The conventional format of a faculty member positioned in front of a classroom using visual enhancement (e.g., chalkboard, transparency, PowerPoint, etc.) has been on life support for quite some time. Faculty and pedagogists alike have been aware of the illness and many attempted to replace the traditional lecture with some alternative learning approaches which have been housed under various buzzwords such as “flipped classroom” (Milman, 2012), “experiential learning” (Wurdinger, 2005), and “blended learning” (Pavla, 2014). However, none of these became ubiquitous because of a lack of student engagement, extra workload on faculty, or some other reason that has kept the traditional lecture viable. That viability drastically decreased during the COVID transitions and, in our opinion, institutions were forced to adapt with the times or face getting left behind.
A shift to more remote teaching and learning has provided an opportunity to explore alternative methods, most of which involve digital modalities of content delivery. During the beginning stages of this shift, things are chaotic, and many faculty members push back at these changes as they become overwhelmed with the “challenging and tiring task” of recording lectures (Sunasee, 2020). However, some of the digital/remote content is better than what we can provide in the physical classroom. For example, in a biology course, instructors can watch students interact with thousands of 3D models, such as those found on Sketchfab or virtual programs such as BioDigital. Additionally, students can follow along virtually as instructors point out different structures. This approach is not possible in a physical classroom unless each student has their own physical model or they bring their computers. Instructors could project the 3D models on a classroom projector but labeling assumes that: 1) the projector screen acts as a whiteboard, 2) there is a smartboard, or 3) we sit at the computer doing exactly what we would do remotely. Lastly, these programs create a more student-centered approach as students can explore models and examples at their own pace and based on their own interests. For example, we may go over standard vertebrate skulls during class (virtually), but one student may be interested in variant reptilian skulls, while another is interested in variant mammalian skulls. We can then challenge students on that exploration by asking them questions on what similarities and differences exist and why, and every student (for the most part) will likely find something different to further foster their own curiosity. This deeper exploration driven by curiosity is what education is all about, right?
A shift away from the traditional teacher/student landscape does have a stigma that must be overcome. There seems to be a misperception that courses utilizing online learning are not as good or effective. For example, Herman (2020) notes that student perception of online courses was overall negative (which could lead to decreased teaching evaluations). While that may be true, especially for faculty who may opt for the “easy way out,” for faculty who truly adopt the technological advancements available, these techniques and tools can enhance courses. Numerous studies suggest these alternative learning models are just as good, if not better, than traditional methods. For example, Ardissone et al. (2020) found that post graduate outcomes were equivalent regardless of delivery format, and our own limited data suggests the approach with digital content increases student success (avg. exam scores increased post adjustments). The aforementioned stigma also results from confusion. Anecdotally, we have noticed that there isn’t really an understanding of what “online” or “virtual” means. In many instances students referred to our class as face-to-face even though we met in an online space (synchronous). So, if we wish to adapt, we also need to be careful in our terminology, our explanations, and most importantly, our intentions.
We should welcome the unfamiliarity of new and blended course designs and strive to build courses based on the best approach for the content regardless of the format, rather than revert to the comfort of analog lecturing. Resistance against a shift in teaching could stem from a wide discrepancy in the terminology surrounding different teaching models that may lead to erroneous discussions and perceptions concerning certain course design models. For example, in a recent article, Schaberg (2022) stated the HyFlex model was the black mirror of course design, but actually described a 50-50 model for course design, in which instructors must simultaneously address online and in person students, rather than HyFlex. Traditionally, a HyFlex design has been one in which students choose which mode of instruction they receive—either synchronous face-face instruction or asynchronous online instruction (Beatty, 2014)—rather than being forced to attend in some manner as described by Schaberg. Additionally, as stated above, current students have described our classes as face-to-face when in actuality they were online—they were synchronous with video feed rather than asynchronous. These inconsistencies in terminology perpetuate the problem by criticizing one model but calling it by another leading to dual criticism unintentionally. The black mirror, as Schaberg (2022) calls it, is not in the design model. The black mirror is the inability to self-reflect and recognize what works and what does not for a specific class and assumes a “one semantically defined course design fits all classes.” While one may adopt a blended course design for a physiology lecture, a more traditional online asynchronous course may be better adapted for an anatomy lecture. The design is not about what I want as a teacher, but what provides the best modality of learning from students. Physiology often requires discussion, understanding concepts, pathways, and application, whereas anatomy is more about memorization and being able to identify components. Simply saying one pedagogical approach is better than another without context is like comparing apples and oranges. Similarly, criticism on pedagogical approaches without context is as harmful on education as is the lack of ability to adapt.
Student-centered learning with digital components and innovative design approaches opens the door for new opportunities for institutions. The death of the traditional lecture at a large scale will lead to educational programs with a prominent digital footprint becoming more accessible to a diverse population of students and may allow students to decrease their costs of education by limiting their physical time on campus. This may provide new opportunities for programs such as allowing students to front-load information with online courses, while back-loading experiential opportunities. In such a program, a student may spend one to two years off campus attending online lectures and two to three years on campus in a fully immersive hands-on experience. For a Laboratory Technician Program, this may involve students attending online courses to learn safety, policy, and theory of techniques and then attending campus to apply techniques and practices to improve skills which allow more time for focusing on skill development.
One of the authors (JLR) has begun implementation of a small-scale model of this in an anatomy course where students attend lecture asynchronously and explore virtual 3D models, interact with virtual content, and then attend lab to apply their knowledge through physical model interaction and dissection the following week. This can even be scaled further, such as in models in which a class that traditionally meets three days a week has an independent virtual learning day, an intense lecture day, and a case-study day. Not only does this provide an opportunity to focus on the content students struggle with most, but it provides opportunity for real life application. Additionally, there is more time for students to meet with faculty individually because they (the faculty) are available on Mondays during these class times to answer specific questions for students who might have them. This model would be a drastic change in the academic landscape, but the evolution of how we provide students with information and experience to succeed is at a diverging point.
As universities continue facing major challenges in recruitment, retention, DEI efforts, and “keeping up with the times,” an evolving teacher/learner landscape is necessary to face these challenges. Imagine if all professors still used chalk and no one referred to a PowerPoint or YouTube video in today’s lectures. The major difference in this current evolution is that the change would be drastically expedited and those who didn’t jump on the wagon quickly would be left behind in the march towards a better education. This can already be seen in a more drastic environment where universities create courses and programs within the Metaverse. With the major benefits for moving towards a more digital learning experience, there will be a large divide between those who adopt digital modalities and those who do not. The new question everyone should be asking is not “should we adopt these new models” but “how soon can we get them up and running in a fluid system” in order to be leaders in this initiative. We’re no longer discussing just flipping the classroom; we’re discussing flipping the entire academic institution.
Abby L. Kalkstein is an assistant professor of biology and co-director of the Honors Program at the University of Findlay. Her work focuses on evolution of pathogens infecting both invertebrates and vertebrates, and research that enhances understanding of the learning process and student outcomes in higher education.
Justin L. Rheubert is an assistant professor of teaching in biology and co-director of the honors program at the University of Findlay. His research interests include anatomy and physiology, comparative anatomy, histology, herpetology and pedagogical approaches to enhance student learning.
Ardissone, A.N., Drew, J.C., Triplett, E.W. (2020). Online and in-person delivery of upper division lecture courses in undergraduate life sciences degree programs leads to equivalent post-graduate degree outcomes. Journal for STEM Education Research. 3: 403-412. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41979-020-00043-x
Beatty, B. (2014). Hybrid courses with flexible participation: the HyFlex course design. In: Kyei-Blankson, L., Ntuli, E. (Eds.), Practical Applications and Experiences in K-20 Blended Learning Environments. USA. (pp 153-177). IGI Global.
Herman, P.C. (2020). Online learning is not the future. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved October 1, 2022, from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/views/2020/06/10/online-learning-not-future-higher-education-opinion
Milman, N.B. (2012). The flipped classroom strategy What is it and how can it best be used? Distance Learning for Educators, Trainers, and Leaders. 11: 9-11.
Schaberg, C. (2022). HyFlex teaching is the black mirror of higher ed (opinion). Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2022/01/19/hyflex-teaching-black-mirror-higher-ed-opinion
Wurdinger, S.D. (2005). Using experiential learning in the classroom Practical ideas for all educators. ScarecrowEducation.
Both authors contributed equally to the idea of the article, performing literature reviews, and drafting and revising the work.