Let's Talk: Increasing Discussion in Hybrid Courses

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As we enter Final Exams Week I’m already starting to think about what did/did not work this past semester. My efforts to increase content coverage in the US History since 1877 (US II) survey, for example, had mixed results and I’ll be evaluating the syllabus this summer, again, to find space for additional material. This semester I changed from having three in-class exams in US II to only two. I’ll have a better sense of whether that decision was prudent when I grade exams later this week.

Once again this semester my hybrid Black History course ran out of time without a tidy endpoint. We were just starting to cover black power and black nationalism when the semester ended. Current events are often detrimental to content coverage in this course. It never fails that something happens in the outside world that students will connect to a theme or topic from the course. I am always willing to let our discussion stray (at least briefly) from the course topic to some domestic or world event related to Black History. As interesting as those conversations were, now that the semester is over I’m wishing I had managed some of that discussion time differently.

In my courses that are fully online I make regular use of discussion board. I like the way that online discussion provides a space for each student to have a voice. It allows me to get to know the students’ perspectives and provides short samples of their writing before they submit their research projects. Since my hybrid class has one weekly meeting, I’ve had the students focus their independent/online work on learning content so that our in-class time could be used for face-to-face discussion.  

I’m of two minds when it comes to using discussion board in my hybrid course. On the one hand, because the students do see each other in class I want to take advantage of our time together for face-to-face discussion. In previous semesters I have intentionally not used the online discussion board with my hybrid students because I thought it would take away from the quality of in-class discussions. Students might be reluctant to say something because they have already “said” it in the online portion of the course. Or, conversely, they might simply restate ideas that were already addressed in discussion board.

After several semesters of teaching the course this way, however, I’m beginning to wonder if the face-to-face discussions would, in fact, be improved by use of the discussion board. Would it make sense to start discussion of a particular topic online and continue it in class (or vice versa)? In the past I have assigned students films to watch between our meetings with the plan being a group discussion of the film when we are face-to-face. Admittedly, this assignment has not been a success. On a typical day, a handful of students come to class having watched the film while the rest sit quietly and avoid making eye contact during the discussion. Would moving this discussion online as a graded assignment significantly change the dynamic? Currently our class meeting time for this hybrid course is split evenly between lecture and discussion. Would it make sense for me to increase the amount of lecture for the sake of coverage?

As more courses at our college move to hybrid delivery we are grappling with questions about what makes sense in the brick-and-mortar classroom versus online. I’d love for readers to weigh in: how do you breakdown your hybrid courses? What assignments are online and what absolutely must happen in-person in the classroom?

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.