Don’t panic! Emergency and/or planned hybrid teaching

In the classic BBC comedy Dad’s Army about the Home Guard during WWII, one character-Lance Corporal Jones-would respond to every week’s presumed crisis by losing his cool and frantically shouting, “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” It’s a peculiarly British comedy: the series depicts one of the darkest times in recent history by both valorizing and lightly mocking the veterans and others who, too old or unwell to serve abroad (hence dad’s army), volunteered to protect the homeland from the constant yet distant threat of invasion.

In the past 2 years (2 years!), I sometimes wonder if I sound like Corporal Jones urging my colleagues-and myself-not to panic while we lurch (sorry, pivot) from in-person to online to hybrid to everything at once. Covid is both lapping at our shores and a faint dark cloud on the horizon. And it’s nothing to laugh about. I watched re-runs of Dad’s Army as a child in a (mostly) stable, (somewhat) powerful country, (largely) at peace and free of the dangers that justified Jones’s comedic panic. I live through these times without those assurances and without the benefit of hindsight. So, yeah, sometimes I panic a little.

I was thinking about this after Jenae Cohn tagged me on Twitter for using the phrase emergency hybrid teaching:

The analogy of course is to the widely circulated Educause article from 2020 that differentiated emergency remote from planned online teaching out of the well-justified fear that teachers and students would condemn all online courses based on their chaotic experiences of remote classes (ZoomU) in the first days, then months, now years of the pandemic. Don’t panic. In recent follow-up articles, the authors (and others) reflect that their predictions and fears came true (“we seem to be in a version of Groundhog Day … without all the charm” — that movie was supposed to be charming? huh). So, time to panic?

I don’t know. Another edutwitterer wondered whether there really is a clear line between emergency remote and designed online classes any more. After all, many of us have turned our initial panic into long-term improvements in teaching that, as I’ve written before and argue in a forthcoming chapter, have changed online teaching, dare I say, for the better.

I think we’re seeing the same now in hybrid teaching in higher ed. The terminology is slippery, so here’s my working definition: in a hybrid class, some students and the teacher are in the room while others are on Zoom. In theory, students stick to the same mode (so it’s not “hyflex”). In practice, that doesn’t happen because students fall ill, are quarantined, or arrive weeks late due to visa, travel, or covid delays. So one class is hybrid because half the students are in Korea and never intended to travel; one moves to hybrid when two students test positive for covid but are well enough to study; and another starts out hybrid and becomes f2f when the last student arrives here from Mexico.

So how much of this is planned hybrid and how much is emergency? In one respect, it’s all an emergency because in my program, we wouldn’t do hybrid at all if it weren’t for covid — don’t panic! Ideally, we’d have one online and one in-person section for each affected course, but right now we just don’t have the numbers. And hybrid is hard: we’re teaching intensive English classes that require intensive input, output, interaction, and feedback. It’s not lectures plus breakout rooms. One of my colleagues, one of the best teachers I know, told me that he simply couldn’t keep track of both groups: he was horrified to discover that he’d forgotten he had a student online one day, something that would never happen to him in a fully online or in-person class. On the other hand, we have courses deliberately running in a hybrid mode to accommodate particular groups of students, such as short-term language programs. I’ve been teaching MA TESL courses hybrid since 2017 because we have participants teaching in districts the entire length of Delaware. Yes, I know, small state, but not that small.

So here’s the best I can do to conceptualize the difference between emergency and sustainable hybrid, because that’s the actual dichotomy here. It’s not a matter of planning: we’ve planned for emergency hybrid but it’s still an unreasonable burden for some of our teachers and an inferior experience for some students. For sustainable hybrid to work, even in the short term, I think we need to consider at minimum:

  • the type of course and the model of instruction
  • the extent and nature of interactions (T-S, S-S, pairs, groups, etc.)
  • the goals, outcomes, and/or objectives of the course (pick your favorite terms)
  • the instructor’s training and comfort with technology (they aren’t the same)
  • the students’ physical locations, needs, preferences, computer literacy, and motivations for learning
  • the technological infrastructure (computers, cameras, microphones, multiple screens, internet bandwidth, etc.)
  • the institution’s goals, ethos, and support

So, for example, I would do everything in my limited power to avoid teaching our ESL drama elective in a hybrid mode. It would be antithetical to the model of instruction (drama!), it would not allow spontaneous interactions and constantly changing groupings, it would be physically impossible to do well, it’s pedagogically unsound, and the online students would inevitably feel excluded, the opposite of department’s mission. On the other hand, I’m comfortable teaching a hybrid graduate writing workshop. The flexibility meets the needs of grad students across the university, especially in a pandemic. The types of interaction can be handled in the room or on Zoom. My department has let me set up rooms with multiple displays and good cameras that I’m very comfortable using. And the overall strategy fits the broader goal of supporting graduate students where they are: in their degrees, in their emerging multilingualism, and physically on the campus.

At some point (not yet), the emergency will pass, the panic will abate, and we’ll be left charting a new course (not back to “normal”) that will certainly include online and probably hybrid teaching. Unlike in Dad’s Army, the crisis won’t end with an armistice let alone a “freedom day.” I’ve shared my tentative code for sustainable hybrid teaching. What do you think?

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

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