The new normal. A case for circular Hybrid Learning

Hybrid Learning Chart. Cover image: @Dartmouth College / Eli Burakian
Hybrid Learning Chart. Cover image: @Dartmouth College / Eli Burakian

1. The new normal
As some institutions are announcing their plans for the Fall, many others are still discussing possible scenarios. We are all trying to imagine what it will look like to teach and learn in a college classroom in the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic. Some scenarios proposed both in Europe and the United States evoke the possibility of hybrid teaching and learning formats that combine Face-to-Face (F2F) and remote instruction in various forms and combinations. From various degrees of the HyFlex model to the idea of offering classes in both F2F and online modes to different groups of students, the goal is always to provide quality instruction while reducing the number of students on campus. For those unfamiliar with the term, HyFlex indicates the combination of Hybrid and Flexibility. HyFlex courses combine synchronous online and face-to-face instruction in a single course, “Hybrid,” offering students the choice, or flexibility, of when and how to attend one or the other format. (See B. Beatty, 2010, for more information on this subject.) While it is true that most of our courses had already become hybrid when we started to use learning management systems (LMS), blogs, and discussion boards, situating some of the learning outside of the traditional synchronous path, the current idea of Hybrid that we are exploring is different, and it will present significant challenges for good pedagogy. From issues of equity, accessibility, inclusiveness, and fairness, we will be juggling students learning both in-person and remotely. This will require us to think creatively and apply new skills to stay true to our pedagogical beliefs so that we can continue to practice well-thought-out, student-centered teaching.

When we think of combining an F2F learning experience with an online one during the COVID-19 Pandemic, we should first acknowledge that any F2F experience available to us will be significantly different from that we have known so far. Many of the active learning strategies we have developed will need retuning and refining if they will even apply to the new normal of social distancing, mask-wearing, and sense of fear that comes from being too close to another human being. The use of polling tools, collaborative whiteboard, google documents, and collaborative slides on which students can work together, might take over the scene of the physical classroom so that we can continue to learn actively while complying with the regulations in place.

Dartmouth College / Eli Burakian
Dartmouth College / Eli Burakian

2. Communication and circular learning
The model that I propose examines the possibility of mixing F2F (in any form it will be offered) and online instruction. This model maximizes the interactions between the groups of F2F and online students and those between students and instructors while thinking innovatively beyond set limits. I make a case for a circular hybrid learning model that can validate the multiple roles and perspectives of students and instructors working in hybrid learning environments. Fostering circular communication in the hybrid classroom and acknowledging the deep complexity of a teaching and learning experience that calls for constant reflection can help to overcome the risk of falling back into a vision of content-linear-delivery teaching. Frontal transference of knowledge had shown its limits long before the COVID-19 forced us to make our lessons online.

Teaching and learning happen through communication, coding, and encoding messages so that learning can occur, hopefully through active engagement. When we teach, we can use a linear transmission model that sees communication as a “thing” (content to be covered, delivered, and received during frontal instruction, for example), or we can opt for a more interactive style that sees communication as an dynamic exchange of information. In this last case, messages (and the educational content they carry) will travel both ways, with both senders and receivers operating as encoders and decoders and, more or less deliberately, taking a different role. Finally, and this is the model that supports my case for a circular hybrid learning, we can think of communication as a transactional and circular experience integrated into our social realities (see Douglass and Alcorn, 2017, for a longer discussion of these subjects). The goal, in this case, is not limited to exchanging messages. Instead, it is that of constructing reality through the process of shaping and negotiating new ideas. This teaching will not only be interactive; it will also allow space for shifting perspectives while fostering critical thinking, higher engagement, and opportunities to reflect. Hybrid circular learning requires intentionality and teaching artistry; it requires that one be present in the moment, always aware of the evolving, shifting conditions. Knowing that there will be challenges, and that the teaching and learning we will practice might be far from ideal, we all feel the responsibility to plan and deliver the best possible learning experience for our students.

Italian 14 – Introduction to Italian Culture Course Flyer 2019-20
Italian 14 – Introduction to Italian Culture Course Flyer 2019-20

3. Introduction to Italian Culture – From F2F to Hybrid
To describe my idea of hybrid circular learning and its potential application, I will use as an example a course that I will teach in fall 2020 – ITA14: Introduction to Italian Culture – and how it can be redesigned from F2F to Hybrid. There is no certainty that I will be able to adopt the model in its entirety due to the numerous unpredictable factors still involved in the fall term organization as I write this essay. The course will serve, however, as a good example and a transferable model. ITA14, which is new in the department curriculum, has been taught only once before and expects to enroll between twenty and twenty-five students. It is an introductory course and yet has ambitious goals and an interdisciplinary approach at the crossroad between cultural studies, sociology, history, economics, linguistics, and anthropology. Through a series of hands-on activities and discussion sessions, students are guided to read critically and discuss cultural texts and artifacts while also understanding the global impact of Italian cultural production across time and space. Before diving into the exploration of Italian culture, they familiarize themselves with a toolset for defining and discussing cultural phenomena and intercultural processes. Through blogs, QQTPs (Questions, Quote, and Talking Points), and group lead cluster discussions, students have many opportunities to hone their critical thinking skills and construct their new cultural knowledge of Italy. QQTP is an assignment that asks students to submit in a class discussion board one question and one quote from the assigned reading, and three talking points (Questions, Quote, and Talking Points) that they will weave into class discussion. Periodically students are asked to respond to their classmates’ posts, and their QQTPs are always part of the lesson design through group activities that propose the topics and questions students raised.

One of the comments in last year’s student self-assessment stated: “The course challenged me to think differently. I had to research and apply different paradigms and listening to other students was of crucial importance for growing intellectually. I learned so much from everyone in the class during our activities and discussions, and I made so many new friends that I would have never met otherwise.” Another student observed: “my favorite aspect of learning in this course was hearing and engaging with others’ ideas. In all, such diverse instructional methods were very different from the oftentimes singular methodology employed by other courses, thus demanded the mastery of several skillsets and the need for me always to be attentive to others.” One more observation noted: “The material culture project challenged me to think about culture differently, and I developed skills that will prove essential during my last year at Dartmouth and in my career.” The skills students developed in the course, the knowledge they constructed, the intellectual growth they experienced, and even the new friendships they formed, all happened through discussion, exchange of ideas, debates, as well as social interaction between peers and the instructor in the classroom.

Because of the F2F format of the course, I had the opportunity to facilitate group and class discussions and guide students through often unplanned debates while circulating among them or sitting with them in their groups. I could pick up from their body language their response to the discussion. I could diffuse, or leverage, as needed, the tensions between students and groups in the best interest of their learning. I could detect confusion, dissent, or even boredom, and redirect my teaching accordingly. I could ask students to take different positions and sustain them through performative activities. I could invite them to reconsider their preconceived ideas about Italian culture through material objects analysis – physical objects that they could bring to class for collective discussion. We could socialize fostering a low-key atmosphere and engage in heated debates. All of the above, which deeply characterized our first iteration of the course, helped to create a positive and active learning atmosphere through experiential pedagogy.

As I plan to transfer ITA14 to a hybrid format, questions arise on how to preserve the circularity of communication and the immediacy and effectiveness proper of hands-on F2F teaching and learning. Can the engagement, motivation and positive atmosphere that students experience in a shared learning space carry into the Hybrid mode? And how can I effectively implement active learning pedagogy and shared reflection practices, while ensuring that every student receives equal opportunities to engage with the course’s material? The next section of the essay offers the reader the opportunity to explore the redesigned Hybrid version of the course from the student’s perspective.

3.1 The hybrid course from the student’s perspective
Imagine being a student in ITA14 Introduction to Italian Culture, redesigned in a Hybrid circular format. You can participate in the course in two ways: F2F or remotely. You will complete many of the activities that previous students in the course have enjoyed, and we will take maximum advantage of the richness and variety of the hybrid format of the course. Learning is not only a cognitive experience; it involves social and collaborative actions and reflection practices. This course, through a series of synchronous and asynchronous activities, will help you to create and discover new cultural knowledge. Through your interaction with the class, on an individual level, through groupwork, and facilitated discussion, you will engage with intellectual inquiry, critical and creative thinking and content creation, regardless of whether you attend the class F2F or online. F2F classes have modes of interaction that are inherently different from those of online courses. That is why those who are meeting physically (PS) and remotely (RS) will have separate masterclasses. Students attending F2F will benefit from the physicality of interaction and communication, which, under the COVID-19 pandemic, will need to be changed from our past practices, yet will allow for a shared perception of space, hearing, and seeing, all essential elements in the context of how communication and learning happen. The RS students will miss the in-person factors; however, they will enjoy the advantage of connecting from their home and will access a digitally mediated experience, with more flexibility and more time for reflection built within its structure.

3.2 Components of the course
Some parts of the course will take place synchronously while others asynchronously leaving you some degree of autonomy in managing your time while not losing contact with the class and the interaction crucial for learning.

Synchronous componentOne masterclass a week (F2F and online) - see below for more explanations
One cluster meeting a week that will include both students attending F2F (PS) and students attending online (RS)
One joint meeting with guest speaker every two weeks (on average)
Asynchronous component Flipped lecture, readings and videos
QQTPs (Question, quotes and talking points) Comments to QQTPS
Contribution to discussion board
Cultural blog
Midterm exam
Mini video assignment (discussion of cultural videos)
Final material-cultural, virtual exhibit presentation and feedback comments
Self-reflections, self-assessment, and final reflective essay.

3.3 Synchronous components
Synchronous and asynchronous elements of the course will tie in together seamlessly as one complements the other. The synchronous meetings will all be kept at one-hour length to respect your time, but also to acknowledge that Zoom and other web-conference forms of communication affect our brain in different ways, requiring an entirely different kind of attention. You will find masterclasses, clusters, and sessions with the guest speaker an excellent opportunity to create community and apply the knowledge and ideas developed in the asynchronous assignments.

Class meetings: The course will meet three times a week (T-W-Th, for example) plus an added joint meeting every two weeks on a day to be determined. On Tuesday or Thursday, on alternate weeks, the PS group and the RS group will meet with the instructor (once a week) for a masterclass. On Wednesday, the class will meet in small clusters, and each cluster will include a representation of students from the PS and RS groups. All the class meetings will be one hour long.

Masterclasses – F2F and online: We expect new challenges in the F2F class. From social distancing, increased need for the hygiene of surfaces to limited human contacts, we can expect an overall change of most of our interiorized learning habits and practices. What will happen in the masterclasses? F2F groups should expect to become familiar with the technology that can enhance learning in small F2F groups. If you are part of the RS group, we will use a synchronous web conference platform, like Zoom, and ensure everyone has equal access to it. The focus of the meeting will be different depending on whether you attend the Tuesday or Thursday masterclass. The Tuesday meeting will focus on a firsthand discussion of the material, allowing the group to unpack the cultural content explored in the flipped lecture, and reading through in-depth analysis and debate. Thursday meetings will offer the opportunity to analyze the material in-depth after having already met with your classmates in the clusters and discussed ideas and perspectives on the weekly topics. If you attend the Tuesday masterclass, you will be responsible for facilitating the discussion in the cluster and sending questions in advance to your group. If you attend the Thursday masterclass, you will enrich the conversation with ideas and connections that emerged during the cluster meetings. At the end of each of the Tuesday and Thursday master classes, you will add comments to the discussion on Canvas, responding to other classmates’ QQTPs and incorporating the new knowledge you have constructed

Cluster meetings: Every Wednesday, you will meet in small groups that will include both PS and RS and you will ultimately be responsible for organizing and conducting cluster meetings. In particular, when you attend the Tuesday masterclass, it will be your responsibility to facilitate the discussion during the cluster meeting and draft a report. There will be no professor or assistant in the cluster meeting. They will be entirely your responsibility. But what exactly happens in the cluster meetings? Ideas take shape. PS share with RS what they have discussed during the Tuesday masterclass, what they have learned from the instructor and others. Questions prepared by students and QQTPs take center stage in the cluster meetings as they become an opportunity to analyze, comment, and reevaluate the cultural topics. Imagine the cluster meetings as a café space where you have the option to dive into an issue through different perspectives while continually enriching your understanding of the topic. A good cluster meeting will be an empowering opportunity for all. It will offer PS the chance to consolidate their knowledge while sharing it with others. SR will get a lot of ideas and reflections to share with the instructor during the Thursday meeting. Cluster meetings are a path to deep collaborative, circular learning.

Joint meeting with guest speaker: Every two weeks, on average, we will close the circle meeting for one hour on Zoom or other web conference platforms. We will address the key issues and any additional links, ideas, possible connections that the class has made in the company of a guest speaker that will add cultural insight

3.3 Asynchronous components
The asynchronous components will be the backbone of the course. This is where you can prepare, reflect, construct your idea of culture, offer, and receive feedback. Look at this space as a space of autonomous growth where you can collaborate, communicate, and interact.

Flipped lecture, videos, and readings: The course will have a flipped structure, meaning that you will be able to explore the new topic through a variety of media ahead of class time. At the beginning of each unit, you will all have access to a pre-recorded, engaging mini-lecture, videos, and reading material. Flipped lectures and readings will include suggestions for activities and tasks to complete before the class meeting (whether that will be F2F or online) that will help you understand the material while exploring multidisciplinary connections. The class time and any other facilitated learning meetings will be used to dive deeper into the subject through active learning and discussion.

The core of the course (QQTPs, discussion, and blog): After reviewing the material in the lecture, videos, and readings, you will submit your QQTPs (Questions, Quote, and Talking Points) to the class discussion page. We will make sure to incorporate your questions and quotes in our discussion during the class meeting so that your observations can be addressed and become part of our learning. Students who completed this assignment in the previous instance of this course unanimously reported the benefit of reading, commenting, and reacting to other students’ ideas recognizing it as an invaluable opportunity to enhance their understanding of the material from a variety of perspectives. This assignment, along with others such as the cultural blog, the video submissions, and the cluster reports, will contribute to what I envision as the core of the course. Through prompted reflection, ideas can develop, and intellectual exchanges can occur organically, regardless of the modality in which you take the course (F2F or online). You will receive feedback on all your contributions and comments from me but also from your classmates. This is why it will be crucial for all of us to learn together how to offer and receive open and constructive feedback so that peer feedback practice can become an ongoing opportunity for growth.

Students using post-it notes for brainstorming, project design, and communicative activities. Photo by "You X Ventures". Photo URL
Students using post-it notes for brainstorming, project design, and communicative activities. Photo by “You X Ventures”. Photo URL

4. Imagine Week 2 – When the course takes off
We have completed Week 1 and met each other through a one-minute-long cultural video introduction that you all have submitted, watched, and commented on with a welcome message. We are now ready to begin, having also developed some tools for cultural analysis. In Week 1 we have explored a useful toolbox for discussing culture (not just Italian culture). We have familiarized ourselves with theory and talked about intercultural communication, as well as the several disciplines that will assist us in approaching cultural issues in this course. In Week 2, in the flipped portion of the course, you have watched the film Italy: Love It or Leave It and read articles and essays on Italian identity from a variety of perspectives (religion, family, and language). Remember, submit your QQTP before Tuesday. If you attend the Tuesday masterclass, be ready to organize and conduct the cluster meetings. This course is yours. It is ours. You will need to be in the driver seat learning from one another.

5. Hope in times of uncertainties
This model is about hope. Hope that regardless of the many challenges and uncertainties, we can continue to experiment and be creative, that we can transform distance, face-covering, or whatever else will qualify as a challenge, as opportunities to protect and respect dialogue and positive communication in the classroom. In responding to this emergency, we need to continue to ask ourselves where we are going with education and why, and what are the values that sustain our efforts in the process. It is the coherence of our intervention that will make (or not) in these unprecedented times an educational experience worth the effort. In the opening of this essay, I talked about circular and transactional communication. I want to conclude by thinking of an aspirational model for my fall classroom – hybrid or not. I want to see it as a place of transformation and growth. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire reminds us that dialogue is at the center of the educational relationship. “Without dialogue, there is no communication, and without communication, there can be no true education …dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be consumed” (2018, pp. 97-8).



  • B. Beatty, Teaching a Hybrid Flexible Course, in Hybrid-Flexible Course Design, EdTech, 2010 (https://edtechbooks.org/hyflex/teaching_hyflex).
  • F. Douglass and H. Alcorn, The Omnipotent Presence and Power of Teacher-Student Transactional Communication
  • Relationships in the Classroom, New York, Springer, 2017.
  • P. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

Author: Tania Convertini
Review: Alessandro Ardigò, Arianna Sardella

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