EDMOND — As students trickled into her public speaking class at the University of Central Oklahoma, instructor Jennifer Foster chatted with a few of them about work, what they'd done over spring break and plans for the summer.
Anytime Foster sees her students, there's plenty of ground to cover — the class only meets in person one evening a month.
Foster's class is a hybrid course, a new alternative to traditional courses. Also known as blended courses, the classes fall somewhere between the more familiar classroom-based college classes and online courses.
Colleges and universities across Oklahoma and nationwide are looking to the courses, as well as other online course formats, as a way to reach students who otherwise may not be able to go to college.
Unlike traditional courses, most of the content in hybrid courses is online. That content may include video lectures, reading assignments and tests. But unlike courses that are strictly online, the classes meet in person regularly, though typically not as frequently as traditional courses.
In Foster's class, students read over learning modules and complete assignments online. She uses the class sessions to put what students have learned into practice, often by giving speeches in front of classmates.
“All of the instruction is online,” she said.
When she first began teaching hybrid courses, most of Foster's students were working adult students who couldn't come to class in the middle of the day, several times a week. But recently, more of her students are traditional students who simply like the format.
Jacob Strassle, one of Foster's students, said the course format provides a certain amount of flexibility that other classes do not. Strassle, a guard on UCO's basketball team, said the format allows him to do coursework any time he's near a computer, even if he's on the road for a game.
Strassle, 19, said students in hybrid courses may need a certain amount of self-discipline that isn't required for traditional courses. Because the class only meets once a month, the student has to be more conscientious about getting work done between sessions and not waiting until the last minute.
“You get plenty of time,” he said.
If the student puts forth the effort, Strassle said, he thinks hybrid courses can be at least as effective as traditional classes. Students can go at their own pace, he said, and the fact that students complete lectures and assignments outside of class means class time is devoted to the main ideas.
Research appears to support that idea. A recent study suggests students who take hybrid courses learn as much as students in traditional, classroom-based courses.
A study, “Interactive Online Learning at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials,” was released in May by higher education research firm Ithaka S+R. According to the study, hybrid courses do no better or worse than their traditional counterparts at instructing students.
Although it might seem “a bland result,” the report suggests that conclusion is important because it indicates faculty concerns about how students will fare in hybrid courses compared to traditional courses are unfounded.
According to the study, hybrid courses may offer colleges and universities a way to reach older students who are interested in a degree but are looking for more flexibility because of work or family responsibilities. They could also be a good option for students who can't leave home to go to college and don't live near a college campus.
Those students are the focus of a new state initiative designed to broaden the reach of higher education. Last year, Oklahoma higher education Chancellor Glen Johnson appointed a task force to look for ways to expand Oklahoma's online course offerings.
Johnson said online and hybrid courses are an important piece of the state's efforts to increase college graduation rates overall. Higher education officials estimate there are about 72,000 students in Oklahoma who have 70 college credits or more, but dropped out of college before finishing their degree.
Many of those students aren't able to come back to school full time, but would still like to finish their degrees, Johnson said. To reach those students, he said, the state needs to pursue a range of options — both in the classroom and online.
“It's not going to be one or the other,” he said.
Although the hybrid model has potential, it isn't without its flaws.
Earlier this year, Desire2Learn, the online education portal UCO uses for its online and hybrid courses, experienced outages for several days. While the program was down, students couldn't access course materials, take tests or turn in assignments.
During the outage, Foster pushed back a few deadlines and asked students to submit some assignments through email, she said.
“There are always technology glitches in online classes,” she said. “It's just like if there were a snow day.”
Bob Greve, a professor at Oklahoma City University's Meinders School of Business, taught a hybrid course in quantitative analysis last summer. The course was a part of the school's accelerated Master of Business Administration program, which is geared toward working adults.
Greve's class met in person once a week. Between sessions, students watched video lectures in which Greve worked through problems.
Having students watch lectures outside of class helped him make the most out of class time, he said, and students said they liked that they could rewind the videos and review sections they didn't understand.
Although the online portion of the class is helpful, Greve said, it's also helpful that it augments the classroom sessions but doesn't replace them. He could still build a relationship with students, and they could still benefit from face-to-face interaction with a professor.
“You're getting the professor's insights and thoughts and war stories,” he said. “It's kind of the best of both worlds.”