2020-05-06: Teaching a Flipped Hybrid (In-Class/Online) Course

I’ve been meaning to write this for a couple years. Now seems an especially appropriate time for it. In particular, a hybrid course may be an option if staggered in-class attendance is something that will be implemented in the Fall.

My first hybrid class began as an in-class "flipped" model.  So first, I'll talk about how I implemented the flipped mode and then I'll discuss how I handled the hybrid (in-class and online) aspects the following year.

My definition of a "flipped" class (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flipped_classroom, http://flippedclass.com/whyteachersmattermoreinflippedclassroom/, http://facultyinnovate.utexas.edu/teaching/flipping-a-class) is one in which students actually do the reading before the class meeting, and the class meeting time is spent discussing the material with students (not lecturing) and doing in-class activities. There can be several benefits to this, including that class time is changed from content delivery to active learning. In fact, students become responsible for content acquisition - it's no longer just the instructor who is delivering knowledge. I'm sure I could be doing more towards active learning (and I have been working on this with each course offering), but in general my approach has seemed to work pretty well so far.

Spring 2015 - Flipped InfoVis

When revising my CS 725/825 Information Visualization course for Spring 2015, I decided to go with a newly published textbook, Visualization Analysis and Design by Dr. Tamara Munzner from the University of British Columbia. I didn't go in intending to flip the class, but as I was developing slides for lecture, I found myself just copying text from the book to the slides -- because the book was so good. So, my thought was that if students actually read the book themselves, I wouldn't need to transcribe it and read it to them in class. Plus the time I'd save going over the chapter material would leave more time for additional material and activities.  In addition, I knew that I'd be developing an online version for the next year, so making materials available to students outside of class made sense. Another thing that helped my planning was that this class is typically taught in a ~3 hr once/week meeting, allowing for plenty of time for discussion and other activities.

Before class, students had a reading assignment and submitted answers to basic questions (learning checks) from the reading.  I implemented the learning checks as Blackboard tests so that the students could see the solutions and textbook references during class.  Since I provided the answers, I didn't grade these for right/wrong, just that they were completed and were submitted before class. Each learning check ended with the following two questions:
  • What was the most confusing (or least well-understood) concept or topic from the reading assignment?
  • Why do you think the material that you read this week is important?  How does it fit into your current knowledge base?
During class, we discussed the learning checks and any lingering questions the students had about the material. Instead of slides, I showed images from the textbook (which have been graciously made available by the author), and I brought up other important items that weren't directly included in the learning checks. After the discussion, we had an in-class group assignment based on that material.

After class, students completed homework assignments (visualization implementations) based on the material, usually to be completed before the next class meeting, though these weren't assigned every week.  Students submitted links to their assignments through Blackboard (over the years, I've moved more towards GitHub via GitHub Classroom).  

Throughout the semester, students were assigned to read and start a discussion of at least six blog posts from various visualization blogs. Discussion boards for this purpose were set up in Blackboard (though, I've recently moved to Piazza for discussions). Students were also assigned to give a presentation of an academic research paper (from IEEE InfoVis or IEEE VAST) and to complete a group visualization project.

One thing that I liked about this arrangement was that I tended to speak in class far less than the students. To discuss the learning checks, I called on different students to cover each question. Since they had already completed them (and had access to my answers once class started), I felt it was a lower pressure environment that encouraged students who were more shy to speak up.  Students also worked with each other on the in-class group assignments and we gathered back to discuss their work in class. And during the second half of the semester, there were about two student presentations each class meeting.

Students seemed to appreciate this model once they got used to it.  And I even had students rave about having the reading assignment enforced with the learning checks: "The textbook was excellent. Reading before class and answering the topic questions each week really prepared me for the class."

There were two main impacts on my preparation for class. I spent much less time preparing lecture slides (there were none after the first class meeting), so I could focus on developing quality in-class work and homework assignments. Also I felt much less tired after teaching, mainly because I didn't have to do all of the talking.

Spring 2016 - Flipped + Hybrid InfoVis

The next year's offering in Spring 2016 was offered in a hybrid in-class/online mode (some students attended in-class and others attended online). We mainly followed the same pattern as the previous year's class, with a few changes for the online students.

I used WebEx and a Jabra SPEAK 410 USB speakerphone placed in the center of the classroom to record our class meetings.  Anything that was projected on the screen (images, slides, etc.) was recorded with WebEx. By putting the speakerphone in the middle of the classroom, all student discussion was also recorded. The WebEx session was available for all students via Blackboard, so if an in-class student missed a class due to illness or just wanted to review the session, it was available for them, too. Most of the online students watched the recording after class, but occasionally an online student was able to join us during the class meeting time.

To make sure that all students were keeping up with the material, I graded attendance.  For in-class students, I called roll and then called on them when discussing the learning checks.  For online students, I checked that they viewed that week's WebEx video before the next class meeting.

For the academic paper presentation, online students recorded their presentations and we watched those presentations in class.

I got positive feedback from the online students.  They appreciated having the audio from the classroom and hearing questions and discussions from the in-class students. They said that it made them feel like they were really a part of the class.

Thoughts / Lessons Learned

I've taught this class at least once a year since 2011.  As I mentioned, Spring 2015 was the first semester the course was flipped. Since Spring 2016, every offering (Spring 2017, Fall 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019) has been flipped + hybrid.  For Fall 2019, I was asked to develop a lower-level data visualization course, so I adapted much of the material from this course to build CS 625 Data Visualization. I'll be re-designing CS 725/825 for Spring 2021 to focus more on advanced visualizations and research topics. I've learned a lot over the years with this model. In general, I think it's been successful, and I've really enjoyed the class interactions, especially when I overhear students discussing ideas during their in-class activities.  Here are few thoughts and lessons I've learned.

Exams: I had taught online courses before with exams and found them difficult to fairly administer. I'm not a fan of proctoring software, so I usually end up writing exams that can be taken with open book, notes, Internet. I have gone back and forth between having the academic presentation and final project count as the major portion of the grade and giving exams. Lately, I have tended towards giving a final exam (open book/notes/Internet) because it forces students to demonstrate the concepts they've learned.  I have found that the open exam model works best when students in the online section are truly online students (no on-campus students allowed to register for online sections) and on-campus students complete the exam in class. 

Presentation: There were some disadvantages to having online students record their presentations. First, they didn't get the full experience of presenting live to an audience and I didn't get to provide feedback on their live presentation skills. In addition, they weren't available to answer questions on the spot.

Insight on Student Presentation Feedback: Due to COVID-19, this semester (Spring 2020) I had one class where all students had to give recorded presentations. Students posted the links to their video and slides on Piazza. Each student was required to watch five other students' presentations and provide constructive feedback in Piazza that was public to everyone in the class. I found that many of the students gave quite thoughtful feedback, and I plan to incorporate this type of feedback in the future, since the in-class presentations are recorded just like any other portion of the class meeting.

Group Projects: For the hybrid course, the group project requirement meant some groups had both on-campus and remote partners. Group coordination among the online and on-campus students could be difficult. Some of the online students had full-time jobs and did not anticipate the extra time required to complete the project and coordinate with group members. Making this successful might require spending time showing students various collaboration tools. But, I have since removed the group project requirement and now all students complete individual projects.

In-Class Group Work: This is tricky, and I haven't really figured out a good way to replicate this for online students. In-class students were able to work together, but most of the online students did the work by themselves with little feedback from their classmates.

Benefits to Students: There are several benefits to students from a hybrid course offering. Students can take either the online section or the in-class section depending upon their needs. On-campus students aren't forced to take an online class (which helps our international students), and online students don't have to wait until the course is offered online only. I also found that in-class students frequently went back and reviewed the recorded class meetings.

Impact on Faculty: Many faculty prefer teaching an in-class course rather than online-only - there's an audience. So with the hybrid course, faculty get the benefit of teaching an in-class section while still allowing online students to take the course.  And depending upon how the course is designed, there's not a lot of adjustment needed to facilitate the online students. One consideration, though, is workload. The first time I taught the hybrid version, I ended up with 20 in-class students and 10 online students, which was many more than I would have wanted. As our graduate course minimum is 8 students, this really could have counted as two separate classes. The grading and administration overhead was large, so I've since asked that enrollments be capped to 20 students total.

Overall, I've really enjoyed teaching classes in this hybrid mode and have adopted it in other courses that I teach. The biggest thing now is remembering to hit the "record" button before getting started each class meeting.