The new cyber classroom: hybrid courses

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The digital age is moving traditional classrooms out of the building and onto the platform of the Web. Hybrid courses are the launching pad for this new wave of the future.

Hybrid courses are bringing online learning to a tech savvy generation of students weaned on the Web.

Hybrids are also cyberspace classrooms, allowing students to study together regardless of where they are geographically.

With a hybrid course, a student can take part in a course on campus and participate in the same course as far away as Iraq, which is just what RIC student Kevin McKay is doing while deployed in the Middle East.

McKay, a major in the M.Ed. in teaching English as a second language (TESL) program, is enrolled in the hybrid TESL 549, taught by Andrés Ramirez, assistant professor of educational studies.

Hybrids typically feature 50 percent in-class learning and 50 percent online learning.

”We have 50 percent face-to-face learning,” Ramirez said, ”but if they choose to, a student could complete 90 percent of the course online, which is what McKay is doing.”

Ramirez sets up his course material on the Blackboard Learning System, a Web-based software platform. He posts schedules, rubrics, articles, assignments, handouts, Powerpoint presentations and videos for his students to access.

He even created a ”Getting Started with Blackboard” video for his students, using the software Camtasia Studio. Camtasia works like a video camera recording your computer screen activity. It was originally designed to create software tutorials.

Assignments are also Blackboard-enhanced. In one assignment, Ramirez’s students are asked to view a documentary posted on Blackboard. They then divide into four groups and construct a Wiki document within Blackboard that allows history tracking. History tracking keeps track of the different versions of the document created by different users. Each member of the group takes turns writing, modifying and editing the document.

Class discussions also take place online. Ramirez posts an article on Blackboard and assigns one of the students to be the class “reading leader,” whose job is to open the discussion with a question. Functioning like bloggers, the rest of the class write their responses, debating back and forth, while the reading leader facilitates.

Ramirez said he has noted marked improvement in student writing when students are engaged in online discussions. “Students are more careful and analytical,” he said, “because they know that what they write becomes permanent.”

Ramirez monitors the discussion and then holds a face-to-face debriefing in class. Though McKay is situated half way around the globe, he, too, participates in the debriefing. Using software called Skype, McKay and Ramirez are able to hold a face-to-face video conference.

Critics of hybrids argue that online assignments don’t allow the instructor to confirm the identity of a student completing the assignment.

Ramirez counters that there’s no way to confirm in a traditional classroom either that a student actually authored their work.

All of Ramirez’s courses – hybrid and non-hybrid – consist of Web-based learning. All the technology that’s available for hybrid courses is also available for traditional courses. He said his hybrid courses actually give him more strategies to engage students in the traditional classroom. ”I’m simply a better teacher,” he said.

When McKay returns to the United States in January, he will have three on-campus assignments to complete to fulfill the requirements for TESL 549. He said he was anxious to complete the course by May 2012 so that he could pursue a PhD in the fall.

Along with allowing students flexibility and convenience, hybrid courses ease classroom shortages, parking problems and commuter time. They will likely change forever the way students learn and teachers teach.

Ramirez is a member of RIC’s Academic Technology Advisory Committee, a campus-wide committee on developing technology for the classroom. Scott Badger, lead programmer consultant of RIC’s User Support Services, trains RIC faculty to use the new technology.