like the weather, or, capitalizing on hybridity

My first year in Boise was on the mild side, save the 108+ week in July. Last winter, my colleagues kept telling that the not too cold, not at all snowy weather was unusual. It's not usually like this, they'd say. When I returned from a holiday trip to North Carolina in January, a large snowstorm hit the Northwest. That was Monday, January 7, a good two weeks before classes started. We would get hit twice more during the first two weeks of the spring semester. Boise State bronco statue with snow

The first storm brought with it freezing rain, a treacherous foe I know well. When the freezing rain hit on the Thursday of the first week of class, I couldn't walk to the corner, much less the bus stop or campus. Indeed, part of the interstate was closed, and one of my students could even try to make it to campus. Still others reported near misses with other motorists that sent them in the opposite direction of the destination and back to the comfort and safety of home. This is why, when I awoke to falling snow exactly one week later, I decided to take advantage of my hybrid course. I e-mailed my students in the morning with the option of coming to class or working from home. That way, students who could not travel to campus safely could remain in a space place, but those who were already on campus could work together in the classroom space reserved for us.

Before class, one of the students working from home even e-mailed me about options for working synchronously, and she and one other student joined us on a google hangout.

a hybrid class meeting

Let me begin by saying that Boise State's current definition of a hybrid course is flexible

A hybrid course replaces at least 50% of classroom instruction with such online activities as discussions, presentations, tutorials, and quizzes.  Students can expect to spend as much time participating as they would in a traditional course.  Students must be able to access the internet frequently and conveniently, and must be competent at using e-mail, managing files, and navigating web sites.

For my course, we typically replace one meeting day each week with online activities. During this portion of the semester, we meet in person on Tuesdays to discuss the week's readings and work through challenging concepts; on Thursdays, students post notebook entries related to a case study in which they analyze  rhetorical style in artifacts of their choosing using the concepts from that week's readings. All of these notebook entries relate to the print, web, and/or mobile communication of a single organization or entity and will eventually be aggregated into a formal report.

For the first two weeks of class, I had planned for us to meet f2f for both sessions each week and then move into the regular rhythm. However, with the snow in the second week, I decided to try a true hybrid class meeting. We held an optional in-person session alongside online activities. This had the added benefit of allowing students to try some new things in class (one assignment requires students to work in groups to create a guide for the week's reading using google sites) and then troubleshoot any issues that might arise.

Travel conditions were much better than anticipated, and most students were present in the room for these activities.

There were some things that went really well. First, at the recommendation of a remote student, I started a google hangout at the beginning of the class meeting and invited everyone enrolled in the course to join. A couple of people joined the hangout who weren't able to make it to class, and they watched as I gave instructions on how to create, format, and link guide pages on google sites. Once they had the instructions, students worked together in groups to define key terms from that week's readings and create guide pages for them. With the iPads, it was easy to circle up, have a couple of team members work on reading and selecting key terms, and have the third team member work on the site.

One thing that did not work well was having members who were working remotely "hang out" with the rest of their group. Most students had downloaded google+, but we hadn't added one another on the app or created a class circle. One group that was able to contact a remote team member couldn't hear her because of other groups working and talking, and they hadn't anticipated needing earbuds during the class. Some groups had trouble communicating with remote members, too, because what I had planned as an asynchronous activity turned into a synchronous one. I had not expected so many people to attend the f2f meeting, and I hope this unexpected situation didn't affect anyone's learning too much.

Another inconvenience was that a number of students had difficulty connecting to the university's wireless network. This is a major concern for me, and I've reported it to our technology office. Of course, the help desk hasn't been unable to replicate the issue, so I have started a log that tracks individual student connection issues. I think this is one of the biggest challenges for any hybrid course configuration that uses mobile devices or a BYOT/D/E model. My hope is that universities will divert some of the funds traditionally used for software and hardware investments under the computer-lab model to upgrading and maintaining wireless networks.

Although there were some glitches, for something we did on short notice, the hybrid meeting worked really well.

face-to-face meetings thus far

At this point in the semester, we've started to get accustomed to the hybrid schedule. So far we've had two weeks of the typical class rotation. During the first week, I

image of iPad and spiral-bound notebook

planned for students to work in small groups using google docs to define key terms from the week's readings and then to use the terms to analyze an artifact. However, this took much, much longer than I expected, and that was more a result of working with the technology than the difficulty of the task. Even students who were well acquainted with google docs found working with them on the mobile device a challenge. I think instructing them to use the desktop version, rather than the mobile view, helped a bit, but there is a steeper learning curve than I expected with the new devices.

During the second week, I tried to simplify device usage. We began by working together as a group to identify key terms and analyze an artifact. I think this helped to delineate the task of working with a new concept from the ongoing task of working with a new device. We broke into small groups and analyzed the same artifact using different terms and concepts in each group, and I was much less rigid with how they took notes in their groups. Some used their iPads to type notes, some wrote in spiral-bound paper notebooks, and at least one used a handwriting app for the best of both worlds. This seemed to expedite the group work and gave us time to discuss the groups' results as a class.

adjusting to devices

These past few weeks have been an adjustment for both me and the students. I usually have an idea of how long it will take students to complete a task, and I definitely require my students to use new applications in every class I teach, but I'm learning that things take a little longer with unfamiliar devices. I wonder whether things will go more quickly once they've gotten used to the iPads. In week 8, students will form groups for a final team project, a report in which they make recommendations to an organization for delivering a message to the Boise State community. Starting in week 11, work in the course will focus on that team project, and I hope the mobile device will shine as a tool to facilitate remote group communication and information/document sharing.