Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Hybrid Conundrum

Does anyone else remember when Blockbuster Video went hybrid?

For a while, it did.  It combined a Netflix-like ability to order DVD’s online with the option of in-store pickup and return.  It was advertised as the best of both worlds, and in a sense, it may have been. But in trying to do two things, it didn’t do either terribly well.  Now Netflix is a powerhouse, and Blockbuster an artifact.

I was reminded of that in reading this piece about the online education conundrum.  It makes the case -- plausibly, in my view -- that purely online degree programs may offer the greatest convenience for adult students, but don’t necessarily get completion rates as good as onsite or mixed programs.  (Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the racial gaps in completion rates for online programs are even larger than for onsite programs, but I still haven’t seen good data on that.) And there’s an already-existing literature showing the paradox of online courses: individual course completion rates are lower for online as opposed to onsite, but students who mix online and onsite courses complete degrees at higher rates than do students who are purely onsite, let alone purely online.  Other studies have shown the learning gains for students are largest in hybrid courses, rather than entirely onsite or entirely online.

But hybrid programs, as Blockbuster discovered, are a bear to manage.  As an administrator, I get that.

Most community colleges, including my own, were established as onsite institutions.  They grafted the online delivery model on after several decades, often starting with coalitions of the willing and building from there.  

In practice, that means that there’s generally no separate online faculty.  Online instruction had to be shoehorned into a workplace built on classrooms.  That leads to some awkward fits. For example, traditionally, office hours were actual hours held in physical offices.  The idea was to make faculty available to students who wanted to talk to them outside of class. One of the benefits of required onsite office hours was faculty presence on campus.  That made it possible to schedule meetings, as well as to have the open-ended hallway conversations that often lead to cohesion and even breakthroughs. In colleges that have faculty do academic advising, it ensured that a critical mass of faculty would be around for students who needed advising.

For online courses, though, the idea of a physical office hour is an awkward fit.  Emails can be sent and read from wherever, whenever. And students who choose online courses often do so precisely because it’s hard for them to get to campus at a specific time.  Holding office hours online for online courses seems like a no-brainer. In some ways, it is. But when online courses and office hours mean fewer people around on campus, they come at the expense of opportunities for meetings and spontaneous conversations.  Students looking for a professor have fewer chances to find them. Departmental cohesion can erode.

Class observations are a very different animal online, too.  In collective bargaining environments, the protocols around class observations are often tightly prescribed.  But they don’t necessarily fit the online setting terribly well. Academic integrity in online courses -- the prevention and detection of cheating -- requires different approaches.  Disability accommodations are often quite different. And that’s without even addressing registration processes, tutoring, and the rest of the “student support” world.

Some of the places that have been most successful with online instruction have established entirely separate, freestanding institutions to do it.  Having a separate and distinct online faculty allows for developing appropriate work and supervision expectations without having to retrofit. But it requires critical mass, which most of us don’t have.  And it may come at the expense of some student success, since we know that students who mix and match tend to do better than students who don’t.

Which means, at this point, that the optimal outcome for institutions and the optimal outcome for students are opposed to each other.  Add austerity to the mix, and you start to understand the challenge.

Happily, most of our “online” students are also onsite students, mixing and matching as meets their needs.  Unhappily, that means managing two systems with one budget.

From a pure management perspective, there’s an argument for the “autonomous spinoff” model.  But if a certain amount of muddling through is what benefits students most, well, hey. It’s why we’re here.