Adventures in Hybrid Teaching: The First Day Is the Hardest

heeter_upside80By Carrie Heeter
Guest Author

Monday was the first day of the semester, and Monday night, 6:30 to 7:20, is the live component of hybrid TC841, my graduate design research class. Hybrid means a third of class time happens in person, and two-thirds online at the students’ convenience.

This is the first year my department (Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University) actually scheduled a class meeting time (yay!), meaning I did not have to begin by finding a time when every enrolled student was available to come to class. In prior years after I found a day and time every student could attend, we would squeeze into the GEL (Games for Entertainment and Learning) Lab conference room.

In spring 2009, we had an actual scheduled time AND place. Room 161 Comm Arts. The room has a projector. What luxury.

My department very generously lets me telecommute, but they do not consider it their responsibility to support my lack of physical presence in Michigan. So, as of Monday morning, I did not yet know how I was going to get to class from my office in San Francisco.

I saw that two students enrolled in TC841 had been my students in a class I taught in fall. Both had been gone over break so I waited to contact them until they returned. At 12:32 Sunday night, I emailed them to ask, “Do either of you have a laptop you would be willing to bring to class tomorrow night, to Skype me in?”

heeter01There was no answer when I got to the office at 8am California time. By 9am, I received a “sure!” email from YoungKim. I proposed we start trying to connect at 6, before the 6:30 class.

At 6:08pm Michigan time, I received an incoming Skype call. (Yay!) With some fumbling, my audio worked. He figured out how to connect to the classroom projector, and logged in to and opened Breeze, the TC841 blog, and ANGEL in separate browser windows. I got video of the class via YoungKim’s Skype.

My tablet PC was running Breeze for video (not audio). My desktop PC was running Skype for audio but no video (using a handheld mic) and a second Breeze connection as well as the blog and ANGEL.

Five minutes before class started, Breeze failed on the tablet PC, meaning they lost my video. Reconnecting never worked. My only connected camera was the laptop. But the Skype connection was to my desktop. Video of me was not going to happen.

I had forgotten that the last time I used Skype was showing it to Sheldon on his new laptop, and that while playing around I had turned my image upside down. So most of the class only saw me as a small upside down still image in the Skype window. I’m afraid to go check what I might have been wearing.

Students were still arriving, so some never saw me on video at all. I joked that I hadn’t had time to brush my hair but would be ready for video next week. It is unusual to be able to see the class when they can’t see me. Much better than not seeing them, that’s for sure. When one student walked into the classroom 10 minutes late, he entered a room with 13 students sitting at tables, looking at a projection screen. A disembodied voice (me) said, “Welcome to TC841! The students here are pretending there is a professor.”

Half an hour into class, one of my cats pried the office door open (which I had closed to keep them out). After meowing disruptively for a bit, she jumped onto my keyboard, switching the Breeze window to a mode I’ve never seen before, one where I could not control Breeze or change to any other windows on my computer. (Why would there be a “switch to larger than full screen and freeze all controls” special keystroke command? Just to give cats disruptive power, I think.) At that same moment a student who had logged in to Breeze (as I had proposed they do) took over Breeze and was playing around, resizing his video window, eliminating the class’ and my view of the PowerPoint.

After fumbling for a minute, I quit Breeze (command Q), went to the blog, and opened the PDF handout I had posted of the PowerPoint so I could know what else to talk about. Class moved into a lively discussion about “sampling” methods used in research about media design, and ended on time.

A good time was had by all.

5 Responses

  1. Great account, because it is both accurate and great fun to read. It should be put on the reading list of teachers who are afraid of using tech because of possible glitches: you prove that while glitches do happen, they can be overcome or bypassed to make learning possible.

  2. My reaction is quite different than Claude’s. I’m wondering if Carrie now feels that hybridity is worth the trouble. And Carrie’s account suggests the dangers of synchronous instruction: if the technology doesn’t work at 6:30 the teaching doesn’t happen: if the instructor is on YouTube, you try again later.

  3. Steve, It is more than worth the trouble. There are enough technologies out there now that when one or two things fail, other means can be substituted. A sense of humor and flexibility.

    I think it’s a bit like when my mother and sister return from week long canoeing and camping trips. I (the non-outdoorsperson), ask, how was it? They respond, GREAT! a bear almost got all of the food and the campsite was flooded so we had to paddle upstream for 2 miles to find another spot.

    That is not why it was great, but the moments of improv and the unexpected enhance the sense of adventure and they are empowering.

  4. You’re a trouper, Carrie. Clearly I’m not..I just don’t see the point of all that elaborate technology to create a realtime experience that brings students together to see a teacher they could see at home on their computers. Or not see at that time if the technology failed–but at least they hadn’t wrestled with traffic and parking and baby sitters.

    I wonder how those students who had to struggle to get to class but never saw any video but heard only a disembodied voice which they could have heard at home without all the traveling felt about the experience. Given my cranky disposition I think I wouldn’t have felt empowered. Clearly you have the right disposition for hybridity and real time technical glitches and I don’t.

  5. Currently, I am also having an unusual experience to “obtain” an unprecedented opportunity to investigate 4 delivery formats (started on January 12, 2009)– online, hybrid, Live Meeting (similar to Adobe Connect/Breeze to replace the high cost of ITV), and traditional face to face with web-enhanced methods for my 6 social studies courses- Sociology (100 and transfer levels), Contemporary American Society, Developmental Psychology, and Race/Ethnicity and Diversities study for my current spring semester’s teaching and facilitating.

    Three weeks before school began, I had visited my physician for several times to make sure that I should be O.K. to embark the bumpy journey! As insiders, you can imagine how hectic I have been so far.

    Technical colleges (the step-child of the PK-16 wed-lock) play a key role to bridge PK-12 and 15-16 educational settings. In research domains, there are much more emphases on PK-12 and “higher education” settings than anything “else”!

    There is limited amount of research focusing on the complex educational ecology of the technical college setting that affects the daily teaching and learning, in particular, when relating to learning technologies.

    Though most two year technical colleges, comprehensive community colleges, and four year colleges tend to be lumped together as the post-secondary educational system or “higher educational” institution, they are fundamentally different in many aspects. Such as educational missions, climate, diversity of student body, specific roles of faculty and staff, funding, infrastructure and the overall ecological configuration, just to name a few, comprise the uniqueness of 2-year technical colleges that stand out as a special and controversial educational entity.

    The dynamics of coordinating and adjusting structures and functions of each learning environment among the diverse students, the IT department, the administration and me has been a unique experience expressed by Carrie.!

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