Sasha Vassar | Why hybrid learning isn’t the answer
One thing is certain, we cannot continue to teach in the same way in the world of hybrid.
In theory, synchronous hybrid learning is a fantastic idea: students and teachers have increased flexibility, and universities can benefit from increased enrolments. But in reality, hybrid learning is not everything it is cracked up to be. Over the past two years of the pandemic, a mixed learning and teaching mode has developed – part in person and part online – bringing to the fore a multitude of problems. Technical challenges, enhanced cognitive load for both students and teachers, a lack of social presence, and wrangling a cohort spread across multiple locations and time zones are just a few. But how can we combat some of the larger issues? Is it possible to create positive experiences for both the teachers and the students in this brave new world of hybrid education?
Ann Mossop: In a world of global pandemics, climate emergencies, and ever-increasing costs of living, it's understandable that we might feel fearful about what the future holds. But as we make our way through the 21st century, there are, in fact, many new and exciting discoveries which can improve our lives. I'm Ann Mossop, director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. Welcome to What comes next? From the potential healing powers of magic mushrooms in mental health, to how x-ray vision might help us transition to a renewable economy. In this 10-part series, we'll hear from UNSW Sydney’s brightest minds, unpacking some of the big ideas, which are integral to our 21st century challenges.
In theory, synchronous hybrid learning, that is learning online and in the classroom at the same time is a fantastic idea. Students and teachers have increased flexibility and universities can benefit from increased enrollments. But in reality, UNSW Sydney lecturer Sasha Vassar, suggests that hybrid learning may not be everything that it's cracked up to be.
Sasha Vassar: Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying, learning never exhausts the mind. The quote has a lovely sentiment attached to it. But is it in fact, true?
Ever since I was a little girl, I really loved learning and wanted nothing else but to share that knowledge. I'd line up all my soft toys and would spend hours teaching them everything that I could. So, when it came time to go to university, I surprised everyone by choosing a computer engineering degree instead of education. After a decade-long stint in the computing industry, the pull of teaching grew too strong though, and I returned to university to complete my PhD in education. I've spent more than a decade now studying and researching how we learn, and what can help us learn effectively, both in the classroom and outside, based on our capacity to remember and recall information. In fancy speak. This is called Cognitive Load Theory. And what I can say without a shadow of a doubt is that learning is hard work that does actually exhaust the mind.
To really consider how we learn and how we teach, we must begin by understanding how things go in and come out of our memory. There are two main stores of memory. The first of these, and the first point of contact for information is our working memory. A memory limited in its capacity and duration. The second of these is our long-term memory. And in contrast to the first point of contact, it is unlimited in both capacity and duration. Moving things from our working memory to our unlimited long-term memory requires a lot of practice and rehearsal. But because the first point of contact is our limited working memory, a bottleneck is created. The amount of information that working memory can hold at any time, also called our cognitive load, is approximated to be about seven items, you can increase this number by chunking, which we do every day when we recite mobile phone numbers by grouping them into three chunks, a group of four digits, a group of four digits and a group of three digits. That is, instead of 10 separate digits or 10 separate chunks. But that still does not leave a lot to play with.
So what happens when this number is exceeded? Complete chaos, anarchy and great waves of overwhelm. Welcome to the world of cognitive overload. We all got to experience a lot of this at the start of 2020, the beginning of the pandemic and lockdown 1.0. I remember receiving word of the first lockdown. University was closing its doors, and we had to shift online within the next 24 hours. I found myself up half the night, manually moving students into the digital classroom, so we could continue teaching and students could continue learning. Students at universities, schools and some even in daycares were now expected to log into their classrooms, staring at a small picture of their teacher on the screen. And that's for those teachers that even had a camera accessible, or the internet bandwidth that allowed this. Forget eye contact, forget getting out of bed and forget any type of learning routine.
We, as teachers, were left with no choice but to flex and adapt things as we go. Continually evolving, sometimes making changes on the fly as we saw what was working and what was not. I was now left lecturing a blank screen, with no indication of facial expressions to help me set the pace and to see if things were being understood. The whole context of learning and engaging with students had shifted virtually overnight.
My first forays into this world of online learning involve winding a 25-meter ethernet cable around my house, so that I could get internet that would last for the duration of my two-hour lecture. Walking out during a lecture break to get a glass of water, I found one of my small children crouching over that ethernet cable, with a pair of scissors in his hand smiling with glee. I do hold the mantra practice makes perfect very dear to my heart. After all, this is one way of moving information from our working memory to our long-term memory. But I'm not sure I wanted to extend this mantra to the ethernet cable, all fun and games now, but two years ago, the reality of teaching and learning wholly online, without a choice in the matter was confronting. Even now, there is no guidebook. Everyone is still adapting as they go.
As things slowly start to return to normal, students are now given more choices. Show up face to face, or stay online, and learn at the same time as the face-to-face students, using the same resources and being taught by the same teacher. This model of both online and face to face students learning simultaneously, using the same resources, is called synchronous hybrid learning. And it's slowly becoming the model of choice for many institutions. To really achieve its learning goals, though, this model must ensure that there are equal experiences for both the online and the face-to-face students. And that means addressing issues like accessibility to the resources, and inclusivity of both the online and the face-to-face students. Let's start by considering the positive side. It is, of course, the flexibility that this model provides, not having to be in a certain place at a certain time to access any of the content. Well, that sounds great, doesn't it? But, of course, with every positive, there are going to be a few negatives. Firstly, the varying degree of social presence that hybrid learning can afford. Secondly, a cohort that is spread across multiple time zones, trying to learn at the same time. And finally, my area of specialty, the increased cognitive load for teachers and students, as both the online and the face-to-face students learn at the same time.
So let me set the stage for you. Setting up a hybrid classroom last term, from the get go, I ran into some technical issues. I think we've all been there. Think of those glorious hybrid meetings that always start in the same way. Can everyone hear me? Can everyone see my screen? For me it was the microphone. No one could hear me. Freaked out, further increasing my already high cognitive load before the lecture had even begun. With a lecture starting shortly, and a myriad of buttons in front of me that may or may not control the volume, I felt completely overwhelmed, and was just clicking on anything to try and make it work. My memory was so overloaded, I couldn't even take a step back to consider what needs doing. I called IT before I realized to my huge embarrassment that I was just on mute. But all that this indicated was the already high cognitive load required to even get the room working. So that both sets of students can see, hear and participate.
Ready for the next hurdle I began talking, I usually like to move around the room as I engage with the students. And what we found is that the camera followed me rather weirdly, sometimes focusing just on my torso, or sometimes just the back of my head. Not great for the online students, and certainly not an equal experience. Now all of this was happening in a room which is meant to be a dedicated space for hybrid teaching. The show must go on though and continuing with the lesson I found myself mostly feeling frazzled. Anytime I addressed the face-to-face audience, I simply forgot about the online students, which is easy to do as everyone has their cameras off. So it doesn't really feel like there's anyone there. That is, of course until they remind me they're there by madly tagging me with questions. At which point I'd focus my attention on the online students and forget completely about the face-to-face ones. I left the session completely drained, minus two water bottles and with a severe case of nervous energy. Is this now our new normal?
Chatting with others running in hybrid, it seems that this may well be the new norm, that perpetual feeling of being swallowed up by a wave, that was felt by others also. Myself and others experienced what we call in the language of Cognitive Load Theory, the Split-attention Effect. I was attempting to integrate information that was completely physically separated. In this case, engaging with the face-to-face audience and answering their questions, whilst at the same time engaging with the online audience and answering their questions. And that's not even including actually teaching the content. This in essence, caused my working memory to overload. Just think what happens when you overfill a glass with water, and it starts spilling over the sides. And if every lecture requires a complete feeling of anarchy and overwhelm for the teacher's working memory, and questions left unanswered for the students, then surely this is not what is next. Research into best practices of hybrid teaching suggests that having dedicated spaces is important for the success of this model. So not just any old classroom will do. These special rooms are equipped with technology that make it much easier to teach in this format and help to provide a more inclusive experience for those online. However, setting up these types of spaces is expensive and time consuming. So how does this scale to the 1000s of courses that are currently being taught at university?
Research has also shown that a class with more than approximately 25 Students requires a teaching assistant. I teach an introductory computing course with over 1000 students. How many teaching assistants might I need to sustain just one lecture? And given the budgets and skill shortages? Is it even possible to achieve this?
The shift online at the beginning of the pandemic happened virtually overnight, with little thought being given to what would work well in the digital world. Teachers are still left grappling for solutions, often without adequate training and hybrid practices, and with little assistance given to redesigning the learning experience that was first put in place as an emergency response to the lockdowns. There's not yet enough concentrated research to support this model. And given all of these unanswered questions, can hybrid learning be the answer? I would say that it's not the answer right now. Whilst it may seem like the Holy Grail in our current situation, of having a foot in each of the physical and digital worlds, we're not prepared yet for hybrid learning to be the answer. We need to stop trying to make the model fit how we used to teach and take a big step back to really consider what is possible with hybrid, and what is just barely workable. With so many questions still remaining, hybrid learning cannot be the answer right now.
Ann Mossop: Sasha, thanks for coming to talk to us.
Sasha Vassar: Thanks so much for having me.
Ann Mossop: Before we get going, I want to just ask you to tell us what's your best memory of teaching? What's the moment of teaching where you really think I love doing this?
Sasha Vassar: Oh, there's been so many. But one particular one is, after a particularly hideous summer term, that was very kind of condensed and very quick, and very intense. I got a letter from a student that went for like two or three pages, so not something that they needed to send, just telling me that they've been, sort of failing everything, questioning why they're even in computer engineering, and this kind of course, kind of opened their eyes a little bit and let them know that they still belong here, and that they found their niche, which is really, really nice. Because, yeah, it's really nice to find your niche, sometimes competing can be very difficult.
Ann Mossop: So, you have a really interesting background, in that you've got a background in computer science and engineering, but also very much a background in education. Tell us about those two things and how they fit together for you.
Sasha Vassar: Yeah, so they don't often make sense together. But in fact, they kind of do. I've always liked tinkering. So that's kind of like why I did computing, but I also loved computers. But I don't know, sometimes I question whether I should have just done teaching from the very start, because I really love teaching. And then I just bring the teaching knowledge to computing because computing is a really hard subject area, that's seeing a lot of interest as well. And there's very complex concepts that are very difficult to teach. So, you really do need some of those pedagogical theories to help back what you're doing.
Ann Mossop: Some of the courses that you teach at UNSW are those really fundamental things. So, introductory computing courses, but also something called Human Computer Interaction, that gives students the building blocks of understanding what they need to know, and how to work. What do you find? Who turns up in the classroom and you're teaching a giant Introduction to Computing course?
Sasha Vassar: It depends. I love the intro to computing, because everyone is still wide eyed and bushy tailed, and kind of looking forward to getting to know more about computing. I always feel this is where they decide, computing’s for me, or computing might not be for me. Because it's your first block of learning how to code and seeing how difficult it can be. But then at the same time, it's almost like the complexity is because of the fact that you're not just learning a whole new language to code in, but you're also learning problem solving how to put those two together. And then it's very different to the Human Computer Interaction, which is the more human side, and how can we just design the interface between the human and the machine so that it's usable, and it's understandable, and someone can, you know, lower the cognitive load, so you increase their ability to use a particular interface.
Ann Mossop: So, this is something, you know, when I hear the words, Human Computer Interaction, for those of us who are not professional computer scientists, but who are users of computers, it makes you think about all of the things that you love and hate about working with computers. Obviously, what you're teaching students is a set of tools about how to think about these interactions, how to design them. What are you trying to get them to think about?
Sasha Vassar: Well, things are getting better, than they were like in the 90s, noughties, even. But there are still, you know, kind of like dark patterns, that we can design into our interfaces. And we don't really want to do that. And there's, I don't know if anyone's ever watched kids YouTube, but that's full of little dark patterns to keep kids watching and…
Ann Mossop: So, tell us what dark, what you mean by dark patterns. Because I kind of get the idea, and it's intriguing.
Sasha Vassar: So dark pattern, is a design pattern that is not for your benefit. It's doing something that's a little bit naughty.
Ann Mossop: So, all of the things that are about keeping your attention on something that a platform wants your attention to be on or making you spend time somewhere.
Sasha Vassar: Yeah, so like content stream platforms that will keep playing the next episode over and over, it keeps you seated and watching, that can be considered a little bit of a dark pattern, because how much binging can you do? And then like, say the kids one, if you try to exit out of it, it will say, ‘are you sure you want to exit?’, and then it will have exit on the wrong side of cancel, and then cancel, so you won't have yes or no, either. So if they're young kids reading might only be yes or no, it won't be to those bigger words. So it's like, everything is there to keep you hooked. But I mean, there's other things like you sign up for a trial, and you give your credit card details, and then it just automatically rolls over to charge you. So we kind of want to reduce that. And then we want to talk about, you know, the ethics as well surrounding that. And I think the other big area that I've really kind of want to leave everyone thinking about at the beginning of designing something is accessibility, because I think that's really, really important and often gets hoisted to the back end of a job. And then you just, I don’t know, they just chuck in something to an add on at the end. Yeah. But that's not really you know, you can do so much better. If you, you know, start with thinking about accessibility from the start, you know, if you are going to design for all users, why would you not do that? Why would you cut out a huge portion of users?
Ann Mossop: Absolutely. So, what are the kinds of ethical considerations that you want students to think about?
Sasha Vassar: Well, there's many. In computing as well, I think every software we make, there are a lot of ethical considerations, you know, even things like security, or availability of data. And those are simple things that you just would think about, just to start with. But then there's other things as well, you know, is it ethical to design something that does not include everyone? So how inclusive does an interface have to be? Is it ethical to just have, for example, for gender or whatever, have male, female, that’s it. Is that an ethical thing to do? How do you include more people? Why would you [exclude] people from your design?
Ann Mossop: Now, if we get on to thinking a bit about what you are talking about in your talk about the whole question of how we teach. It's been really incredibly interesting to see over the last couple of years, as an emergency response, teaching moved online, everything else is shutting down, we can't be together in person. We've gone through a couple of years of working out how to do that. What are you finding with students about where they want to be? Do they want to be on campus? Do they want to be learning in person? Do they want to be still locked in their bedroom? What kind of feedback are you getting from students?
Sasha Vassar: It's a very good question. Um, it's mixed, and it depends as well, how long do they have to travel to campus? How many hours have they got on campus that they're attending at any one time? So, no one wants to commute four hours to have one hour. And because some of our social networks, the sports on campus, and the social, other things haven't quite come alive yet, I think, because that was what was contributing to people wanting to be on campus as well. It wasn't just going to class. I know, you know, when I was a student, I'd turn up and there would be a whole day event, because you'd go here, you go there, you go have dinner, you’d go to a concert, you'd go to a talk. And, you know, that's a whole day done. But yeah, so there is like a large portion that actually prefer to be in person, they find it quite depressing to be in their bedrooms, and not communicating with anyone else. And also in first year computing, in particular, you know, it's really helpful for them to be able to make friends at the beginning of the degree as well, so that they can share experiences, collaborate, they can, you know, do group work more positively as well, because they already know people. So I think it's really nice for them to come together in first year and build their support network.
Ann Mossop: And what you've told us about, really, is that this model that we're stuck in now, doesn't really work. Doesn't really work for teachers, doesn't really work for learners. And that if we want to optimize learning, we need to not be trying to, you know, have our teachers, and our learners do five things at once. Really create a different way for people to focus optimally. But we're kind of stuck in this halfway pattern at the moment. How do you see that evolving? How do you see us managing to change that to something that works better for people?
Sasha Vassar: I guess, as a researcher, I'll say there's, we need to do more research, to find out what could be the optimal solution, but certainly trying to kind of do everything at once. I mean, even you know, when you're a kid, you're always told you can't do everything at once. Well, this is sometimes what it feels like. And, you know, I think we had a particular situation in our face-to-face class, that a student got COVID, so they couldn't come to class, but they were not unwell. So they still wanted to log in, because they were in a group that was there. So you know, that's fun. Just once in the whole term, we dialed them in on teams and kind of put the screen up and they were there. And it was, it was a whole experience. But to do that, you know, week in week out, when their group members also person, trying to discuss it, when the internet is, you know, kind of falling out, or trying, you know, someone can switch off their camera, and then when you're not, when you don't have that eye contact, and you don't have that ability to connect as well with each other, that really does dampen the experience for everyone, I think.
Ann Mossop: And so what kind of research do you think we need to do?
Sasha Vassar: Well, I think first of all, I would say cognitive load. We need to measure, you know, the load that is on teachers as they're trying to manage the face-to-face students, the online students, and also teaching the actual content as well. And we need to also decide what is an optimal physical space because it's not feasible to, you know, build these great, big hybrid spaces, you can't make enough of them. So what makes this fantastic space? You know, lots of the lecture theaters now are set up with a hybrid camera, but you can point one camera to yourself, one camera to the back of the audience. But then, if it's showing the audience so that the online students feel included, then you are so far away that no one can see you talking. I like to move around. It doesn't follow me around well…
Ann Mossop: Yeah, you kind of feel like, for it to really work, you'd have to be in a fully kitted out TV studio with operators almost.
Sasha Vassar: Yeah, that’s right.
Ann Mossop: With an entourage.
Sasha Vassar: Yeah, exactly.
Ann Mossop: But when you say we need to measure the cognitive load, so you know, this point that you make in your talk, which is that once somebody's attention is split in all of these directions, the whole thing about how they do what they're doing, let alone how they convey the material becomes incredibly difficult. How do you measure how difficult that is? I mean, are we talking about seeing people kitted up with sensors? Or what are we talking?
Sasha Vassar: Yeah, I mean, it can be that. So the simple way, there is, you know, scales that you can take a questionnaire before or after. But obviously, that's still not as good as putting a few sensors on them. And one other way that I've been working towards, is eye tracking software. So watching their fixations, you know, how they're fixating their gazes, is it going to be outside the screen, on the screen? And the ratio of them doing that? Is it going to be on the board, is it going to be on what they're writing? Because when you teach, you know, computing, in particular, you've got code on the screen, you've got slides, so you already have two screens that you are working across. Then you might have a face-to-face audience, which is the third thing to look at. And then you might have an online audience, that you might want to look at them as well, because eye contact is important. And then you also have questions. So now that's like five screens or five areas where you may need to keep attention. And that's quite difficult to do. And everyone's experience suffers when you do that. Because if you're flustered and kind of trying to see which screen you're on, the face-to-face people are thinking, “what is she doing?” And then the online people are like, “is she still there?”, when you walk off. So the balancing act is difficult.
Ann Mossop: It sounds like it. And so as we think our way into the future about what teaching is about, I mean, you've said some of the really important things about what a university experience is about, that as much as what students are getting out of it, obviously, that the learning experience is important and critical, but it's also really important for them to be together, and to have all of those other experiences that are part of university life. We're at a situation at the moment where that's not really happening in any meaningful way. Do you think it's just a matter of time before things resume and go back into that kind of pattern where students are really about the face to face and the in-person experience?
Sasha Vassar: I mean, I think so because we're social creatures really, even, you know, I want to recede into walls sometimes. And still, I come into work. And all I do is just walk around saying hello to people, I'm so excited to see people and be able to have that conversation, you know, where you can really see someone's facial expression and really, kind of, connect with them. Because even on Zoom, you talk differently, because you wait for someone to finish, you don't have some of the cues that we have in the face-to-face environment. So I think it will come back to that because young people like to socialize. And that's, I think they should be socializing. That's part of the fun of university. It's not just about, you know, another four years of doing nothing but studying, studying, studying, that's kind of like, should be a nice place where you make more friends and build your support networks.
Ann Mossop: And if we're thinking about the problems with synchronous hybrid learning, you know, we all know that online is not going away. So is there a version of teaching in both of these dimensions, potentially asynchronous? So, we're thinking about it as not things that are happening at the same time, but things that are happening in separate and then have separate purposes? Is that the way we should be thinking about it?
Sasha Vassar: Absolutely. And I think online is not a bad thing. It's a good thing. It provides flexibility for a lot of people, you know, that might have caring responsibilities, or other reasons that they cannot be on campus. And this allows them, you know, accessibility to learning and accessibility to doing these things. But putting everyone in the same barrel and saying, well, yeah, okay, we'll give you the flexibility, but it might not be an equal experience, I think you're better off having the separate experiences designed, and the learning around it, designed specifically for which mode you're teaching in, because then you can create an equal experience.
Ann Mossop: I know that problem solving is something that you think about a lot in terms of, you know, one of the skills that you're imparting to students. What do you think are the best ways to help students become creative problem solvers?
Sasha Vassar: I also teach design thinking, which is a great part to have, especially, you know, as engineers, and as engineering students, we're so used to the world being black and white. There's always a solution. It's always right or wrong. That we forget that out in the real world, that's not how it really works. There's a lot of grey area, and there's many solutions, but one might be more optimal than another. But it doesn't mean that a solution is wrong. So teaching those types of, you know, design thinking, going out there, talking to people, understanding what the problem is, even, you know, that's the first part of being able to solve it, is really understanding what it is. And, you know, having that collaborative environment, I think, that's the best way to learn those types of skills. And, like Cognitive Load Theory, as well, kind of gives us that as well, because we can, you know, share the load when we have a big group, and we can, we can really kind of brainstorm and come up with creative solutions when we have many people thinking about the same problem. And I think, for that, we really need to focus especially in the beginning, of these engineering degrees on group projects, and these types of design thinking skills. Outside of straightaway going to apply the technical skills, actually learning how to define the problem, and how to think about a solution, based on that.
Ann Mossop: You know, obviously, that there's a lot of sitting in classes being taught by somebody standing at the front. But the whole idea of all of these practical projects, it's also really exciting.
Sasha Vassar: I love practical projects, because I think it really gives them a chance to, kind of like, try things out. And what they produce at the end is amazing. And also watching the students and the pride they feel in what they have produced has been really amazing. Just, like, understanding, seeing, oh, wow, I really solved this problem. I reckon this could go further. This is a really good idea. This is not just you know, just trying to do anything. It just, I don't know, it feels like they're actually enjoying the whole process. They're enjoying working in a group, they're enjoying being there, as opposed to just how do I get the most possible marks for this question.
Ann Mossop: Makes it much more satisfying, I'm sure for you as a teacher of students as well.
Sasha Vassar: Absolutely, because the students are a lot more engaged as well. Yeah.
Ann Mossop: Thanks so much for coming to talk to us about this. And I hope we'll see some hybrid learning innovation that makes it turn into a more satisfying process for all concerned. Thank you so much.
Ann Mossop: What comes next? is produced by the UNSW Center for Ideas. With music composition by Lana Zacharia and editing by Bryce Halladay. For more information, visit centreideas.com, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Dr Sasha Vassar has a cross-disciplinary background in Computer Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and a PhD in Education from UNSW Sydney. She has spent a number of years working in the engineering industry improving problem solving and design processes, before her passion for education and teaching brought her back to UNSW to join the School of Computer Science and Engineering, in the Faculty of Engineering. Her interests include the role of human computer interaction, UX and UI in the design of engineering solutions; the role of design thinking in engineering problem solving and the application of cognitive load theory concepts to improve pedagogy.