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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Pros, cons of Western’s fall quarter course plan

The good and bad of hybrid classes, and how students are affected

By Connor Benintendi

Western students will have both in person and remote course options in the fall. // Illustration by Julia Vreeman
Western students will have both in person and remote course options in the fall. // Illustration by Julia Vreeman

Western’s fall quarter course plan brings in-person classes back to students who want them, but may not be protecting those who don’t.

Western is planning for a mix of courses including standard face-to-face, online, remote – both synchronous and asynchronous – and hybrid classes, which will be a combination of remote and in-person sessions, according to a Western Today announcement from June 15. 

All classes will move online after Thanksgiving break, the university announced last week. Western is also returning to their standard grading policy, according to a Western Today from July 13.

Students registered for hybrid courses can expect both in-person and online components. This is generally reserved for courses that are more effective with a hands-on session, such as labs or studios, Western Communications Director Paul Cocke said.

“Hybrid courses typically have experiential or discussion components where the course material can be provided easily online, but the experiential part needs to be in person,” Cocke said.

Cocke noted that another possibility could be having some students work in person, while others are online during that period, and then alternating those groups the following session.

While this provides the in-person element that some students may want, it is unknown if at-risk students will have more leniency on attendance to in-person sessions if hybrids are their only option.

ShyAnn Wolf, a history major transferring to Western in the fall, is uncomfortable attending in-person classes due to her pre-existing health condition.

Wolf has a condition called juvenile idiopathic arthritis – an autoimmune disease that attacks her cartilage and causes her to fall ill more easily than others might. Her parents, who share her home, also have pre-existing conditions.

All the remote course options she needs to graduate are full, and as a transfer student she won’t be able to register until her orientation on July 28.

“I don’t want to have to make that trip up [to Western], and then bring home something to my family,” Wolf said. “I don’t want to put them or myself at risk, and I would just like more online options.”

Cocke said that ensuring students can continue to work towards their degree while remaining safe will be a focal point, and that Western’s Disability Access Center may play a role in assisting students like Wolf.

COVID-19 cases in Whatcom County have spiked nearly 74% since Western’s hybrid course decision was made public on June 15, according to data from the Washington State Department of Health

Western has not adjusted its plans since this decision, besides moving all courses online after the Thanksgiving break, according to an email on July 20 from Brent Carbajal, Western’s provost and vice president of academic affairs. 

According to a university bulletin from June 15, classrooms and labs will be closed for an hour and disinfected after each in-person class session. Public seating and gathering areas in academic buildings will be disinfected three times a day.

Social distancing will be enforced with smaller class sizes, and masks will be required in classes if the current statewide mandates continue, Cocke said.

There could be many positives to safely implementing hybrid courses for students eager to get back into a classroom though, according to Ken Graetz, director of teaching, learning and technology at Winona State University. Graetz has studied the psychology of learning environments as well as the advantages and drawbacks of remote courses. 

Graetz said that there are many forms of hybrid courses, and for them to be effective, the online and in-person components must be closely interwoven. Furthermore, online components should not be entirely recorded lectures, but rather close interaction with the instructor.

When done correctly, hybrid courses can provide flexibility to students and instructors while offering the learning benefits of both in-person and remote class types, Graetz said. Additionally, the hybrid approach could open doors to learning that aren’t present under typical circumstances.

“Historically, we have stuffed students into classrooms like sardines,” Graetz said. “If we have fewer in-person meetings with fewer students per meeting, we may be able to use our campus learning spaces differently, perhaps opening more collaborative, active learning spaces, labs and makerspaces.”

The preparedness of institutions will be integral to whether these courses can be implemented safely amid the pandemic, Graetz said.

Western has approved more than 600 courses with face-to-face sessions, which make up about 20% of all courses offered. Over 250 are specifically targeted toward first-year students.

“First-year students need to make connections,” Cocke said. “Not only with faculty and staff at Western, but with each other to help smooth the transition involved with graduating from high school. First-year students also are likely to be living on campus in University Residences.”

Cocke said it is especially important that cohorts, like honors students, have these opportunities.

“My schedule is looking mostly like in-person and hybrid classes,” said incoming first-year student Ian East. “I chose that route, more or less, but there were still a lot of online classes that were available.”

East said that he did not enjoy remote high school courses, and that he learns better in a visual environment, which led him to make that decision.

“I thought that it wasn’t effective,” East said. “I didn’t feel like I learned nearly as much as when I was actually physically there.”

Graetz said that students gauging how effective the hybrid classes are in the fall will be key to deciding whether they continue in the future, during the pandemic or not.

“Hopefully, this crisis will help us think differently and creatively about what it means to ‘go to college’ and why we gather on campuses and in classrooms,” Graetz said. “It shouldn’t be to sit quietly in packed lecture halls and watch PowerPoint slides.”


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