Abington lecturer presents at Faculty of the Future conference

Penn State Abington's Steven Pyser, lecturer of political science and an expert in public participation and group facilitation, presented "Opportunity Knocks: Riding the Blended (Hybrid) Learning Wave to Pedagogical Excellence" on May 29 during the Faculty of the Future conference held at Bucks County Community College in Newtown. Several former students were on hand to demonstrate Pyser's unique teaching methods to the audience.

Blended (hybrid) learning integrates face-to-face and online learning. By "blending" the learning experience, flexibility, convenience, and improved learning opportunities can be achieved. In 2007 the Sloan Consortium -- an institutional and professional leadership organization dedicated to integrating online education into the mainstream of higher education -- reported that one fifth of all students enrolled in higher education were taking at least one online course.

It seems to be the wave of the teaching future. As Penn State President Graham Spanier noted in a recent speech, "the convergence of online and resident instruction is the single greatest unrecognized trend in higher education."

"Everything is interconnected in my class," said Pyser, "and that's what a hybrid class is all about. Six essential principles and practices are needed in order to run a hybrid class to its full potential -- Full Value Community Agreement (FVCA), safety and sound relationships, respect, accountability/motivations, engagement, and teamwork/group work."

The FVCA -- a document signed when first meeting on campus and electronically online by all willing students -- gives focus to the student on what exactly will be expected throughout the course. It helps to define the learning community. The FVCA isn't any ordinary syllabus.

"'Full Value' means recognizing and valuing anything that makes us an individual and recognizing the same in others," Pyser said. "It means to 'be here,' not just physically, but attentively. Contribute, be a part of the process."

The Agreement goes on to emphasize that "all voices are invited, respected and heard," and "all experiences are treated as valid."

Several Abington students enthusiastically demonstrated one of Pyser's face-to-face teaching methods called the "inquiry circle," which employs all six essential hybrid principles and practices. The inquiry circle process starts with an introductory statement and an open-ended question asked by Pyser, and continues around the seated circle with students reflecting, responding and then asking a different open-ended question to the next participant. A rich dialogue is created as each student builds on the developing commentary and offers their distinctive viewpoint.

When asked, students were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about hybrid learning.

"Thoughts and ideas were encouraged," said Donna Martin, employed at Sandmeyer Steel Company in Philadelphia and working on her bachelor's degree in business at Abington. "Opinions were expressed freely in an open forum in class and on-line … critical thinking and decision-making assignments made me more open-minded by learning more about the ideas and views of the other members of the class … collaboration within a group setting can accomplish more than a single person using a one-thought process. Ideas and are free to flow."

Lester Johnson, senior, organizational leadership, spoke highly of the FVCA.

"The Full Value Community Agreement reinforces respect, academically and personally. It's a great guideline to facilitate constructive learning because it doesn't anchor our thought process. The freedom to express ourselves is important because it promotes critical thinking."

Heather Scanlan, who recently received her B.S. in organizational leadership, summed up the Hybrid experience.

"The two classes I took with Mr. Pyser were positive experiences. The classes were unique because it was not your traditional class setting where the professor lectures and the students take notes. The students were equal participants in each class. This brings each unique person into the learning and allows different experiences and ideas. These courses brought a whole new way of communicating to the classroom. With having to use critical thinking each week it keeps the learning process going even when we were not in the classroom. Learning did not stop as we walked out of the classroom each week like a traditional class does," said Scanlan.