Tuesday, July 09, 2013


Hybrids and the Log Flume

We live pretty close to Six Flags New England, so every year for the past several we’ve bought season passes and made a point of going several times over the summer.  It has both a “dry” park -- mostly roller coasters -- and a water park; we spend most of our time in the water park, trying not to think too much about the hygiene of it all.

My favorite ride at theme parks, whether here or elsewhere, is always the log flume.  It’s a cross between a roller coaster and a water slide.  Basically, you climb into a log-shaped car that rides a track up a steep hill, slowly, until it falls quickly into a pool of water.  You combine the sudden steep drop of a roller coaster with a satisfying soaking.  It’s a hybrid.  

The log flume has been a tough sell for the kids.  (A few years ago I went on one with TW.  The torrent of profanity -- some if it pretty creative and specific -- that poured out of her while climbing the hill convinced me not to try again.)  But this year The Girl decided that it was worth a shot.  Armed with Scandinavian-strength “liquid lead” sunscreen, we hit the park, ready to get soaked.

And it was gone.  It was replaced by the twelfth or thirteenth (I’ve lost count) roller coaster.

A sympathetic park employee explained that the log flume had been sacrificed because it wasn’t really all that popular anymore.  Now that the water park has expanded, the dry park didn’t need a log flume anymore.  It was neither fish nor fowl.  It was a hybrid.  It was sacrificed to make room for yet another variation on what a colleague calls a “spin and barf” ride.

TG and I were irked.  The hybrid nature of the log flume is the secret of its greatness; you get the thrill of a coaster, and the splash of a water slide.  It’s the best of both!  But too few people saw it for what it was, so it went to the big park in the sky.

I’m wondering if this explains something about hybrid courses, too.  

Hybrid courses combine some amount of classroom time -- less than standard, maybe an hour a week -- with a significant online presence.  Done well, hybrid courses offer the best of both worlds.  They offer some of the convenience of online classes and some of the human interaction of onsite classes.  When they’re structured well, they allow professors to put activities where they make the most sense.  For example, expository lecture could move online, leaving valuable class time for project-based work with actual human support.  

The studies I’ve seen on learning outcomes suggest that the best outcomes occur in hybrid courses, precisely because they allow for a variety of approaches.  By creating a sort of scarcity of class time, they force that time to be more focused.  And by allowing students the flexibility of online learning, they offer real benefits to people with different schedules, work demands, and approaches to learning.  

Hybrids make a world of sense from an institutional perspective, too.  If a class that normally meets twice a week only meets once a week, with the rest moved online, then you’ve just doubled your physical capacity without building anything.  You gain efficiencies in classroom use, parking, and wear and tear on your physical plant, but you don’t lose touch with students.

But students rarely sign up for hybrids.  As with the log flume, hybrids tend to fall between the cracks.  Students who want the convenience of online don’t want to have to show up once a week at a given time and place.  And students who fear the computer fear the computer.  I’ve heard students say that hybrids seem like more work than any other format, so given an option, they stay away.  The only ones with which we’ve had much success have been in cohort programs in which students haven’t had an option to take anything else.

I like the idea that we could combine better learning outcomes with greater efficiency, but for whatever reason, the hybrid class seems to be the educational equivalent of the log flume.  Undeniably awesome, but without an obvious customer base.

Has anyone out there found a way to get students who have a choice to try hybrids?  I’m convinced that if The Girl had a chance to try the log flume, she would have liked it as much as I did.  It’s just a matter of that first try.  I’d hate to see a format that makes so much sense sacrificed because it’s not obviously either fish or fowl.

Try moving one of the mandatory intro classes into a hybrid-only format. If all students have to take it their first or second semester, they'll have the exposure, and it will be early enough to let them take more hybrid courses as they continue their education.
I like your analogy because I understand the flaw in having a flume ride among the coasters. Real coaster riders (hand up) don't want to get soaked, and only mind getting wet if it is in the 90s and not too humid. That might be a few weeks in New England.

This is second hand, from an annoyed colleague. Our problem with hybrids is that the students disappear on one side or the other. Mostly they don't come to campus ready to work, maybe because they thought the on-line part was just a freebie that meant less effort and that the on-campus time would review what they missed (like if they skipped several lecture classes).

Some of the solutions to poor performance in web classes, like an on-line pre-course that forces them to show that they can work regularly up in the cloud, might help.

What I tell students during orientation advising is the same thing I tell my summer short-term classes. Success comes from regular work, our favorite new buzz-word "engagement". This is really about making a sales pitch, which is easier to do in a classroom than at the advising table until you get a critical mass of students who tell their peers that the work is worth it.
I haven't seen the research on learning outcomes myself, but based on your description, something struck me. You had mentioned that students who either fear classroom time or fear computers tend to stay away from hybrid courses. Is it possible that the reason hybrid courses have better outcomes is that they attract more fearless students who tend to do better due to higher levels of confidence?

I see a similar phenomenon when hearing about the academic job market. The professors in my R1 all seem pretty positive about academic career prospects, but each and every one of them has succeeded in the market, so there's a distinct bias in your sample. Reading today's blog post made me think of the similarity between prof perceptions and student performance.

Also, I like Anonymous' suggestion about mandatory intro classes offered in hybrid-only format. In my 3rd year of my undergrad, I got a 1 hour seminar from a librarian on everything the library had to offer. Had that been offered in 1st year, that would have been much more useful.
Disney World still had their log flume ride last summer, though they don't call it that. Something about Brer Rabbit, as I recall. So, there may yet be one more log flume ride in your life.
I regularly teach a hybrid course required for our majors and minors (stats for social science). Because of the way our school does registration, which is to say, poorly, it is typical that fewer than 10% of the students in my class realize they have signed up for a hybrid course. They learn this when they receive my syllabus before the start of semester, if they read it, or on the first day of class, if they don't read the syllabus. By then it is usually too late for students to transfer to a traditional section of the class. Hurray for lack of transparency!

At any rate, given the above, I have relatively little concern about self selection (hybrid vs. traditional) playing a role in outcomes. And yet, student performance (grades, course completion/withdrawal rate) are routinely better in my hybrid sections than in either my or my colleagues' traditional sections.

As for complaints that students "fall off" the online side of a hybrid course: When I first taught in this format, I had a lot of challenges convincing students to do the online work, and I compensated by repeating a lot in class. As soon as I stopped doing that and more fully integrated the online portion, they started to take the online work more seriously. Go figure. Now I have the course set up so that the online material wraps around the in-class portions, both as an intro and as a further exploration. It works beautifully, and allows us to use class time for much more interesting and engaged discussions.

Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?