Hybrid classes transform learning

A conversation with professors at Hult, IE and IMD

When you gather top professors from three international business schools to discuss
the challenges and successes of teaching in a Covid world, you are faced with the stark realisation that things may never be the same again. For many years, online learning was an option for business schools to consider. Not any more. Now it is required. Yet now we must also anticipate a classroom containing people online and people physically in the room at the same time. The current reality of hybrid learning leaves professors with a multitude of challenges and questions: How do we design courses to guarantee equity in student access, professorial attention, and fair assessment? How do we develop trust, effective teamwork and student engagement in classes where students are physically divided? How do we cultivate spontaneous conversation when virtual sessions require such meticulous planning in bite-sized chunks?

Prior to March 2020, hybrid learning (also called hyflex or concurrent learning) was predominately reserved for part-time learners who were balancing study with other commitments. It was rarely the first choice for students, faculty or institutions. Now, as one professor remarked, “I think hybrid will be the norm, because of the opportunities it [offers].” Another professor urged caution, “We need to get online pedagogy right first, then develop pedagogy for hybrid [formats].” This is an ideal time to reflect upon what works well in a hybrid classroom and where we still need to find new solutions. To tackle this issue, we assembled professors from three EQUIS-accredited business schools that attract students from around the globe.

From IMD Business School

  • David Bach –Dean of Innovation and Programs, Lausanne
  • Alyson Meister –Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour, Lausanne
  • Arnaud Chevallier –Professor of Strategy, Lausanne

Faculty from IE Business School

  • Patricia Gabaldon –Vice Dean of Pedagogical Innovation, Director of the Bachelor’s Programme in Economics and Associate Professor of Economics, Madrid
  • Ignacio Gafo –Associate Dean of Global and Exec MBA programs and Professor of Marketing, Madrid
  • Kiron Ravindran –Assistant Professor of Information Systems, Madrid

Faculty from Hult International Business School

  • Omar Romero-Hernandez – Professor of Operations and Research Fellow, San Francisco
  • Selina Neri –Professor of Management and Corporate Governance, Dubai and London
  • Henrik Totterman –Professor of Entrepreneurship and Management, Boston
  • Ted Ladd –Dean of Research and Professor of Entrepreneurship, San Francisco (also served as facilitator)

Our conversation was organised to echo the flow in which faculty create the student experience: course design, classroom engagement, and assessments of learning outcomes.

Course Design

The hybrid format changes the mindset of teacher-student interactions, as stated by one professor: “Students used to come to us, now we have to go to them.” Professors reflected
on the implications of this shift for the way they architected each entire course. The participants overwhelmingly agreed that, logistics and technical acumen aside, online learning offered abundant opportunities.
Beginning with the acceptance that content cannot be covered in the same way as before, professors were driven to return to the course objectives and refocus their efforts, discarding less effective materials, exercises and even expectations. This quote illustrates the challenge:

I went back to my syllabus. I was very mindful about the ultimate goal we had to achieve, and I admitted that I won’t be able to cover everything the same way as before. My first success was admitting failure and then focusing on fulfilling the promise of the course.

This streamlining allowed them to shed extraneous content and amplify the core messages and deliverables – focusing on what is possible and what is necessary.
This redesign did not just require subtractions. The introduction of a persistent virtual presence as part of the normal classroom experience improves opportunities for students to connect and communicate with practising business professionals. Guest speakers can now be ‘brought in’ for short slots and re-introduced in subsequent weeks to participate in video assessments or virtual pitches. One caveat surfaced: guest speakers must be tech-savvy and confident in front of a camera, and this is not always the case.
This simple change expands student access to literally a world of expertise without any additional costs or logistics.

When I’m talking about psychological safety, I can ask, ‘who has some great resources or videos?’ Suddenly [the students in the class] get a little bit of a Wiki going in class. Instead of me having to be the deliverer of resources, technology is allowing us to collaborate in class as we go.

The panellists concurred that precise, granular course design is even more important in a hybrid classroom environment. Professors agreed that they need to make each segment shorter: a duration of about 20 minutes is optimal. They also agreed that the hybrid format accentuated the need to replace pre-class readings with short videos, and that classroom time should be reserved for discussions. (This is called the Flipped Classroom method.)

The threat of ‘death by PowerPoint’ is omnipresent even in hybrid formats. With many students sitting remotely, literally surrounded by potential distractions, an over-reliance on slide-decks can precipitate immediate disengagement. Yet spontaneity and unstructured time are less feasible in a hybrid format because of the proximity to distraction and the need to shorten segment durations. Several professors concluded that 4.5 hours/day was the maximum duration for students to remain engaged in a hybrid class.

That is not to say that learning cannot happen beyond this threshold, but that a clear differentiation must be made between hours of class and total hours of work. Students can engage with the material and each other outside of formal classroom sessions in novel ways, from asynchronous crowd-sourced content to easily convened team meetings through online platforms.

The technologies and practices that underlie a hybrid classroom are pushing professors to reconsider assumptions about their students’ ability to receive and process information.

I love the opportunity in hybrid to question the assumption that everyone in a class is moving at the same pace. Now I try and make my course ‘pace proof’; how can I have team check ins, open-ended polls, team quizzes, different office hours with me to make sure everyone’s coming along. Something I had taken for granted before.

With sophisticated learning management systems, clever apps, and a more ambitious approach to using online and in-person sessions more constructively, professors are better able to track each student’s progress towards the learning outcomes and offer individualised help – through individual work, team collaborations or synchronous time with the professor.

Student Engagement

Just as professors dedicate time to course design, students must dedicate time to course preparation. The two go hand in hand to create a rounded and collaborative learning experience. During our conversation, professors discussed how students may not have the time and physical space to dedicate to quiet reading and reflection about the material.

I used to be less forgiving if my masters students came to class unprepared, but now they have their own crises that are far bigger than my own problems, therefore I think the key is to be a little more empathetic and forgiving about expectations for how many hours they should have prepared before class.

Those students who are participating exclusively through online channels may have lost access to informal conversations on the way to lunch or in between classes that were deemed critical to developing their wider sense of understanding and awareness. Even students who attend class in person are not encouraged to congregate after class for fear of spreading infection. While professors can be empathetic towards challenges the hybrid learning, they remain optimistic and ambitious:

We have a battle for attention when some people are connected online some are in the room so [we must consider] combining learning activities with engagement activities. You want [students] to be learning 100% of the time but it’s not realistic.

Several participants mentioned the need to explore multimedia materials to replace textbooks. They felt that the hybrid format accentuated the need to only use contemporary materials: “We’re running after novelty – students demand the latest and the greatest.”

The need for new ways to connect students with the material prompts professors to foster a sense of community outside the classroom.
This includes experimenting with shared private YouTube channels, setting up WhatsApp groups for students to informally connect, and reintroducing tools like Slack to share ideas and questions.

These mechanisms for engagement also compensate for the real risk of giving less attention to those students who are online in hybrid formats.
We created our own Twitter account for the class and the students start commenting on that and eventually they get to this informal set up where they start sharing jokes or things from outside the class.

Community building does not rest solely with the professor. Panellists agreed that students must take some responsibility for reimagining their own learning experience. Ultimately, they must find new ways to connect and relate to each other in hybrid or entirely virtual environments. This is not just the new reality for business education, but it is also the new reality for professional work environments. Prompts from professors on how to constructively initiate and maintain these environments are now an unavoidable part of the foundation of a business education.

Student Assessments

The topic of student assessments can be contentious at the best of times. Whether formalised tests are the best measure of business competency is a debate for another day. Suffice it to say that professors in hybrid classrooms need to reflect on how they measure student progress given these challenging circumstances. One professor remarked, “These students didn’t choose to learn like this, hunkered down at home.” Another stressed the need to retain the sense of realism and relevance in hybrid classes:

At the end of the course [students] go in front of a ‘board’, represented by a real expert in the industry. They get to play the role in a virtual setting where they come to the board, present your initiative and get immediate feedback from a senior executive. It makes the class very realistic.

Professors discussed a range of adaptations they are making to assessments. Unsurprisingly many have turned to video assignments. Encouraging students to submit video essays that are then graded by other students satisfies multiple assessment criteria: coordinated, substantive team presentations followed by detailed student critiques using a template provided by the professor that covers all of the major topics of the course.
These critiques can be funnelled back to the student teams, providing a wealth of feedback.

Some professors adapted to hybrid classrooms in other ways. Rather than one assignment at the end of the course, some suggested that planning smaller deliverables throughout the course ensures students remain focused and engaged:

I included more components in the assessment, I included more group assignments, shorter five-minute group presentations in class and same thing with deliverables – I made them smaller instead of a big final exam and that helped me to keep people engaged.

Conclusion

Crucially, professors acknowledged that new thinking and experimentation around course design, student engagement and assessments must continue. While these adaptations are vital amid a pandemic, hybrid learning may persist long after COVID-19 dissipates.

This collaborative discussion between business school leaders encapsulated the challenges and opportunities of hybrid learning. There is undoubtedly a sense of bereavement for face-to-face teaching and for the culture-building journey that students created together in person. While there is much to learn, much to consider and no doubt much more change on the horizon, students should rest assured that their professors are rising to the occasion, designing new student experiences. We remain committed to delivering high quality, impactful learning relevant to business leaders in the new world.

Special thanks to Jean-Francois Manzoni, President of IMD, and Martin Boehm, Dean of the IE Business School, for arranging this tripartite conversation.

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Article commentary on: Hybrid Classes Transform Learning by Ted Ladd and Johan Roos

Commentary from:

Jean-François Manzoni
President and Nestlé Professor of Leadership & Organizational Development, IMD

Congratulations to Ted and Johan for this excellent article. I enjoyed reading it and agree with many of the points it makes, including:

  • The need to go way beyond “lift and shift” to re-design the sessions, starting from “what are the objectives and deliverables of this session?”
  • The importance for this re-design of taking into account the specificities of Technology-Mediated (TM) sessions and their impact on the physiology and psychology of the learners. In particular, TM modules engender more fatigue (than corresponding face-to-face sessions) and we won’t be able to run entire days (and several days in a row is even less feasible) as we often do in executive development programmes. Also, we are likely to have to design shorter sessions involving regular “engaging activities” in order to prevent loss of attention and engagement.

The one point that I am not sure I agree with is the fact that hybrid classes will be a superior pedagogy. I can see how they may be unavoidable in some settings (e.g., for degree programmes which include students who cannot attend classes in person because of travel or health constraints), but I believe hybrid classes present a lower ROI than fully TM sessions. Let me explain why:

  1. Hybrid sessions require state-of-the-art technology to offer a decent experience to students. Without this state-of-the-art technology, students working virtually tend to report less positive experiences because they cannot see the blackboards/screens well enough and/or cannot hear very well what is being said by class participants. At IMD, we have had to make significant investments to make classrooms conducive to a better hybrid experience. I am not sure all schools will be able to make such investments at scale.
  2. Face-to-face settings are more forgiving than “virtual settings” from a pedagogical point of view. In a face-to-face setting, one can adapt on the fly more easily – by breaking out spontaneously for a few minutes, for example. One can also “stretch a session” a little bit longer by increasing one’s level of personal energy. “On screen” learners won’t benefit as much from the instructor’s charisma and will hence require more engaging activities and shorter modules. Instructors teaching in hybrid settings will have to design sessions for the “on-screen students”. If they design the pedagogy for the face-to-face students, “on-screen” learners’ experience will be less positive.
  3. Instructors operating in a hybrid environment have to devote valuable energy making sure that they allocate “the right amount of attention” to both constituencies. Because it is pretty natural to engage with the students that are present in person, instructors will have to ensure that they engage the “on-screen” learners too. The opposite can also occur, with the instructor looking into the camera quite persistently in order for the virtual learners to feel more engaged – and thus less attention is paid to the face-to-face learners.
  4. If the face-to-face and on-screen groups are not balanced (with one group significantly larger than the other), it is easy to imagine that while the majority group will receive more attention than the “virtual” group, face-to-face students may still experience resentment toward the “on-screen” students because of the concessions made to them.

On that basis, I think that as a general rule, fully face-to-face and fully Technology-Mediated sessions will be pedagogically superior solutions to hybrid. I think hybrid will only be a preferred option under rather specific circumstances, including for:

  1. Shorter modules spread within and across days
  2. Contexts with state-of-the-art technology support
  3. Situations where there is a strong reason for the two groups to be present in their respective mode together. For example, in our case, this may include:
  • MBA and EMBA classes including a few travel- or health-constrained students
  • Customised executive development programmes, where the company requires a certain group to attend the programme at a certain date and some of them cannot travel
  • Open executive development programmes with two groups of similar size and where the “on-screen” learners feature an attractive profile (e.g., they add valuable geographic diversity to the group who meet in person).

In the absence of these conditions, I think that it will be pedagogically superior to divide groups into face-to-face and Technology-Mediated cohorts. If necessary, classes ought to be supplemented by asynchronous/on-demand TM material to reduce “class time” and maintain faculty overall teaching load at the same level.

Commentary from:

Martin Boehm
IE Business School

The past few months have challenged educational institutions worldwide. Circumstances compelled most academic institutions to suspend their on-campus classes. Lecture halls, the quad, the ivy – well-known totems of the academic experience – suddenly emptied overnight.

Most academic institutions responded by moving their classes online – some faster and some slower. Traditional institutions were particularly slow to adapt new methods and technologies and embrace remote learning as an equivalent or superior substitute.

But remote and online learning are here to stay. The pandemic has not created a “new normal” but instead accelerated a pre-existing trend we have already seen emerging for years.

Now, many faculty, students and administrators have been pushed into their first experiences in teaching and learning online. In 2018, only about 35 percent of undergraduates in the US took a distance-education course. By contrast, this year that figure is close to 100 percent, as the pandemic forced institutions to adopt remote learning.

With an increase of online learning, we have finally seen a shift in faculty perception of online education as well. A survey of more than 4,000 faculty members in the US earlier this year found that 45 percent now had a better opinion of remote learning than when the pandemic began; while fewer than one in five (17 percent) had a more negative perception.

This is the opportunity we have been waiting for – an opportunity to reinvent an educational model that has not changed in more than 2.000 years. And we should not stop at merely including some Zoom sessions in our curriculum. This is our chance to determine an educational model that meets the needs of students and employers of the twenty-first century.

As the conversation between faculty at Hult, IMD and IE Business School shows, we still must hone the educational model of the future, but we have significantly advanced on the questions of what, how and where to teach.

What to teach:

Successful teaching online or in a hybrid model demands an increased focus on course design. Learning objectives must be reassessed to cover only what is truly essential. In the past, we tended to overload our students with content. This is our opportunity to revisit what matters for them to be successful in their chosen profession.

How to teach:

As the article points out, “Death by Powerpoint” is omnipresent – even in online or hybrid classes. The fact is that attention spans are even shorter online than in an on-campus setting. Thus, we must rethink our pedagogical strategy to ensure student engagement. For years, students have been demanding an educational model built around experiential and social learning. Research at IE Business School shows the positive effect of social engagement on learning outcomes. So, let’s embrace it.

Where to teach:

We also must determine what combination of remote versus in-person learning delivers the highest educational quality. As academic institutions refine this model, it opens new opportunities for more efficient learning. The Liquid Learning strategy at IE Business School was first implemented with the purpose of enabling students from anywhere in the world to attend classes. It now has evolved into our philosophy of finding the perfect match between what, how and where we teach.

So, let’s not waste this opportunity to envision the education of the future!

1 Comment

  1. Rama Rao Bokka on May 13, 2021 at 10:21 am

    It’s a great paradigm shift from absolutely face to face blackboard teaching to blended mode. We have been using it for almost a decade in the University of Rwanda, which now made us not undergoing any serious uphill task in adapting ourselves COVID 19 caused challenges. We have been facilitating student centred learning satisfactorily at graduate level.

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