Hybrid or Blended Teaching Formats: What and Why Print

John T. Strong, Missouri State University

John T. Strong holds a PhD degree in Hebrew Bible studies from Union Presbyterian Seminary, Virginia. He teaches in the religious studies department at Missouri State University, where he is an associate professor of religious studies. He teaches in the area of Hebrew Bible studies and archaeology. His research interests focus mainly on Ezekiel and the religion of ancient Israel around the time of the exile. He also serves as Chair of the Society of Biblical Literature Council. For pleasure, he enjoys reading novels, studying German language and history, and loves to go hiking in the beautiful hills of northern Arkansas.

“What?”: Moving Instruction Online

Since the spring semester of 2009, I have been teaching almost all of my undergraduate courses as “hybrid” or “blended” courses. These terms mean different things to different people at different institutions, but at Missouri State University, a “blended” course is a course in which a significant portion of the course content is online — up to 70 percent (more than this, the course is classified to be a fully online course). With this contribution to Spotlight on Teaching, I will discuss the “What” and “Why” in regard to moving my classes to this format.

I teach a regular rotation of “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible,” “Hebrew Prophets,” “Archaeology and the Hebrew Bible,” and “Archaeology and the New Testament,” repeating these classes on a regular basis over a two-year period. About 65 percent of the course materials for these classes is online. Most significantly, all of the course lectures are online, coupled secondarily with weekly quizzes, discussion and study guides, and reading and writing assignments. With this material online, instead of my classes meeting two times a week for a total of 150 minutes, my classes now meet face-to-face once a week for 50 minutes, the remaining 100 minutes of contact time being online.

The central element of my courses, which really defines my teaching as “hybrid,” is that all of the lecture content is now online in the form of podcasts and accessed through a guide that has links to the various segments (click here). For example, when I introduce the book of Deuteronomy, I break the lecture into ten segments, varying in length from about 8–11 minutes. These lecture segments were taped in a studio on our campus, using a software package called Mediasite. My goal was to break my long, monotonous lectures into more easily digestible portions, and since I state the length of each segment in the accompanying guide, students can plan when to watch the segments during the course of the week (assuming, of course, they are that organized). The guide also alerts them to questions and materials that may show up on the quizzes. The online lecture segments themselves are rather simple and straightforward. It is a videotape of me, placed in an upper left-hand box on their computer screens, with a large square in the center of their screens for the associated PowerPoint slides (see the sample slide at right). I also give them a thesis or main point for each segment, for reference, in case their mind drifts or they lose the main point I am trying to make. Of course I quiz students once a week on the scheduled lecture segments (also online) as incentives for them to keep on pace with the course.

Once a week I meet with students in class, but never to lecture. Although I may review some of the lecture material, above all else we discuss texts that relate to the lecture material that they have already seen. This meeting is important, and while I may use the “h-word” (“hybrid”) in this article or with administrators, I never use it or the “o-word” (“online”) with students. Too much of a stigma is attached to these terms, and it skews students’ attitudes. I state clearly that I teach a regular on-campus course; it is just that the method of delivery is designed for effectiveness and students’ convenience.

Since students can easily lose track of when they should be viewing what material, my syllabus places all of the lectures, assignments, guides, and any other materials on a calendar, so that students should easily be able to see what is due and when. Still, for every class period, I prepare a PowerPoint presentation that shows students pictures of the calendar, which I play while I take roll and chat with students before the class discussion begins. Hopefully this outline answers the “What” question.

As strange as it may sound, I restructured my classes in this fashion in order to increase, not decrease, my face-to-face interaction with my students, as well as to increase active, not passive, student learning.

For years I had been frustrated with the quality of classroom interaction with my students. My student evaluations have always indicated that I was approachable and friendly, but in class, I could not get students to ask questions or offer ideas or solutions to problems. I felt that the classroom time with students was passive in nature, in which I alone dispensed energy and information. I am also convinced that learning is something that happens between the ears of students, and is dependent upon the time, talent, energy, and passion that they bring to the subject matter. I as the teacher can be organized, approachable, and place my interest and passion on display, but in the end, whatever gets learned — any real outcome — is produced by the student her/himself.

I remain unwilling to give up lectures altogether, because past experience indicates that without me providing some historical information and context — information that students do not know — class discussions become something akin to a “what-the-Bible-means-to-me” conversation. I have tried learning-communities in my classes, in which students were responsible for bringing content to the class, but there were still “quality-control” issues (e.g., students confusing Sumerian and Samaria, presentations based on the “Brick Bible” — Bible stories told using Lego blocks, YouTube videos of questionable value, and the like). How could I walk students through some basic background information and expect them to come to class understanding its relevance for the biblical texts that we would be discussing in class? This was my problem.

The hybridization of my courses seemed to offer the solution. In terms of lecture content, if I were going to take the role of a “talking head,” why do it in front of a bored classroom of students? By videotaping my lectures, I could minimize my talking head, setting it off into a corner of the computer screen, with pictures of cool ancient Near Eastern artifacts appearing in the PowerPoint slides in the center of the screen. Then when I met with my students, I could assume that they knew the relevant background material they needed to know and the classroom discussions could focus on their thinking through the data (i.e., the biblical text and the ancient Near Eastern materials), with me there only as a conversation partner. Even better, in a discussion with one student, I could turn to the other students and bring them into the conversation.

So much for the “Why” question.

I cannot claim, nor will I, that every problem with my classes was solved. I still have students showing up for class discussions ill-prepared and unwilling to actively learn (especially after week twelve of a sixteen-week semester). I can say, however, that I was shocked that the results far exceeded my expectations.

When I first moved to this pedagogical strategy, Missouri State University had a very robust center for teaching and learning, which would help faculty with some very detailed assessments of their courses. Their assessment showed that students felt more comfortable talking about the material both in and out of class and would engage with their fellow students in discussions about the course content. Students felt as though they had been given more control over their learning, and consequently, they were more committed to learning the material. In other words, they were more active in their own education. In addition to this more detailed (and useful!) assessment of my courses, my regular student evaluations have improved, and, all the while, the rigor of my courses has remained the same. Anecdotally, I had a student enter one of my courses who expressed extreme disappointment that lectures would be online. However, he got good grades and ended up taking another one of my hybrid courses. When I asked him about this, he said that I had “converted” him, and that actually the hybrid format worked pretty well — better than he had anticipated.

I want to close with an observation and a caution. A colleague of mine, who has distinguished himself on our campus throughout his career as being one of the best teachers at the university, once said to me that we must all “teach through our personalities.” Simple but true. This approach to my courses worked because, strange as it may seem (what some may call eccentric or worse, I call “a unique sense of charm”), I am comfortable sitting alone in a studio, with no one and nothing there but a camera, talking about the Hebrew Bible. In fact, without students in the room, I am less distracted by their reactions, or lack thereof, and better focused on communicating the subject. But this is a function of my personality.

The flip side of this point, obviously, is that videotaping lectures and course content is not for everyone, which is the caution. Teachers who are by their very nature engaging in front of a classroom, especially those who find the classroom energizing, do not face the problems the hybridization of my courses sought to resolve. I would not encourage them to follow my lead, at least in regard to videotaping their lectures. Indeed, there are a lot of ways to engage students in meaningful learning activities online, and so perhaps other methods of blending course delivery would be in order.

Finally, creating a hybrid course does not reduce course preparation, nor does it allow a university to increase class size while holding teacher workloads steady. In fact, preparing to tape my lectures was a massive undertaking, and lectures must be updated on a regular basis. The only advantage that I have found is that hybridization of my courses allowed me to move the teacher-centered content to the Internet, increasing the amount of student-centered interaction in the classroom. For me it has just been a better way to parade the material before the students in an organized fashion, allowing more and better opportunities for the students to invest their time, talents, passion, and energy into learning.