University of Vermont

University Communications

Faculty Get Extra Teaching Mileage from New Hybrid Program

Emily Manetta
Anthropology professor Emily Manetta converted her syntax class to a hybrid last fall. She uses a pen tablet and screencasting software to create interactive video lessons, which students do on their own time. Manetta says the approach helped her improve the performance of students who typically struggled with the challenging course. (Photo: Andy Duback)

Anthropology professor Emily Manetta found herself saddled with a teaching challenge that language and math faculty might recognize. 

Students in her introductory syntax class – a challenging course cross-listed in linguistics that covers the universal principles underlying the grammar and syntax of human languages – weren’t making the time to practice the complex material they were learning.

While many students managed just fine, and some did well, a minority were invariably flummoxed and frustrated, with the grades to prove it.

What to do?

Manetta decided to take a leap of faith and teach the course as a hybrid, combining in-person class time with online learning outside class. During two sessions of the three-times-a-week class, half the students, in alternating groups, stayed home. On their own time, they practiced their new skills in a virtual lab guided by interactive video lessons Manetta created. 

At the end of the term, student evaluations were glowing, grades of the weaker students rose on average roughly half a letter, attendance approached 100 percent, and Manetta found she was no longer teaching baseline skills again and again that students couldn’t seem to grasp. 

"I'm so glad I tried this experiment," she says.

Manetta is one of nearly 25 faculty who have completed or are taking a semester-long course offered by the Center for Teaching and Learning that helps them convert conventional classes they’ve taught to hybrids, defined as courses where 25 to 75 percent of the teaching happens online. Faculty cohorts receive instruction – about eight hours over the course of the semester, in addition to individual sessions with course designers – and a computer package that commonly consists of a laptop, a pen tablet and screencasting software called Camtasia. Faculty then teach the hybrid version of the course, or one that incorporate hybrid elements, the next semester.

Good fit

The hybrid program was conceived by Center for Teaching and Learning director and anthropology professor J. Dickinson four years ago when massively open online courses, or MOOCS, first arrived on the scene.

“I didn’t feel MOOCS were a good fit for the emphasis on individually oriented student education that we pride ourselves in at UVM,” she says. 

But hybrids were another story. 

“I saw hybrid as an opportunity for UVM to  build on our strengths,” she says. “We had a very strong online training program and very strong face-to-face teaching.” Why not try to combine those strengths, she thought.  

The five-year hybrid program was born in the 2012/13 academic year, when a pilot course was offered in the spring and fall semesters. Phase 2, which is identical to the pilot, is being offered this academic year. Phase 3 of the program, which will offer faculty a day of intensive instruction and a $1,000 professional development fund, will take place over the next three years, beginning in academic year 2015.

Not technology for its sake

Hybrids should be viewed as a potentially powerful pedagogical strategy for addressing teaching challenges like Manetta’s, not dismissed as technology for its own sake, Dickinson says. Teaching challenges can be broadly shared, like the difficulty in creating active learning opportunities in a large class, or specific to an individual faculty member or class. 

Nutrition and food science professor Stephen Pintauro, who took the hybrid course last fall, is teaching a hybrid version of an advanced nutrition class this spring that’s allowing him to resolve a longstanding issue: some of the material covered by the course is factual and doesn’t lend itself to discussion, while other subject matter is dense and is better delivered in an interactive setting.

Pintauro consolidates all the factual material into a weekly video lecture, which students can watch whenever and wherever they want, reserving class time not only for more interactive learning, but for complicated lessons that are “better delivered in class where I can get questions directly from students," he says.

Manetta uses the technology to help students create accurate word or parse trees, complicated branching structures that diagram a sentence in a way that allows students to glean larger insights about language structure. (See the sample video above that Manetta created for the class.)

While Manetta’s lectures almost always make use of word trees, students need to practice creating trees themselves for the lessons to sink in, she says.

“My students were not able to go home by themselves in a vacuum and just simply practice what they've learned,” she says. “So I saw the hybrid model as a way to take required class time and convert it to a time when they could do structured practice of the things that I wanted them to be good at, the skills that I wanted them to acquire.”

While the online work itself isn't graded, students know Manetta incorportes the amount of time they're spending on the video lessons, which she can gauge using Blackboard, into their participation grades.

Dickinson, who has taught several hybrids herself, stresses that the pedagogy, like any other, isn’t static; faculty usually find ways to improve it the second time out.

That’s on the docket for Manetta, who's planning to use it, in future classes, not only to help students who are struggling, but also to provide extra learning opportunities for the high flyers.

Dickinson hopes that successes like Manetta’s become widely known.

“Our goal is to have enough of these classes and enough faculty who had a positive experience in developing and teaching them, that every faculty member on campus will come into contact with someone who's taught a hybrid,” she says. “Instead of being something remote, it can be something that people you know do and that they've done successfully.” 

Faculty who have participated in the Hybrid Course Initiative have developed and taught (or are teaching) hybrid courses in business, film and television studies, linguistics, nursing, environmental studies, computer science, social work, spanish, psychology, education, nutrition and accounting.