By Rob Mohr
I want to begin by saying that I understand the appeal of mixed or “hybrid” classes in the COVID context of this semester. Students who choose to learn remotely should not feel like they’re getting less of an educational experience because of their learning status, likewise, students who are on campus shouldn’t feel like they’re paying room and board for all their classes to be online. It’s a tricky balance between those two groups, and there is no silver bullet of a solution. Someone is going to lose out a little no matter what. However, I’ve found some approaches to this hybrid format less effective than others.
For example, one of my classes has around 25 students and meets twice a week: we’re split into two groups, each group has a day of in-person class while the other group is online, the next day the groups are switched, group one is online and group two is in person. The handful of remote students are online for both class days.
Though this seems like a decent system on paper, as it allows the class to meet in person without posing too much of an infection risk and could even accidentally build a sense of community, the reality is less stellar. When I’m on Zoom, I can’t hear anything said by the people in class. They’re too far away from the professor’s laptop and the only way to understand what they are saying is for the professor to interpret their responses and repeat them to me and my online classmates. When I’m in person for class, the discussion flows mostly well among my physically present classmates and I, but when I go remote I feel disconnected and frustrated at the situation. In fact, I often wish the class was completely online, because then everyone would at least have the same issues.
However, another one of my classes works perfectly fine as a hybrid class. The difference? Class size. Sewanee’s own website proudly advertises its 10:1 faculty-student ratio. Therefore, it’s hard to feel like I’m getting the full “Sewanee experience” when I’m in a 24 person discussion-focused class that’s entirely elective. Adding to the frustration, a majority of the students in the class are freshmen that could easily have been assigned to another class, since this special topics class isn’t required for any major or minor.
The much smoother class is a nine person class with six or seven in-person students and two to three remote students (one student switches between the two groups). The students are arranged in a socially distant ring, with the professor as part of the circle with their laptop. In this class, all the remote students are able to hear the classroom students and vice versa.
This class has turned out to be one of my favorites this semester, the dialogue never feels forced or unbalanced. In a word, it feels normal. Granted, the remote students’ faces are broadcast onto the large screens behind the professor, which feels a bit like a sci-fi movie, but beyond that, it seems like a normal Sewanee discussion style class, and right now, normalcy is worth more than gold.