What Should A Hybrid “Classroom” Look Like?

The Set Up

Well, last night our hybrid classroom looked very much like the Jones Room and the new Research Commons at Emory’s Woodruff Library. Every spring, a number of Brittain Fellows choose to participate in an optional postdoctoral seminar on research methodologies. This semester, because the Writing and Communication Program is piloting hybrid pedagogy in our first-year composition and technical communication classes, we are using the design and assessment of hybrid pedagogies as a lens through which our examination of method is focused.

Image of hybrid Tacca with parents - peduncle

"Hybrid Tacca with parents - peduncle." Photo courtesy of Ton Rulkens on Flickr

For those of you who may be wondering, hybrid pedagogy (also known as blended learning) combines face-to-face and distance or virtual learning strategies. Some thought-provoking recent studies have suggested hybrid instruction may–at least in some situations, for some students–create a more optimal learning environment than either traditional or wholly-online classes. In our postdoctoral seminar, we are looking at some of these studies evaluating the effectiveness of hybrid instruction, considering how the knowledge gained from well-conducted studies might be put to use in crafting hybrid courses, and designing experimental models for evaluating hybrid instruction in Writing and Communication Program classes.

The seminar meets on Wednesday evenings. So when Roger Whitson, a former Brittain Fellow and current Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Emory’s Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC), emailed to invite us all to the grand opening of the Woodruff Library’s Research Commons, I was at first presented with a problem. Do we cancel our seminar meeting so Britts can attend the talk, or do we forge ahead, knowing we’re forcing seminar participants to choose between two learning opportunities?

A segment of the feed from the #discayers backchannel on Twitter.

A segment of the feed from the #discayers backchannel on Twitter.

And then it hit me, why not hybridize our own class on hybrid instruction? Instead of meeting in our usual seminar space in Skiles, we all attended the Emory DiSC lecture, “Seeing Time” by Edward L. Ayers, and used Twitter to create a backchannel for synchronous discussion during the talk (#discayers). Today, I’m creating this blog post to which seminar participants can respond, creating an additional channel for asynchronous class participation. In this way, we can begin our own qualitative evaluation of two tools and methods that are increasingly employed in blended learning environments and also get a feel for what hybrid learning offers to instructors and students in terms of flexibility, mobility, and extension of the learning environment beyond the classroom.

My Initial Thoughts

I have been a fan of using the Twitter backchannel during classes, lectures, and conferences since I first tried it during a Colloquium Series event as a Twitter newbie. Last night’s talk was no exception. I found that I was able to follow the substance of Ayer’s presentation while also participating in the backchannel. The backchannel provided an opportunity to respond in real time to Ayers’s observations and provocations, and led to what I thought was a brief but engaged discussion of the rhetorical status of computer-generated geographic maps and data visualizations as texts that follow conventions and contain embedded assumptions about the matter they represent as do books, letters, art, and other, more familiar objects of humanistic inquiry.

Image of Jatropha hybrid - Leaf detail (129 DAS)

"Jatropha hybrid - Leaf detail (129 DAS)." Photo courtesy of Ton Rulkens on Flickr

During the Q&A an audience member raised the question of how we train humanities scholars to do this sort of scholarly work. Ayers suggested formal and informal mentoring connected with projects that originate in digital humanities centers like DiSC was a step in the right direction. I generally agree with Ayers on that point. Via the backchannel, though, I was able to note my own question about whether or not project-driven mentoring will be enough, based on my experience as someone who dedicated some graduate-level coursework to humanities computing classes. Attending the reception afterward, I had a chance to catch up with professional colleagues at DiSC and make a few new connections. That experience caused me to reflect on how hybrid learning in postdoctoral, graduate-level, or professional courses might be used to integrate more, and perhaps even more useful relatively low-stakes networking opportunities for their participants.

I also made an effort to catch up with some of with my Georgia Tech colleagues who are participating in the seminar to get their take on the evening. Some of them reflected that trying to keep up with the Twitter backchannel was distracting, but did fill a useful function as a sort of collaborative note-taking exercise. On the whole, I thought taking advantage of the digital tools at our disposal to untether us from the classroom for an evening was useful and productive.

Now Your Responses . . .

So what do you (mainly Britts participating in the methodologies seminar, but other readers should feel free to chime in) think? How does the Twitter backchannel compare to face-to-face discussion or other “chat” tools that you’ve used? How do you like the combination of asynchronous and synchronous discussion centered on a shared learning experience? Do you see any potential in this design strategy for your own classes? What was your response to Ayers’s presentation? Give us your thoughts or any other questions that you think are relevant.

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Robin Wharton

About Robin Wharton

Robin Wharton is Assistant Director of Writing and Communication. She holds a law degree (1999) and a PhD (2009), both from the University of Georgia. Her current project involves exploring the influence of common law poetics in Middle English writing. Since 2005, she has been a collaborator on the project, and she is interested in how multimodal writing and communication instruction can be improved through the strategic application of digital technology. A former ballet dancer, she has also begun to consider how pedagogical methods drawn from the performing arts might be adapted for productive use in the higher-education classroom. Prior to graduate school, Dr. Wharton clerked for the Hon. Curtis L. Collier in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, and then spent a number of years as an associate in the intellectual property group of a prominent Atlanta law firm. She continues to write about law and ethics, especially as they relate to digital humanities work, and to consult in legal matters involving new and traditional media. Profile photo by R.E. Burnett, 2011.
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  1. I enjoyed the talk and found the back-channel to be (as always) a really interesting “meta” conversation that moved beyond what the talk was discussing. The people tweeting not only reiterated the key points but added commentary and critique that pushed me, as I listened, to question some of the underlying ideas about the Digital Humanities that the speaker was presenting. For example, the back-channel allowed a conversation to emerge that raised important questions about the idea that maps, visualizations etc. are outside of the same rhetorical and formal constraints as texts. Not only was this a deeper, more theoretical discussion than the one that was playing out in the formal presentation, but it allowed for the ideas of the tweeters to build upon each other and, ultimately, there was an exchange of links to relevant articles to help us all think further about the topic. The hybrid format, I feel, allows for this multiplicity of conversations and deepens the ways we can engage with new ideas.

    That being said, I did, at times, get distracted by the back-channel and by my own desire to follow links to the projects Ayers was posting. I was also tweeting on a tablet and found it harder to type which slowed me down and made me miss parts of the presentation. I think the lesson for me was that optimal participation would be enhanced if I could sit at a table with my laptop to listen and tweet at the same time (so thinking about classroom configurations and establishing ground rules for using online participation tools). It would also be helpful to continue the conversation that started in the back-channel — not sure how, but if there was a way to follow it up with some kind of sustained conversation (face-to-face or not), it would feel more productive.
    Food for thought!

  2. I’m where Robin and Katy were several years ago—a Twitter newbie, at least in practice. Before ever writing my first tweet, I’d read a lot about Twitter, listened to many conversations about it, understood the sensible practice of separating one’s teaching account from one’s personal account, and agreed that it seemed like a good tool to have in one’s pedagogical repertoire.

    I’ll get to the questions that Robin has posed, but first some background…

    Before ever posting my first tweet, I read a lot of them — and will admit that the overall flavor reminded me a lot of junior-high cliques: in-groups making precious, insider comments, distinctly wanting to be noticed, to be special, to be the smartest, the loudest, the most clever, the most sarcastic, the most [anything]. We all know the dangers of first impressions! Now I can say that between tweets by adults who seem to regress to their pre-pubescent years are some that make the experience interesting and productive.

    In the five days I’ve been regularly checking Twitter, I’ve found some useful information—including some stunning National Geographic images, some good TEDTalks just out, a distressing but not surprising note from Andy Famiglietti about citation fraud in science, and The Atlantic’s “Be Better at Twitter: The Definitive, Data-Driven Guide,” brought to my tweeting attention barely 24 hours after my first tweet by my friend, Lee Honeycutt, a former ISU colleague and now a web developer in Central Washington. This Atlantic piece became my first retweet. [NB: If you haven’t read The Atlantic post, it’s worth a checking: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/01/be-better-at-twitter-the-definitive-data-driven-guide/252273/ ]. The reference to The Atlantic piece was posted anew by Roger Whitson yesterday, giving the piece wider dissemination — and also giving me valuable insight into how people read the tweets coming to them and what are evolving as conventions of the community.

    So…to some of the questions Robin poses: How does the Twitter backchannel compare to face-to-face discussion or other “chat” tools that you’ve used? How do you like the combination of asynchronous and synchronous discussion centered on a shared learning experience? Do you see any potential in this design strategy for your own classes? What was your response to Ayers’s presentation?

    Ayers played to the broad audience. His lecture was short, general, entertaining, interesting, and without much detail. I’d have been interested in the kind of disciplinary rigor used to create his sites. I’d have been interested in the actual process of design and development. And I’d have been interested in the subsequent peer reaction to the resulting sites. I was not surprised that Ayers didn’t include these things in a talk to a public audience. I was perhaps most surprised at how little he used technology as an integrated part of his lecture. And I was perhaps most pleased at the enthusiasm he appeared to generate about digital humanities.

    I found tweeting during the Ayers’s lecture both interesting and distracting. In this TECHStyle discussion, we’re in the process of seeing how the asynchronous discussion works in relation to Ayers’s lecture (which will continue in FTF conversation on Wednesday evening). I suspect we’ll include remarks about how synchronous comments contributed to individual or shared learning.

    • Some interesting parts. I’m an avid note-taker during lectures—partly the content and partly what the content makes me think about. Tweeting prevented this typical behavior; I was surprised at how frustrated I was to have tweeting interfere with my typical behavior. I was interested that the synchronous conversation had identifiable and useful topical/thematic threads. Would these be the same ones we’d identify using different analytical tools/strategies? I wonder if the identified threads will hold up in post-lecture discussion. Read as a chunk, the tweets we made collectively are substantive and interesting. I was surprised at how few people participated and how few comments we all made.

    • Some distracting parts. I was surprised at who participated and who didn’t (and thought about why). Because I was also curious about what people would say, I regularly checked updated tweets and read them, momentarily distracted from the main event (listening to Ayers). I had multiple simultaneous tracks running—listening, thinking, tweeting. I was reminded of current work about attention, summarized in “Divided Attention” (which I remembered reading in The Chronicle a while ago — February 28, 2100: http://chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Turn-Their-Attention/63746/ This work has spawned consideration discussion about multitasking and attention; it’s worth considering. I worried about whether and how my tweeting was distracting those around me; I worried about the “rudeness factor” at a public lecture as well as the simple distraction caused by typing and reading (despite trying hard to be unobtrusive).

    Now the key question about Twitter’s potential in classes. I’m in favor of selective, well-designed Twitter experiences in classes. Definitely, yes! I’m reminded of early disciplinary experiences with a range of strategies that were disasters if not well-designed and appropriately integrated (e.g., peer editing, collaborative presentations, poster sessions, and forum discussions come to mind). Our worthwhile challenge is designing multiple ways to use Twitter productively in classes.

  3. I have been using Twitter as a backchannel at conferences for a few years now. I would say that at Media Studies conferences, the Twitter backchannel has become a routine part of the conference experience for many attendees, with hashtags circulating in advance, tweet-ups during the conference, and post-conference archiving of tweets. There have even been discussion and blog posts about Twitter etiquette at conferences (the link eludes me right now, but I asked about it on Twitter and hope collective intelligence will help me out!).

    Frequently, tweeting a talk helps me to focus more on what is being said because I have to pay close attention to the key points and think quickly about how to translate those into 140 characters. If I don’t tweet, my attention is more likely to wander. In addition, following the Twitter backchannel allows me to see other people’s thoughts on the talk I’m listening to and to follow other panels in the same timeslot (which is great because without fail, there will be another panel of interest to me at the same time).

    I haven’t used Twitter in the classroom yet because I haven’t come up with a productive way to integrate it into the overall workflow of my courses. Last summer, I created a visual backchannel on flickr that made more sense to me than Twitter. It was a success and I will definitely use a visual backchannel in another class centered on social media. You can see the flickr stream here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/weherenow.

  4. Well, here’s a surprise: This morning, I was reviewing some online articles and news, coming one that would be relevant to discussions in our Research Methodology Seminar. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in the seminar subscribed to and actually read Twitter, then I could just retweet the articles, saving the time of this note. So, please take 2 minutes to check out this:

  5. Before launching into my own experience with Twitter and my thoughts on its usefulness in academia, I want to thank Robin, Katy, Melanie, and Rebecca for their thoughtful responses that have already made me rethink my position.

    I’ve been active on Twitter for about three years, both as an academic and as a personal user. I’ve experienced the benefits already mentioned, such as the opportunity to make professional connections. In point of fact, my last CCCC panel was formed on Twitter by people who had never met or even spoken to each other before, but who shared a common interest in fan studies. I also enjoy the way that tweeting a presentation forces me to select what I believe to be the most salient information for my audience, as well as challenge me to communicate that information in less than 140 characters. However, I also have the same logistical and intellectual reservations that have already been mentioned as well. It is difficult to text or type on a tablet during a presentation, and pulling out a laptop and typing is still extremely rude and distracting. I’ve also been guilty of following the online discussion in place of rather than in addition to the presentation itself, and now I like to ignore the “backchannel” until the presentation has ended out of respect for the speaker, which some would argue defeats the purpose of having a backchannel to begin with.

    But what I love most about Twitter is also what I dislike the most about academia using Twitter. I have several “circles” who follow my Twitter and who I also follow, of which academia is only one part. I have friends from high school, college, and graduate school. My college has a Twitter that I follow as well. I have my official sorority twitter accounts and sorority sisters. I have academic celebrities and TV celebrities. I have writers and musicians. I love being able to use my Twitter account to express and explore all these parts of my life without having to separate them. But if a colleague were to examine my tweets, especially from this past weekend when I was at a fan convention, they would think that I am a 12 year-old girl. Or worse–that I think I’m a 12 year-old girl. Conversely, if these non-academic friends of mine read my tweets from CCCC last year, they would think I am a 50 year-old man.

    Is the solution to create an “academics only” Twitter account? Perhaps, but I happen to love the eclectic nature of my Twitter timeline. I love being able to switch hats at a moment’s notice and think about a new article on the Chronicle after I’ve found out my favorite band just scheduled a new tour date in Atlanta, and my knitting circle plans on meeting at Starbucks this week. And I love tweeting to academic colleagues about the latest episode of Supernatural or making recommendations on where to eat in whatever city they happen to be in. I value building that kind of rapport with everyone, not just academics, and not just non-academics, and the people I enjoy communicating with on twitter the most are those who use it the same way. At the same time, were I to use Twitter in my classroom, I would more than likely create a new account for my students to follow and communicate with, because allowing my students to see that other life is something I’m not comfortable with. And that, I think, is unfortunate, since it is a Twitter experience so far removed from its potential.

  6. I’m curious: was anyone else at least a little apprehensive about tweeting at the talk? I found Ayers to be an engaging, charismatic, funny, humble, and thoroughly entertaining speaker. During the talk, I felt slightly guilty about tweeting. I though that I should be giving him my full attention, not surreptitiously pecking at my tablet keyboard. Eventually, though, my desire to join the #discayers discussion overcame my loyalty to our speaker (which itself warrants some examination….).

    I agree with Kathryn’s comment that the backchannel conversation can lead to a deepening of the subject of the frontchannel talk. And I do realize that tweeting at conferences (especially in Media Studies) has become somewhat normative as Melanie observes in her post. But I wonder if we can spend some time tonight in the seminar talking about what effect this changing social convention has on speakers’ expectations during formal talks?

  7. I very much enjoyed the talk and ensuing face-to-face discussions during the reception and afterwards. While I wasn’t able to get wireless reception for the Twitter backchannel during the talk, the occasion did give me the chance to think more broadly about issues of (divided) attention and the conventions or norms of academic talks. In particular, I found myself wondering whether my repeated glances at a smartphone would be seen as a loss or refusal of attention rather than an effort to distribute it along different modes of engagement. So, I shared Jared’s somewhat surreptitious involvement (or, rather, *attempts* at involvement) in the backchannel. That’s all to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Melanie’s point that a backchannel can help to broaden, deepen, and generally enhance one’s response to a presentation. But I did find myself wondering how a “wired” audience might perform attention in ways that could convey vigorous involvement in the face of what looks, potentially, like a moment of simple distraction or dispersal of interest.

  8. Count me among the distracted! Like Mike, I was unable to get wireless reception. After some assistance, though, I was able to connect my phone with Emory’s wifi and access Twitter that way. Then I realized that I had no idea what hashtag we were using (did I miss or forget that key piece of information?). Once I found that, I realized I had been so absorbed in finding the backchannel that I had neglected to pay attention to the talk. Listened, got up to speed, thought of something to tweet . . . but by the time I’d figured out how to fit it into 140 characters, the backchannel conversation had sped into different territory. And I had lost the thread of Ayers’ talk again. I’m a good multitasker unless my primary task is listening to something. I have some minor hearing issues, so I have to focus all my energy on listening and interpreting what I’m hearing. Taking notes, even, can cause me to get lost. So, that was my first experience with tweeting. I was impressed by the backchannel and its possibilities, but it’s not a format that’s a good fit for me, which leaves me wondering how, if I were to do something similar in the classroom, I could work to make the assignment more accessible to students like me.

    As for the talk itself, I would have liked more depth (though Rebecca’s points about audience are well-taken). I’m a digital humanities neophyte, so I don’t have as much exposure as the rest of you, which probably plays into what I’m about to say: tell me more about praxis! A slight tendency I’m seeing in digital humanities (and, again, maybe this is due to my lack of exposure) is that the presentations seem to say, basically, “look what I can do! Isn’t it cool?” It is, indeed, very cool to be able to watch a timelapse map that uses colors to show which counties voted for which political party over several decades, to watch the way political orientation shifts with the years. But a book can do that too–just place the maps next to each other and look at them in rapid succession. Or make a flip book! I don’t know enough to know what I can do with the specifically digital format. I want to see “look what I did. Isn’t it cool? Here are some practical applications.”

    As I watched the progression of a second map, the one that plotted Union army encampments and slave revolts to show how there was a pattern of them happening in close proximity, I had a second, more serious concern. Where’s the analysis? The fact that slave revolts happened near Union encampments is suggestive, but without analysis, one can’t make a claim about causation or even correlation. How do we get that analysis if not through traditional scholarship? Of course, that’s the point: this is a tool for scholars to utilize to do that research. But, at the same time, this is a website that’s open to the public. A public that may not look for that scholarship or even know that there’s a need for analysis. For a certain type of audience, couldn’t this be a logical fallacy waiting to happen? Given the subject matter, I found this bothersome. Am I being a bit paranoid, or is there a real possibility that a casual internet surfer could happen across this map and deduce that slave revolts were only possible because the Union army was nearby and not think critically about potential other influences (like the slaves’ own agency). Is there a way to alert the casual internet surfer that there’s more to the issue than the map can show?

  9. I agree with Britta’s last point here (which I was also making via twitter, although you can only see half of that comment represented above) as my tweet begins “Doesn’t say anything” about the implications or dangers of collating this kind of information this way. I thought these were really, really pretty projects. But also that they need more than to be just a data display/aggregation system to really knock my socks off.

    I was more intrigued by the creation of podcasts that Ayers discussed, and the popularity that they seem to have. Podcasts potentially do some of that interpretive work for us that the maps/graphs themselves seem to be lacking for some of us. Maybe the key is to overlay data with several possible readings of the information in order to resolve some of the concerns that Britta brings up. Mostly, I just really want to create/assign podcasts sometime soon. Great possibilities for oral communication lessons, collaboration practice, and audience analysis that I think would be really fun to explore in the classroom.

    This is the second or third event that I’ve live-Tweeted. I tweeted at NWSA this year, although reception was horrible in the conference hotel so I couldn’t do all the panels I attended. This was actually the first time I really paid attention to the other conversation that was going on though, as opposed to just putting my tweets into space. I thought the backchannel conversation was interesting, particularly as it gave people a chance to raise potential criticisms of ideas that we could then potentially resolve at a later date.

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