The COVID-Fueled Hybridization of Higher Ed

The biggest education news of this week is that California State University, the 23-campus system with almost 500,000 students, is planning for a virtual Fall 2020. But note the fine print in the Chancellor’s statement [emphasis added]:

Said another way, this virtual planning approach preserves as many options for as many students as possible.

Consequently, our planning approach will result in CSU courses primarily being delivered virtually for the fall 2020 term, with limited exceptions for in-person teaching, learning and research activities that cannot be delivered virtually, are indispensable to the university’s core mission and can be conducted within rigorous standards of safety and welfare. There will be hybrid approaches and there will be variability across the 23 campuses due to specific context and circumstances.

On the other side of the spectrum is Purdue University, which was widely reported to plan on re-opening in Fall 2020 on campus. Again, note the fine print in the President’s statement [emphasis added].

The approaches below are preliminary, meant to be illustrative of the objectives we will pursue. View them as examples, likely to be replaced by better ideas as we identify and validate them.

They could include spreading out classes across days and times to reduce their size, more use of online instruction for on-campus students, virtualizing laboratory work, and similar steps.

Even Arizona State University, which has also been reported as planning “to resume in-person classes”, states in their FAQ that this plan includes supporting remote students.

The university is planning for all scenarios and will have options available for students who may not be able to return to campus or attend classes in person due to circumstances related to COVID-19.

Consider the largest and fastest-growing online university in the US – Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). That school just announced the acceleration of a plan that had been considered for 2024 but is now planned for 2021 [emphasis added]:

Over the next 18 months, SNHU will work with faculty and staff to develop a full suite of options and pathways available for the fall of 2021 which may include one or a combination of the following modalities:

– Course-Based/Online – All courses are taken online with the option to live on campus;

Course-Based/Hybrid – All courses taken online with face-to-face support from faculty, and the option to live on campus.

– Project-Based – Students will take courses through a project-based model with learning coaches and other academic supports with the option to live on campus.

Despite the false dichotomy often presented in news reports and opinion articles of online vs. face-to-face, or online OR face-to-face, what we are often seeing in reality with Fall 2020 planning is a variety of methods to combine face-to-face and virtual models into a hybrid offering for Fall 2020. This hybridization of higher ed will likely continue beyond the fall term, accelerating a trend that already existed before the pandemic. This trend is more significant in impact that the introduction of fully-online programs or universities.

What would be more useful to discuss in terms of fall planning than online vs. face-to-face are the various methods that leadership teams at colleges and universities and systems are planning to combine face-to-face and virtual models as best fits their students and faculties and campus environments.

There are different methods to separate the higher education experience into face-to-face and virtual modalities. The graphic above is not meant to be exhaustive but to capture some of the different approaches.

  • Fully Online – The default method of Fall 2020 instruction takes place in a virtual environment, with only very small number of exceptions, similar to Spring environment. I list this as a variant of hybrid in terms of the mix of online for one term with plans (or hopes) for face-to-face for future terms – not in terms of a fully-online program. Think the Cal State system.

  • Hybrid Calendar – Rotate smaller groups of students on campus for less-than-full term (e.g. two-week) time periods. I have heard several schools considering this model but no definitive plans yet. Think of a more aggressive Beloit College approach.

  • Discipline – Programs requiring in-person methods meets in small classes face-to-face, the rest delivered virtually. Think Simmons University or Cal State University (that system is mixing fully-online with discipline-based hybrid methods).

  • Hybrid Courses – Some course components delivered virtually, some delivered face-to-face. The HyFlex (hybrid-flexible) allows students to choose for each class meeting whether to attend virtually or in person, and often for virtual whether to attend synchronously or asynchronously.

  • Curricular – Most course activities delivered virtually, with small-group exceptions, while most extracurricular experiences available as face-to-face. Think Minerva Schools at KGI, where students take courses online, even from common apartments or dorms, while doing field trips and group events in person.

  • Class Size – Large lecture classes delivered online, with smaller sections mixed virtual and face-to-face, and most upper division courses face-to-face. Think the University of South Carolina.

For Edward Maloney and Josh Kim’s “15 Fall Scenarios” at Inside Higher Ed, I count 11 of these as being hybrid in nature (4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15).

I doubt there will be any, or very many, fully face-to-face re-openings over the fall or even into next year. When you hear “we plan to reopen”, the safest assumption is that a school plans to introduce a hybrid model. The COVID-19 pandemic did not create hybridization, but it is fueling the acceleration of this trend.