Going Hybrid: Identifying and Overcoming Seven Challenges to a Hybrid Launch
There is no shortage of challenges that higher education leaders face when taking hybrid programs from concept to reality. The good news is that for every challenge there is always a solution, especially if you remember to keep the focus on students. In fact, this is actually the best place to begin the conversation—why go hybrid in the first place?
Simply put, it’s about access for students and providing them the best learning opportunities. Hybrid programs provide the integration of high-touch, face-to-face learning experiences with the convenience and added technological benefits that the digital learning environment brings.
For the vast majority of working adults, full engagement in a face-to-face program—particularly if it involves relocation—simply isn’t a viable option. Not only are there financial constraints for relocation, often there are family and other relational commitments that prohibit a move even for a period of a couple of years. On the other hand, attending a residency for a period of days or even weeks, in combination with online learning makes completing a degree program more feasible for even the most place-bound working adult student.
The bottom line reason to offer hybrid programs is that it increases access for students. I have yet to meet anyone in higher education who can counter that increasing access isn’t a worthy goal.
So with this rationale in mind let’s take a look at some of the challenges we face when taking a face-to-face program hybrid.
1. Faculty who protest on pedagogical grounds
“It can’t be done without losing the essence of the program.” A wise administrator will try to understand what’s really underlying the worry and will embrace this conversation thoughtfully. It is helpful to include fellow faculty members who are already committed to hybrid learning models and who are either from within the discipline or respected by faculty members within the discipline. The academic administrator does well to identify faculty who are intrigued by the concept of hybrid learning and who are early adopters. It is these faculty who are the best champions. An added bonus is if these individuals were at one point doubters or even opponents of the concept. Gentle (but firm) conversation on the vital importance of making our program accessible to students is often the best starting point. In all my years I have never met a faculty member who didn’t want to make their program accessible to students. This needs to be followed by extensive conversations that tease apart the pedagogy in the given program.
The beauty of hybrid delivery is that there is in fact face-to-face instruction time during the residencies. Once faculty begin to understand the extensive opportunity for faculty-student interaction and of peer-to-peer interaction in the digital learning environment their concerns are dispelled. Often their perception of online learning is a sterile old-fashioned, non-interactive correspondence course. A second but very important concern is their own fear of an unfamiliar digital environment. Teasing apart the pedagogical argument from fear is a crucial component of bringing faculty on board with the concept of hybrid delivery.
2. Faculty sometimes protest because they are afraid of the online components of hybrid
They are not digital natives and perhaps not even digitally conversant—this is a common reservation and essential to deal with compassionately and with resources. It boils down to the faculty being afraid they are “going to look dumb.” My observation has been that the best tutors for faculty are other fellow faculty. Tutoring can quickly turn disastrous if the reluctant faculty member is provided with an eager beaver, tech-savvy online trainer who talks fast or who insists on providing the training through the webinar (which the faculty never figures out how to login to) or through a phone or Skype session.
In my experience, digitally anxious faculty initially need a fair bit of hand holding by colleagues who have walked the same path. Once they are on board they become your best persuaders of other faculty. One of my best faculty advocates of hybrid learning is the director of our graduate dance therapy program. She enthusiastically shares how her students enrich and deepen their learning by sharing videos of their dance with one another in the online learning environment. What was once perceived as a challenge has become a bonus.
3. Inevitable technology glitches
These can spell disaster for launch. It is important to predict that these will happen because they always do despite our best efforts to ensure that they won’t. If faculty and students have the seed planted that technology glitches might happen and who to go to for help they tend not to catastrophize when the inevitable occurs. The key is having rapid response provided by highly competent and supportive technology staff. It is essential that an institution fully appreciates the necessity of investing in the support staff who provide the services. Even a small tech glitch if not responded to appropriately can serve as confirmatory for the reluctant faculty that the plan is not viable and these can quickly spiral out of control.
4. There is a belief that it is cheaper to deliver hybrid over face to face
In my experience this isn’t actually true so it is a good idea to dispel this myth right from the get go. It raises questions about quality for both faculty and students and diminishes the value proposition. If you are delivering high quality hybrid programs that are equivalent to a fully face-to-face degree program the costs are equivalent. Remember the reason for hybrid is about student access, not about saving money. In the process of launching and delivering hybrid programs our experience at Lesley University has been that there can be unanticipated costs in the hybrid model if you stay committed to ensuring high-touch and adequate faculty-student contact. For example, class sizes need to be smaller than face-to-face, raising the bottom line costs. In clinical training programs, there are additional travel costs for program faculty doing site visits and staff to maintain the same quality control issues provided to local face-to-face students.
The investment of putting courses online as well as the ongoing upgrading of the courses is more complicated in the online environment and requires additional supports for faculty if done with quality in mind. Students demand and expect that what is delivered in the online environment is engaging and up to date. It is crucial that administrators recognize the time investment that faculty make in creating this learning space as well as the crucial importance of the ongoing innovation that is required for the delivery model.
5. Complaints that the hybrid degree is not the same as the face-to-face delivery model
Response: agree it is not the same but it is equivalent. Repeat: it is not the same but it is equivalent.
The learning outcomes are the same and the student competencies are the same but the student experience in the process may be different. Curiously I have had a number of faculty teaching in both hybrid and fully face to face programs sheepishly confess that they think that the hybrid programs are actually superior because they demand more student initiative and independent engagement than face-to-face alone. They have also shared with me that the peer relationships in the hybrid delivery are often stronger because the students are committed to one another’s success.
6. Endless efforts to “perfect” it and worries that it is not quite ready for launch
My advice here is to frame the initial launch as a pilot and to not be afraid to let the courses and programs evolve. Remind people that we didn’t get it right the first time with face-to-face delivery either. Courses and programs evolve, and so too will hybrid delivered courses and programs. If you set the expectation that change is inevitable then when change is necessary it is not framed as a mistake. As an administrator it is important to set the frame as one of continuous improvement, just as we do for face-to-face delivery of programs.
7. Satisfying external accreditors and professional associations
Here is where you need to set up mechanisms for good data collection. Regional accrediting bodies these days are focusing in on the credit hour, so this is a crucial bit of data collection and tracking that every online and hybrid program should pay attention to. Similarly, with external professional associations there is concern, appropriately so, about the quality of online delivery components particularly for professions with clinical training. Increasingly professional associations are accepting the reality that even clinical mental health training programs can be delivered in part through online delivery, however the scrutiny is often intense. At Lesley University we have been very successful in addressing their concerns through non-defensively providing data that demonstrates the equivalency of learning outcomes.
Whatever challenges you might come up against in the development, launch and implementation of hybrid programs, staying focused on the fact that these programs ensure access for working adults can provide you the impetus you need to be successful.
Author Perspective: Administrator