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.