Nov. 17, 2020
CWU Science Instructors Report Successful Transition to Hybrid Model
Hybrid courses at Central Washington University have been a resounding success this fall, with most instructors and students reporting a smooth transition to the mixed in-person, online format.
A large number of CWU’s hybrid courses this quarter are being offered by the College of the Sciences (COTS), where weekly labs for physics, biology, and chemistry have been taking place inside Discovery Hall for the past two months.
After spending long hours over the summer developing the hybrid course offerings, the COTS faculty has continued to put in the time this fall to provide the best educational experience they can for their students.
“It has been inspiring to work with such a student-focused group of professionals,” said Ian Quitadamo, a Biological Sciences professor who also teaches science and mathematics education. “They have all been willing to take everything on their own shoulders, despite a much higher workload, to provide our students with the education they deserve.”
“It’s gone much better than I expected,” added Ben White, an assistant professor of physics. “I had never taught an online or hybrid class before last spring, so there was a huge learning curve. But I was able to apply the lessons I learned in the spring to the fall, and it’s gone very well.”
Both professors commended their students for following campus safety protocols, such as mask-wearing and physical distancing, during their in-person sessions. The students’ commitment to creating a safe atmosphere has allowed the faculty to focus on helping them learn instead of worrying about potential health risks.
“I set the rules early on, and my students have done a fabulous job of maintaining safety by wearing masks and distancing,” said Quitadamo, whose 17 genetics (Biology 321) lab students meet in person once a week for two hours. “They clearly are grateful to have a chance to interact with each other face to face, and everyone has been able to make it work.”
White also reports unanimous compliance with CWU’s face-covering policy, adding that separate entrance and exit doors have helped students keep their distance. Cutting down on the number of work stations in his two Physics 181 labs has provided an added layer of safety.
The 35 students enrolled in each section are split into two groups, each of which occupies separate, adjacent classrooms. These classrooms typically accommodate 40-50 students each, allowing students to spread out.
“They are working in small groups, but each group is spaced apart by 20 feet or more,” White said, adding that one of the labs has four work stations and the other has five. “We also keep the windows open to promote maximum ventilation.”
Associate Professor Cassandra Fallscheer has established a similar environment for her Physics 101 (astronomy) and Physics 363 (optics) classes, both of which feature some asynchronous and in-person components.
The optics class has a two-hour lab once a week, while the introductory astronomy class meets in-person twice a week — in the Discovery Hall planetarium for lectures and in a large, physically distanced classroom for lab. Two out of every three seats in the planetarium are taped off, and seating in the lab classrooms has been reduced by about two-thirds.
“The students, in general, have been appreciative that they get to spend some time with other humans,” Fallscheer said. “Everyone has been good about wearing a mask, and we have been spacing the tables far apart in the optics lab. We have back-to-back sections, so we also swap tables to make sure everyone stays safe.”
Discovery Hall on the Ellensburg campus has been home to most of the hybrid courses at CWU this fall.
Finding a Balance
Fallscheer said this quarter has been challenging for her at times, but she is hoping that a reduced course load this winter will help. She’s also learned what not to do.
“In the beginning of the quarter, I was offering make-up labs, but that became overwhelming,” she said. “Something that would normally take two hours of my time each week was taking four to six hours.”
Going forward, she plans to get away from recording all of her asynchronous material on weekends and will instead record and post lectures on Canvas throughout the week.
“I learned that I can’t set that precedent next time,” she said.
This fall has presented different challenges for every member of the COTS faculty, but most of the instructors say they have discovered a comfortable balance between in-person and remote learning.
Fallscheer’s colleague Nathan Kuwada said he’s grateful he was able to interact with his Physics 121 students in-person this fall. Twenty-six of the 52 who enrolled in the course opted for an in-person lab, while the rest are completing the requirements asynchronously.
Being able to work alongside half of the class every week ended up being the highlight of the quarter for Kuwada.
“It’s difficult to gauge student engagement in the online environment, so having face-to-face interactions allows me to more easily connect with my students and immediately figure out what they are getting and what they are struggling with,” he said.
Quitadamo echoed the importance of building and maintaining relationships with students, even if everyone is behind a computer screen most of the time. He recognizes that the online environment has certain limitations, and he believes it’s his responsibility to get to know his students as individuals so he can help them learn.
“Establishing relationships takes longer online, but it’s possible. You have to invest,” he said. “These technology platforms are really important, but we can’t let our use of technology get in the way of student-teacher relationships.”
One tool that Quitadamo has enjoyed using this fall is the Microsoft Teams app. Instead of posting asynchronous lectures on Canvas, he hosts a real-time, virtual genetics lecture so his students can ask questions and interact with one another.
Teams also interfaces well with OneNote and other Microsoft applications, allowing Quitadamo to share high-resolution textbook images that help his students better understand the material.
“I can pull in figures from different textbooks, depending on what concept I’m teaching,” he said. “That has helped create a more organic structure for the class.”
As the CWU community prepares for more of the same in 2021, many instructors on campus say they are surprised by how well the hybrid structure has worked. No one knows how long the pandemic will alter the way classes are offered, so everyone is doing their best to embrace the hybrid model for as long as it’s around.
Few would prefer the mixed learning environment over in-person, but, at this point, they will take what they can get. As White noted, nothing replaces the knowledge students gain from doing experiments in a real-life lab setting.
This fall, his Physics 181 students are learning to apply Sir Isaac Newton’s laws, which are the “fundamental underpinnings” of mechanics. A video representation simply doesn’t do the experiments justice.
“These lab experiments are critical to us reinforcing the ideas we are teaching,” White said. “There are things we can tell the students, but most of them won’t really understand until they see it in action. We don’t just want them to know what we’re teaching; we want them to believe it.”
White looks forward to returning to a traditional classroom setting, and he expects to continue using many of the skills and strategies he has developed since classes shifted mostly online last spring. He believes his students also stand to benefit, whether it’s in one of his courses or one of his colleagues’.
“I think there’s a big opportunity for us to become better educators,” he said. “Our department has always offered some online courses, but now, all of us have the training to do these things well.”
Likewise, Kuwada plans to make his lectures and course materials more accessible to students, combining elements from both traditional and online teaching.
“I'm excited to get back in the classroom when it's safe, and honestly I think we'll all need a little break from the online teaching mindset,” he said. “But (once in-person classes resume), I will think more carefully about how my Canvas pages are organized, and I will continue to communicate and connect with students individually as much as possible.”
Despite some initial concerns about safety and convenience, the hybrid learning model at CWU has proven to be a manageable alternative for faculty and students this fall.
Quitadamo says that while the past eight months have been challenging for everyone, the core mission for him and the rest of the faculty remains the same.
“As educators, our goal is to build capacity within our students so they can use that as a jumping off point in their lives,” he said. “We’ve had to figure out how to do that in a mostly online environment, and that’s been tricky. It hasn’t been better or worse — just different.”
Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs, David.Leder@cwu.edu, 509-963-1518.