Taking a hybrid approach to learning

The hybrid model kept students engaged as COVID-19 restrictions eased in Queensland.

A hybrid learning model was the key to completing semester two classes when staff and students were given the all-clear to return to their Brisbane campus in August, a Federation University Australia researcher says.

Management Lecturer Dr Alana Thomson and colleague Bernadette Willans, who is Senior Learning Skills Advisor at the Brisbane campus, led the development of a hybrid teaching model in a bid to keep students engaged as COVID-19 restrictions eased in Queensland.

Despite being given the okay to return to campus, many students stayed away, some not wanting to catch public transport amid the pandemic while others had lost their jobs and moved away from Brisbane, finding it impossible to attend classes.

As the number of infections in Queensland dropped and planning began to transition to campus, Dr Thomson said it was expected that there would be an online component to the classes, with restrictions still in place across the state.  However, a COVID outbreak in Brisbane’s southern suburbs put everyone back on high alert.

“The week we came back – week 5 – I was meant to have 27 students in my class and just two came which was much less than I expected,” Dr Thomson said.

“At that point, I thought I needed to do everything I could, so that if these guys aren't feeling confident about coming into the classroom, they need to be able to access the classes and progress their studies.

“There was already an expectation that we were going to do things quite differently when we got back on campus, but then when we actually returned in week five, we realised that there was no way it would be  back to normal.”

Dr Thomson said the experiences at the Brisbane campus could be helpful for Victorian staff when the transition back begins. She said her class was made up of a mix of students – some who returned to face-to-face learning while others joined in online. This required the ongoing modification of the teaching model while Dr Thomson and other Brisbane staff overcame early technical limitations.

“This situation is something that I haven’t experienced or am necessarily trained to do, but I was quite confident given the cohort of students that I taught across disciplines,” Dr Thomson said.

“So the question became how do I build something that is going to be engaging and has that idea of equivalence across face-to-face and the online learning? The way that I teach and the way that this subject is structured is really around interactivity and active learning opportunities.”

Dr Thomson said this meant taking activities and flipping them to deliver assessments that were more reflective of what was happening in the world because of COVID-19.

This included moving away from a final exam to an oral exam that was set up as a mock interview where students were asked questions that would otherwise have been written.

“Also In the back of my mind, a key reason that we really had to go for this was that there's just so much uncertainty, given our experiences here and Victoria's second wave, and we do need to be prepared to have that flexibility.” Dr Alana Thomson

Working on a smaller campus turned out to be a big advantage as the classes began. Dr Thomson said she reflected on her own experience with webinars and assumed all would run smoothly for the week 5 classes.

But the first-up effort was plagued with technical issues, mainly concerned with hardware like cameras, microphones and speakers not seamlessly connecting with software solutions.

“The first week, it just didn’t work as I thought it would, and it wasn’t the experience that I’d promoted to my students. But a great thing about the Brisbane campus is –  and I've never worked this way in any institute – we do cross-functional meetings every week, which means that as an academic in the Business School, I'm in contact with Student Services staff, I'm in contact with Learning Skills advisors, the librarian and ITS.  That was a great help because it meant that I could take that experience of that first class back to that team and get the help I needed within 10 minutes.”

She also said it was important for academics to start thinking about their capabilities of working in a technology-enabled classroom.

“The questions I asked myself were; am I comfortable with teaching a class that's half in the classroom and half online and what might I need to do? What professional development might I need to engage in over the summer, and who are the Learning Skills advisors that I might need to seek out because we've got fantastic learning skills advisors here at Fed and they're all eager to get more involved,” Dr Thomson said.

You can’t just expect that a face-to-face student is going to adapt easily to online learning, and there's no one-size-fits-all model to deliver for the students to engage with however they like – it just doesn’t work like that.”

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