Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter  2010    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  14, Issue  4

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Hybridity in an Independent Writing Program

Joannah Portman-Daley, University of Rhode Island

Jeremiah Dyehouse, University of Rhode Island

Michael Pennell, University of Rhode Island

Portman-Daley is a doctoral student in Writing & Rhetoric, Dyehouse, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Writing & Rhetoric, and Pennell, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Writing & Rhetoric.


This article investigates an independent writing program’s experimental move towards a hybrid course environment for its first-year writing courses. It examines two instructors’ approaches to hybridizing the same course, offering insight into the necessity of designing a hybrid course through an “online-centric” model. In addition, the impact such a transition has on various aspects of student learning, including engagement and outcomes assessment, is explored through a third instructor’s institutional perspective.


In his book on technology and educational constructivism, Reality by Design, Joseph Petraglia argues that students' perceptions of "authentic" or meaningful learning derive from students' own judgments about their learning experiences, and not, he argues, from "characteristics inherent in a learning situation" (131).  Primarily, Petraglia is arguing that educators ought to stop trying to "preauthenticate" learning technologies (or, put more generally, to give up the quest for "perfect" educational tools).  At the end of his book, Petraglia suggests that educators can view educational tools as part of a larger rhetorical situation in which educators interact with learners.  The opportunity to be seized in such situations is that of persuading learners that their learning is "authentic" in some way, or, at the very least, that it may be meaningful for them.  Reframing learning as a communicative act, Petraglia holds out the possibility that educational technologies can help educators persuade students that what they are doing is meaningful.

We rely on Petraglia’s framing of learning as communicative act as we reflect on a Spring 2010 teaching initiative involving the implementation of a hybrid-teaching environment for two first-year writing courses. Specifically, we investigate this initial move towards hybridity through the concept of “engagement.” Such a concept is central to our department’s student learning outcomes and offers a lens through which to examine the communicative act of learning—or authenticity of a learning situation—and its relation to student learning outcomes. As Petraglia warns, educators must be sensitive to the rhetorical situation of hybrid courses, wary of a disposition to preauthenticate the situation based on characteristics supposedly inherent in the tools of hybridity, such as course management software. In our effort to avoid such a tools-based approach, we agree with Catherine Gouge that we “are already, to some extent, teaching and administering hybrid courses” (357). Indeed, many of us teaching in traditional classes regularly use email, discussion boards, etc. to supplement our face-to-face teaching practices. And so, we would argue that the technological is a pedagogical and curricular pressure already—it is never just technology.

The trend of pedagogical hybridity—or moving parts of face-to-face classes online—has been growing rapidly over the last few years, at a rate that “surpasses the 1.2% growth of the overall student population in higher education” (Tan, Wang, and Xiao 117). 


 However, as Richard Wilson’s 2008 study illustrates, while hybrid environments prove generally beneficial to student performance, success is dependant on course specific teaching strategies (244). In particular, the delivery selection of certain elements—which ones to put online and which ones to deliver face-to-face—can be a considerable challenge, one that should be handled with detailed attention not only to the specific course at hand, but also to the specific instructor and group of students (see Wilson; Boora et al). Ideally, the curricular and technological must work together to maintain the balancing act operating behind the delivery of a curriculum—ideally when in sync, we don’t notice they are there.

In what follows, we explore our situated and specific challenges through feedback instructors Portman-Daley and Dyehouse received from students in their two hybrid writing courses. Within this discussion, we also point to lessons learned from this pedagogical experiment and how they will impact future hybrid teaching situations through the perspective of instructor Pennell’s work with student outcomes. First, however, we describe the first-year writing course and how it is situated within our Writing & Rhetoric curriculum to provide context for our specific push towards hyrbidity.

The Course and the Hybrid Experiment

First-year composition is not our main focus in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at our northeastern land grant university. When we think about curriculum, we think first of our "vertical," advanced writing curriculum and our major in Writing and Rhetoric (see Miles, et al.).  This said, we relish teaching challenges, and so we have also devised three different first-year writing courses that we see as one of our main contributions to general education at our university. While the University requires none of these three courses, some departments require their majors to take one of them. The course we hybridized in the spring 2010 semester was WRT 104, "Writing to Inform and Explain."

"Writing to Inform and Explain" is a genre-based course with a rhetoric component, and it has the largest enrollment of the three first-year courses; it is taught by a range of instructors, from incoming graduate student TAs to full-time faculty. The most central component of the course is genre instruction: identification, practice, and production in five well-known genres—the "literacy narrative," "rhetorical analysis," "informative report," "argument," and "profile." The next component is the portfolio approach. Our instructors coach students on their drafts throughout the term, offering only low-stakes assessments of students' written reflections, their demonstrations of their writing process, their participation in peer review activities, and their draft's potential for inclusion in a final portfolio.  This final portfolio, which includes a reflective introduction and only a few well-polished entries, is worth usually 40% of the student's final grade.   Peer (or writing) review, the course's last major component, engages students in collaborative work to understand genres, to improve drafts, and to engage more fully in writing as a process.

"Writing to Inform and Explain" is not designed to inspire learners.  Put another way, it doesn’t explicitly seek to offer "authentic" learning of the sort so earnestly sought by educational constructivists and others.  As we tell our students, the course is more like going to the gym than competing on the field—it's about training to become a better writer, not showing how good you already are.  Students do have a great deal of autonomy, however, especially as a result of the portfolio approach, which usually helps them to become more invested in the course.

At the request of the Chair of our department, Portman-Daley and Dyehouse designed and taught two “hybrid” sections of "Writing to Inform and Explain" in the Spring 2010 semester.  In the experiment, they shared a classroom; Dyehouse taught his section on Tuesdays, and Portman-Daley taught her section on Thursdays, and the groups "met" online when they didn't meet for class.  Our university has recently invested in Sakai for course management support; online classes were conducted through various Sakai functionalities.  Since Instructor Pennell was involved in the decision-making of the university’s Sakai investment and regularly leads workshops to aid instructors, Writing & Rhetoric had an early and perhaps more advanced foothold on how to use Sakai in seemingly constructive ways, or so we thought.

The point of this experiment was to gauge the feasibility of offering more or perhaps all of our first year courses on a "hybrid" format.  As experienced instructors with extensive technology experience, Portman-Daley and Dyehouse were to gauge the difficulty of teaching a hybrid course for instructors who would be most likely to succeed.  The next phase of the experiment will be to assess the difficulties that new and/or more traditional teachers are likely to experience in the "hybrid“ environment; as noted, a range of instructors teach first-year writing at our university.

As a part of Dyehouse’s experimentation with the University’s efforts to develop a "hybrid" first year writing course, he asked the University's Office of Student Learning, Outcomes Assessment, and Accreditation (SLOAA) to help him understand the experimental hybrid course.  In his case, the acting director, Bob Shea, collected some surveys from his students and followed up with a focus group session, in which he sought to probe some of the results he got from the surveys. Portman-Daley distributed informal questionnaires to her students at the end of the semester. The following discussion is based on these survey, focus group, and questionnaire results.

Two Approaches to the Course

Portman-Daley and Dyehouse did not use the same hybrid course design.  Dyehouse opted for a conservative design, which extended the traditional course into the University's course management system with very little alteration in teaching strategy. Portman-Daley took a more experimental—and, we believe, more successful—approach wherein she specifically structured face-to-face classes to support online ones. Ultimately, we think that Portman-Daley’s choice to pursue an online-centric model led to a course in which her students had less practical difficulty with the course and in which they found more academic challenge. This, we can argue, led to more "engagement" on their part.

A first point of comparison between the two course designs concerns the practical difficulty of the courses.  For our purposes here, we distinguish students' perceptions of practical difficulty from perceptions of academic challenge (discussed below).  In particular, under the heading of practical difficulties, we mean students' difficulties with understanding the course's pedagogical methods, with completing assigned work, and with interacting with course technologies. 

Dyehouse's students struggled to understand the course's expectations, and they found certain online learning activities (especially online writing or "peer" review) difficult to complete.  Mid-term student surveys and an end-of-semester focus group session revealed that Dyehouse's students didn't understand the course's portfolio approach in particular, and that they didn't believe that they had been prepared effectively for reviewing their peers' work online.  Comparing these results with his experiences teaching non-hybrid courses, Dyehouse attributes these failures to limitations on class time imposed by the hybrid model.  In previous semesters, Dyehouse had more time to explain the course's approach and to coach writing reviewers, for instance.  He did not anticipate this challenge in the hybrid environment and so did not structure his in-class schedule to accommodate it.

Portman-Daley's students did not indicate that they faced significant practical difficulties with the course.   Portman-Daley attributes the low levels of practical difficulty her students expressed to her course's focus on the online learning environment. For instance, anticipating reading comprehension problems from a previous hybrid teaching experience, Portman-Daley structured her in-class schedule to accommodate them; she moved in-class invention and arrangement activities online and set aside classroom time for the explanation of project components, the course's method, and concepts and activities to be explored in the online environment.  As a result, students found their face-to-face sessions fast-paced and useful. As one student noted in an end-of-semester survey, “Every time our class met, we did something productive.”

Academically, as a focus group session revealed, Dyehouse’s students found the course to be less challenging than they had expected. Portman-Daley’s students, by contrast, reported a high level of academic challenge.  Nearly all of them claimed they were held more accountable by the hybrid platform. Not only were they expected to stay current with what was due and when, but also the course's requirement that students post all reading assignments to the Sakai forum improved their attention to readings.  As one student stated, "I couldn't just walk into class without reading and hide in the back of the can be seen whether or not we did the readings.” Another student compared his hybrid 104 experience to a friend’s traditional face-to-face 104 experience, arguing that he believed the online component of the class made him “do more work, which made [him] learn more.” Unlike Dyehouse, Portman-Daley made online learning count for 25% of her students’ semester grade, a move she believes motivated them to complete the online assignments more rigorously.

Based on the different experiences with practical difficulty and academic challenge that Dyehouse's and Portman-Daley's students reported, we believe that Portman-Daley's students were more engaged in her course.  Measures of participation in the courses' online environments tend to corroborate this thesis.  For instance, Dyehouse's students participated much less frequently in the online course environment.  Despite the fact that Dyehouse had his students complete all of the course's peer or writing review assignments in the online environment, Dyehouse's students both visited the environment and contributed to discussion forums less frequently than Portman-Daley's.  Specifically, Dyehouse's 22 students visited the course environment only 1511 times (68 times per student) over the course of the semester (as opposed to Portman-Daley's 19 students, who visited 2893 times (152 times per student – more than twice Dyehouse’s). 

In addition, Dyehouse's students authored fewer posts in the online course environment's "forums."  Dyehouse's students averaged 37.9 authored posts per student in his section's discussion forums (as opposed to Portman-Daley's students, who authored 40.6 forum posts per student).  Again, this last comparison is particularly significant because Portman-Daley did not manage peer review activities for her section in the discussion forums.  (She did, however, encourage and in some cases require student interactions in the forums, which Dyehouse tended not to do.)

Portman-Daley's students reported that they preferred the hybrid model to a traditional one, citing more freedom and flexibility in their learning style as a main reason. Indeed, as studies have shown, “Moving some learning activities online gives students more options in structuring their schedules and allows them to integrate their study with downtime at work or home” (Kibby 88).  However, we believe that their stated preferences also derive from their engagement with the course.  Portman-Daley believes a sense of self-sponsorship that accompanied the online part of the class, an agentive feeling in regard to their education, allowed students to maximize and customize their learning trajectory. One student even went as far as to claim the entire purpose of the hybridization was “to make us more independent.”  In part, at least, we attribute positive student experiences like these to the "online-centric" model adopted by Portman-Daley in her course design.

Engagement and the Future of Hybrid Teaching Environments

As illustrated in the descriptions of the two hybrid approaches, the process of persuasion relied on what we are calling “engagement.” This concept captures the practical and academic challenges and activities of the hybrid experiments. Additionally, “engagement” reflects our department’s twenty-one student learning outcomes, which guide our general education classes, covering five categories: Rhetorical Knowledge; Composing, Revising, and Editing Processes; Collaborative Production and Evaluation of Texts; Reflective Learning; Conventions and Craft. These individual outcomes do not include the term engagement, but capture what engagement looks like when enacted in a curriculum. Verbs such as “produce,” “practice,” and “recognize” highlight the active nature of our curriculum and our pedagogy.  In the comparison between Dyehouse and Portman-Daley’s approaches, we see examples of how these outcomes were approached (both successfully and less successfully), including requiring discussion posts, structuring reflective writing, and modeling peer review. If the outcomes are the pedagogical goal then we, as instructors, must actively redefine the process for hitting that goal as we practice with new and newer technologies.  

 For the past two years, our university has participated in the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, a large-scale, longitudinal study to investigate critical factors that affect student learning and enhance the educational impact of programs. Two findings from the study bear on our current hybrid experiment. First, curricular change is not a positive indicator of gains in student learning.  Echoing Petraglia, such a finding warns faculty and administration against pre-authenticating curricular change (such as online learning), especially change as represented in educational tools. Second, the study indicates a correlation between low levels of student engagement and academic challenge. Such a finding is illustrated in Dyehouse’s discovery that the hybrid course design intensified students' confusion over the portfolio approach.  They felt challenged or confused, we might argue, because they were not as engaged.

In Dyehouse’s conversations with Bob Shea, Shea offered a valuable piece of advice: design your hybrid course first as an online course.  Then, figure out how to add in face-to-face meetings. As a hard-won insight, it speaks to our larger point.  Designing a hybrid course as if it were to be held entirely online asks the course designer to invent new tools and teaching methods for helping students achieve learning outcomes.  Such a view treats all of the course's "technologies" as open to modification and reinvention, and it encourages a view on how students will perceive, understand, and value (what we might term “engage”) face-to-face versus online course elements.  But it does so without jettisoning the program’s principles in favor of the latest technology. In workshops for instructors incorporating Sakai into their teaching, Pennell asks participants to begin by listing course goals, outcomes, or objectives on a sheet of paper. Only then does he introduce the technology, so that the principles rather than the tools are at the forefront of pedagogical design. 


In reflecting on our hybrid experiment, and looking towards future experiments, we are reminded of Todd Taylor’s second principle in his ten principles for teaching with technology: “Identify and build from program principles.” This principle asks us to maintain our program outcomes as we push towards curricular change, including, perhaps especially, the implementation of technology. If, as Petraglia suggests, education is, in part, a process of persuading students to view their learning work as valuable, then educational technologies can function as useful (but not all-powerful) resources within that persuasion process.  Thus, teachers working to design hybrid courses have a special opportunity to view both online and classroom tools or technologies as open to redefinition.  Simultaneously, however, these teachers must bear in mind the potential consequences of such redefinitions and of the practical substitutions or replacements they entail, especially as those substitutions or replacements are situated in a specific consideration of both the instructor’s experience and the students’ engagement levels. In reporting findings from the Wabash Study, Dr. Charles Blaich reports that 59% of students entering our land grant university indicate that their academic experiences will be the most important part of their college experience. As this hybrid experiment shows, the moving of first-year writing courses into a hybrid or online environment can have major impacts on students’ academic experiences. In turn, we recommend two moves for writing programs, especially those moving curriculum into hybrid or online environments:

1.               Have a voice. Instructors from all disciplines must demand a voice in the technology decision-making process. Attend meetings, exhibits, and vendor demonstrations.

2.               Require that student learning outcomes and curriculum drive technology decisions, rather than vice versa. For some departments and programs this may require a commitment to develop explicit outcomes and assessment materials.


Blaich, Charles. Director of the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education. “The Challenges and Opportunities of Engaging this New Generation of Students in Learning.” University of Rhode Island. 29 January 2010. Keynote Address. 

Boora, Raj, John Church, Helen Madill, Wade Brown, and Myles Chykerda. “Ramping up to Hybrid Teaching and Learning.” Handbook of Research on Hybrid Learning Models: Advanced Tools, Technologies, and Applications. Eds. Fu Lee Wang, Joseph Fong and Reggie Kwan. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2010.

Gouge, Catherine. “Conversations at a Crucial Moment: Hybrid Courses and the Future of Writing Programs.” College English. 71.4 (March 2009): 338-362.

Kibby, Marjorie Diane. “Hybrid teaching and learning: Pedagogy versus pragmatism.” Brave New Classrooms: Democratic Education & the Internet. Eds. Joe Lockard and Mark Pegrum. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. 87-104.

Miles, Libby, Michael Pennell, Kim Hensley Owens, Jeremiah Dyehouse, Helen O’Grady, Nedra Reynolds, Robert Schwegler, and Linda Shamoon. “Thinking Vertically: Commenting on Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle’s ‘Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions.’” CCC. 59.3 (February 2008): 503-511.

Petraglia, Joseph. Reality by Design: The Rhetoric and Technology of Authenticity in Education.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998.

Tan, Lennon, Minjuan Wang, and Jun Xiao. “Best Practices in Teaching Online or Hybrid Courses: A Synthesis of Principles.” Hybrid Learning, Third International Conference, ICHL 2010. Eds. Philip M. Tsang, Simon K. S. Cheung, Victor S. K. Lee, Ronghuai Huang. Beijing: Springer, 2010. 117-126.

Taylor, Todd. "Ten Commandments for Computers and Composition." The Allyn & Bacon Sourcebook for Writing Program Administrators. Ed. Irene Ward and William Carpenter. New York: Allyn & Bacon, 2001. 228-42.

Wilson, Richard W. “Online Hybrid Methods of Teaching Planning Theory: Assessing Impacts on Discussion and Learning.” Journal of Planning Education and Research. 28.2 (Winter 2008): 237-246.