Kathleen Williams is like many students at Portland State University — she’s juggling other responsibilities on top of school. She recently had to miss class because of her internship, but that wasn’t a big problem.
Williams is part of a pilot at Portland State this fall in which students can choose to go to class in-person or online on any given day. Some professors, like Williams’, also opt to record lectures for students to view at a later time.
“I can just watch the lecture after work,” Williams said. “I do prefer in-person classes, so having that option is great, but it’s also inconvenient to not have the option to not go sometimes, so I guess this is just the best of both worlds.”
Back in spring 2020, the pandemic forced all of Oregon’s universities to pivot to online learning. While many classes have shifted back on campus, conversations are starting around what changes forced by the pandemic are worth keeping.
The flexibility of simultaneous in-person and online classes has potential, particularly for students with busy lives. But there are still concerns, ranging from teaching quality to support for instructors to technology constraints. The university is hoping to work out the kinks as it determines how the new course modality might fit into its future, and the future of higher education as a whole.
A hybrid university
In her welcome email to the Portland State campus community early last month, University Provost Susan Jeffords wrote that PSU has begun considering what it would mean to become a “hybrid university.”
Jeffords told OPB the university will start to have conversations this year about what a hybrid university could look like, and what it would take to get there.
“What we had been hearing, and then the pandemic really accelerated, is how much our students would like to be engaged in their learning in different ways,” Jeffords said. “We began to hear our students really wanted more flexibility in the ways that they could access their learning, and so, at the heart, that’s what a hybrid university looks like.”
The pilot program that student Kathleen Williams is part of, called “Attend Anywhere,” is one “hybrid” proposition that’s come up so far.
The University of Oregon launched a similar pilot last year it called its “HyFlex” method. Now, the university says it is using the mixed in-person and remote course modality mostly for students who are isolating or quarantining because of COVID-19 exposure. UO’s Portland campus is also experimenting with the format for some of its graduate students this year.
At Oregon State University, some faculty have been teaching using that format. Other schools across the nation have been attempting this too as the pandemic continues. And some colleges began experimenting with the model way before the pandemic, in the mid 2000s.
Jeffords said the idea for the course modality at PSU started when classes were still mostly remote, but some instructors wanted to be able to teach online students from a classroom in order to use a whiteboard.
“If you’re doing that anyway, within the pandemic restrictions, are there ways that some students could come to that class, and not all would have to?” she said. “That became the genesis of this idea.”
Jeffords said the university used some of the federal COVID-19 relief funds to outfit many of its classrooms with Zoom capabilities — such as installing microphones and cameras on lecture podiums. PSU now counts 151 Zoom-capable rooms.
Still, experimenting with Attend Anywhere classes is starting small.
“We’re studying this right now to try to figure out the best way both for students to engage in learning in that way, but also, what is it that faculty need in the way of support to be able to teach effectively in that way,” Jeffords said.
There are 145 Attend Anywhere class sections offered this fall, less than 5% of PSU’s total classes. The bulk of those Attend Anywhere sections, 74 classes, are in PSU’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science.
“I think we recognize that Attend Anywhere would meet sort of the needs of both the students who wanted an in-person learning and the students who wanted a remote experience,” said Chris Monsere, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the college of engineering and computer science.
Monsere said the college sent a survey out to students registered in Attend Anywhere courses at the beginning of the term. About 80% of the survey respondents said the flexibility of Attend Anywhere increased their confidence they could successfully complete the course.
“One of the things that we’ve been talking about both at the college level and as well as the department level is what to extract from the pandemic and remote learning, especially for Portland State University and our student population,” Monsere said.
He continued: “There’s a split between students who need in-person learning to be successful … And then there are students who are able to manage things better with the ability to have remote attendance.”
What students need
Kathleen Williams’ Attend Anywhere class — a water resources engineering course — is in the College of Engineering and Computer Science.
Williams said Attend Anywhere fit her life better than a strictly remote or strictly in-person class.
Her internship schedule makes it hard to schedule classes around, but she still likes to have the option to attend in-person when she can.
“Attend Anywhere is the most convenient,” Williams said.
She also really enjoys her professor, Annette Dietz.
Dietz is teaching two courses this term — one, the class Williams is in, is officially Attend Anywhere. The other is mostly in-person, though it has some online components. Dietz said she had specific reasons for choosing those course modalities.
The Attend Anywhere course is mostly seniors, like Williams.
“They’re pretty comfortable with the remote format from their experience last year,” Dietz said of that class. “The students, especially those who are seniors, they’re working on internships; they’re motivated; they’re organized, and I feel like they can be successful using that method.”
As for the other class Dietz is teaching, those students are mostly incoming juniors. Dietz felt it was more important to have those students attend class in person.
“Many of the students are transfers, and they’re new to PSU and their junior year, and it’s their first quarter here,” Dietz said. “I really felt it was important to at least start the quarter being more in community.”
As Dietz gets more familiar with the various options — online, in-person, hybrid — she’s finding certain instructional situations that only work one way.
“I just haven’t figured out a way to really effectively and equitably offer a lab experience as a remote or in-person, flexible option,” Dietz said. “We did some creative things last year, letting students take home equipment and do experiments that way. But I feel like the students will really benefit in that class being in lab in-person.”
PSU Provost, Jeffords, said she doesn’t foresee every class at the university being offered as Attend Anywhere. Hands-on arts and performance-based classes make sense to continue offering in-person, as well as small senior or graduate seminars.
“It’s no good if one person out of 12 shows up in-person, right?” Jeffords said. “You ruin some of the kind of texture of conversations that happens with a small group of folks sharing a space together.”
As the Attend Anywhere pilot continues, Dietz said PSU should consider how it’s helping — or hindering — students.
“Maybe we think about only offering it for upper division courses, or maybe it’s only offered if you can maintain a certain GPA, because, you know, it seems like maybe you’re having trouble with a remote setting,” Dietz said. “Some students do feel like they do better with in-person classes. That’s for sure.”
PSU has a larger-than-average number of non-traditional students in comparison to Oregon’s other public universities. According to the university, 25% of students have children.
Overall, Dietz said, the Attend Anywhere course has provided flexibility for students as their lives have changed further during the pandemic.
“I’ve had one of my students welcome a new baby into their family, and so, how wonderful to just be able to not have to make that trip and lose the commute time to be able to spend more time with your family,” she said.
Dietz said she also had students who appreciated having access to the coursework when they were kept from in-person learning by having to isolate or quarantine due to COVID-19. One of her students ended up getting COVID-19, but continued going to class online.
“They hadn’t been coming to class in-person, because they had symptoms, and they didn’t feel this pressure to show up in-person that I think we always used to have.”
Concerns and solutions
Although the Attend Anywhere format might be more convenient for students, it inevitably adds work for instructors who have to manage both a classroom of in-person students and a Zoom room full of online students — at the same time.
The PSU Faculty Senate Academic Quality Committee shared that concern earlier this year with administrators. They also worried about quality of learning for students.
“For example, we know from the shift to remote that not everything that works in a classroom works on Zoom, and vice-versa,” the committee wrote. “Will faculty need to plan their courses and classroom activities for two different types of audiences? Or will faculty simply lecture or do some kind of low student-input activity, given the potential logistical challenges of handling the two different groups?”
Dietz said she can see where the concerns from the faculty groups are coming from.
“Of course there’s always a learning curve,” Dietz said.
Dietz said she’s experienced the expected issues, like making sure everything is properly connected and running smoothly over Zoom.
She said at times it can be hard to keep track of online students asking questions over Zoom, as well as remembering to repeat questions from in-person students so that remote students can hear them.
In the college of engineering and computer science teaching assistants sometimes monitor students over Zoom, while professors focus on teaching in-person.
“One of the challenges, I think in any format, is keeping students engaged and interested, and that doesn’t change even if they’re all there in person,” Dietz said.
University Provost Jeffords said administrators are looking to improve the Attend Anywhere experience by expanding classroom Zoom capabilities, such as adding cameras and microphones to classrooms. That way professors can move around more freely, and remote students can get more than just one view of the classroom.
“We don’t want to just say to people, we want you to do this and it has to look like this,” Jeffords said. “We’re trying to give faculty some flexibility in how they want to adapt this kind of technology to their instruction.”
Jeffords said PSU’s Office of Academic Innovation will be assessing all of the university’s course modalities that took place this fall term. That office will also get direct feedback from the professors who taught Attend Anywhere classes, and start offering professional development.
“That’s absolutely the next step here,” Jeffords said. “It’s never a bad idea to invest in our faculty.”
PSU’s Office of Academic Innovation will also look at how students’ GPAs were affected, and other metrics like persistence to see how Attend Anywhere worked for students.
“I think by the spring we’re going to have a much clearer idea of where we’re headed on this,” Jeffords said.