for both in-person and remote attendees. Students have the utmost flexibility, able to choose between attending sessions in person, participating online in real time, or viewing recorded sessions later. This model supports diverse student needs and schedules.
  • Blended Learning: Integrating the strengths of both traditional face-to-face and online learning environments, blended learning involves a strategic combination of in-person and online interactions. This method enriches the learning process by using digital tools to complement and enhance the instructional elements traditionally delivered in the classroom.

Hybrid alternatives to strictly face-to-face or completely online embody a spectrum of pedagogical models and instructional strategies developed over the past century. And while pandemic teaching caused students to realize the convenience and flexibility of online learning, many lament being tied to screens 24-7 for work, school, and even social interactions. As one student put it, "this isn't emotional, this is a screen, this is a computer, it's like there's no one here." Another sighed, "Uni's non-stop .... there is no break .... Your life is uni now" (Brown et al. 2023).

Students miss interactions with instructors and classmates. They express heartfelt concerns about Zoom fatigue, feelings of loneliness and apathy, and a sense that they are "missing out" on a traditional college experience. At the same time, employers worry that students educated primarily online will fail to develop the "soft skills" needed to thrive in the workplace: self-confidence and self-initiative, working in teams, and communicating professionally among them. Much as students (and many instructors) love online courses, there remains a strong need for in-person encounters, such as offered in face-to-face and a variety of hybrid options.

But what blend of face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses can provide the most effective, inclusive, and equitable instruction? Can we declare an end to the "war of the worlds" and embrace all options as the best path forward?

As a first step, we might want to remind ourselves of the extensive theoretical and empirical work that guides our efforts. Foundational theories like behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism still offer insights into how humans learn. The widely hailed learner-centered instruction — a key tenet of constructionism — sees learners as active participants in their own learning. From these theories have emerged approaches like active learning, differentiated instruction, and universal design for learning (UDL). Most recently, the theory of connectivism has emerged, addressing the nuances of learning in the digital age. Each offers guideposts for addressing the complexity of learning in the 21st century.

From this perspective, we can more easily determine which blend makes the most sense. It may seem obvious, but not all courses are suited for online delivery. Students deserve to smell and taste the food they bake in a nutrition course. Some courses are perfect for online delivery. Survey courses, in addition to being well-suited for dual coding, retrieval, and spaced practice — may be enriched with active learning. Hybrid courses, of course, may deploy online lessons for building knowledge and use class time for developing skills and understanding.

Moving forward, it seems prudent for instructors and institutions to engage in honest and meaningful conversations about what works best for students. How can we design and deliver courses that are equitable, inclusive, exciting, and relevant? Instructor preference and institutional gains must be secondary considerations. I would also argue that students should be exposed to learning in all three modes. By helping them learn how to learn in face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses, we better prepare them for the world in which they live. And we'll need to consider expanding the definition of flexibility. Short-term classes, outcomes-based modules, open labs, open entry–open exit, pause and resume courses — these all give students a chance to succeed when life interferes.

Had I written this a year ago, this might be the end of our story. Peace would have broken out across the land. Face-to-face and online instructors would have finally seen eye-to-eye. The worlds of campus, hybrid, and virtual learning would coexist synergistically.

But a new world of teaching and learning has risen with great alarm in 2024: the world of generative artificial intelligence (or GAI, as I call it). If online learning in the early 2000s was Godzilla, AI-learning is King Ghidorah, the giant, three-headed, double-tailed, winged beast of 1960s Japanese science fiction. More powerful and malevolent than even Godzilla, Ghidorah seems an apt metaphor for the threat posed by AI not just to education but to nearly the entirety of human industries, especially healthcare, finance, automotive, manufacturing, and retail.

GAI will transform how we teach, and it will do so for the better. It offers new possibilities for active learning, including basic skills practice, text-based simulations, gamification, and problem-solving. It complements UDL by converting text to speech, automated creation of videos, automated generation of transcripts and alt-text for images, and multiple forms of assessment (e.g., flashcards, crossword puzzles, fill-in-the-blank). When integrated with learning management systems, it may provide personalized and adaptive learning. For instructors, GAI permits rapid creation of content, slide presentations, formative assessments, and other tools of the trade. In this way, GAI can permit instructors to devote greater time to interactions with students, an oft-missing element of online (and sometimes face-to-face) teaching. GAI can also serve as a platform for career exploration, personal and family planning, and life-long learning.

Lest you still be skeptical, know that most students are already using GAI. And a large percentage of the workforce has already incorporated AI into their operations. We owe it to our students to teach them how to use AI responsibly.

In truth, there isn't a war of the worlds, and there never has been. Good teaching relies on continuously assessing and improving our tools and methods, whether that's face-to-face, online, or a combination of both. Like the previous two decades, the next two decades are bound to take us where we've never been. As a famous fictional starship captain says, "Engage!"

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