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Hybrid Hype in Higher Ed – Is your campus ready?

Hybrid Hype in Higher Ed, Is your campus ready? Graphic

When I first began my work researching and writing about social media, I considered myself an ambitious cheerleader – maybe even a hype woman – for campuses to adopt the latest digital communication tools to better tell their stories and connect with students. In 2012 it was Twitter and Instagram; today it’s TikTok or Discord.

But adoption does not equal impact. 

Decentralized within divisions, departments, and programs, there is an endless list of social media accounts and storytelling strategies – many dormant, mismanaged, or seriously lacking resources.

I acknowledge the hand I played in spikes of adoption over the years. I learned that I needed to explicitly stress a critical layer of digital strategy to the countless campuses and leaders I worked with early on. That digital strategy is as much about discernment as is implementation, especially when it comes to human capital. 

Technology tools, yes even bot-based communication platforms, require people power.

These people cannot be interns, GA’s, or sometimes not even entry-level. They need to be skilled, well-paid professionals. 

And higher ed is running dangerously low on them due to burnout, low morale, and disconnection. You’ve seen me write about these challenges with antidotes such as remote work, critical hope, and self-compassion.

I consider my early lessons as we reflect on the last two years of online, remote, digital, hybrid, whatever you call it campus operations –from the classroom and counseling to career services. And I consider how we assess where we are today, as an industry,  and the path higher education needs to be headed on – as early as this fall. 

This is why I’m writing about a topic and movement picking up steam in higher education: the hybrid campus. 

Hybrid has entered the Higher Ed chat

In a 2021 report called The Hybrid Campus: Three Major Shifts for the Post-COVID University, from the Deloitte Center for Higher Education Excellence, authors envision a hybrid campus, 

“The hybrid campus reimagines residential education in a tech-enabled world: a technology-enabled student experience. This is not only hybrid instruction but rather a blended, immersive and digital residential experience that fuses the online and physical worlds across campus.” 

They use the example of a retail store, which has both in-person and online shopping.

Higher ed is no longer made up primarily of “traditional” or “residential,” as online and adult learners increase every year – making up 70% of enrolled students. This should not be news – it was happening before COVID-19. 

As a doc student in a hybrid-based program, I knew too well the gaps – so much so I assumed there were no student services for me – even though I paid for them. On-campus services outside of business hours were also lacking. My cohort would show up one weekend a month to a closed-down campus with limited hours – no options for dining, so we would need to drive off campus quickly during our lunch break.

Campuses had still not caught up to serve non-traditional/non-residential students – until we were forced to in the pandemic – because all students were online. And now, in 2022, we are at an important pivot point. 

The choices we have and will continue to make are defining the future of higher education. Unfortunately, some choices include campuses rushing back to the office, seeking normalcy and tradition, and enforcing outdated business hours. Will this summer be enough time to disrupt and transform? Is hybrid the path? 

To be clear, I am all in for online, remote, and hybrid strategies. The means to accomplish this, spelled out in the Deloitte report, are helpful, discussing learning, workplace, and student service hybrid approaches. 

But these must be backed up with adequate resources – even going so far as being written into your strategic plan. I’m writing today to make sure you know what you are signing up for, and what you are trying to pull off – that hybrid won’t be easy. 

I’m also writing this so campuses already amid hybrid operations can feel affirmed with why the work feels so much. Because it is. 

Honestly, hybrid is pulling double duty.

Without intention, hybrid won’t be sustainable for most campuses. Campuses will go for it, and then when wheels fall off, they will go back to “business as usual.” The moral issues with faculty and staff will increase, students will fall through the cracks, and the list goes on. 

Ask yourself: Do you have the proper infrastructure and foundation to build this new hybrid house? 

The chances are high that you are discussing hybrid in some capacity. It is the season for summer retreats, after all. It could fall under hybrid student services, hybrid learning, or a hybrid workforce. 

But what are we really talking about? What constitutes something hybrid in higher ed? 

Plentiful examples exist: 

  • Counseling appointments are made available both online and in person. 
  • Campus rec fitness classes that can be accessed live at the rec center or pre-recorded sessions you can take in your residence hall at any time of day. 
  • Hybrid academic programs, where students only have to come to campus one weekend per month or semester. 
  • Staff working a few days a week from home. 

The list goes on. But let’s look a little closer.

  • What did it take to plan, record, edit, host, and distribute those fitness classes – and how are you evaluating participant satisfaction and wellness outcomes? 
  • What EdTech partner do you work with to provide tele-health, and how long will your budget sustain that cost? If students need to access services in multiple states, especially out of state, do your counselor’s licenses cover them? 
  • For the hybrid grad or doc programs, are you ensuring there are basic services open on weekends and evenings – in addition to accessible online options yearlong? How are these students reporting their sense of belonging? 
  • Many campuses are “returning” to business as usual with office coverage requirements. How will you ensure office coverage during business hours, 8-5, when your team is allowed to work two days from home? 

Questions and challenges like this are why we end up with subpar results for online-based experiences, pieced together as an add-on or separate but equal approach.  

This piece will be part of a number of articles I have in the works about hybrid, especially student services and the workforce. In Future-Proof: Reimagining Student Affairs for Modern Learners, Jake New writes 

“Student affairs must develop an inclusive design process that makes support services accessible to all students. It should be holistic, not a piecemeal system focused on developing or adapting processes to fit one demographic at a time.”

A hybrid campus is not attempting business as usual while adding online options.

It is completely redefining and reshaping what is the campus experience.

Because of this significant reframe, it’ll be good to get us some foundation. Let’s get situated with some definitions.

What is Hybrid anyway? 

Early in the pandemic, I went on a deep dive (and rant) on the language when discussing and branding what higher ed does “online.” Virtual is a personal pet peeve of mine, even though I’ve come to terms with it – heck, I even co-chaired the NASPA Virtual Experience. 

Since 2013, I’ve applied ‘digital’ to leadership, community building, and student engagement. Hybrid, hyflex, blended, online, digital, virtual. At the end of the day, it’s just a term, not the outcome we are going for. A modality, not a student type. 

A few different definitions of hybrid exist and vary based upon the application, i.e., noun or adjective. A pretty straightforward definition is: “A combination of two different things.”  

That is likely too simple for higher ed.

How about this one from Merriam Webster? “Having two different types of components performing essentially the same function, i.e., a hybrid vehicle.” 

Now we’re talking! Learning is learning, no matter the location. Academic advising, campus life, new student programs – hybrid is the same function, but different components

Could hybrid approaches scale services impact and address the call for higher education to teach learners to teach themselves? 

Let’s keep these definitions in mind as we apply functions, outcomes, and the people and processes needed to redefine a college campus. 

The Hybrid hype in Higher Ed

Even before the pandemic, we saw organizations like EDUCAUSE guiding discussions and impactful practices about online, blended, and hybrid instruction. EDUCAUSE defines hybrid learning as combining “Traditional face-to-face classroom instruction with online learning.” 

But what about outside the classroom?

In the Hybrid Campus report mentioned earlier, authors Jeffrey Selingo, Cole Clark, Dave Noone, and Amy Wittmayer describe hybrid or a hybrid approach as, 

“A mix of face-to-face and online – adopted by many higher education institutions during COVID-19 to deliver education remotely could be expanded across campus to student services and the workforce, and as a result become a more permanent feature after the pandemic. The features of a hybrid university will make it a more student-centered university.”

They explain it is not a blended approach, but rather “a more holistic vision for delivering everything an institution offers, from academic advising to courses to career services.” 

The 2012 Josie would be shouting this from the rooftops and to the moon and back. 

2022 Dr. Josie wants to help campuses repair and reinforce their first-floor foundation before adding a second story. 

The good news is, to get started, it’s not that complicated. It starts with honesty – and an audit.

Is your Campus Hybrid ready? 

This audit is going to be your hybrid charging station. Think back to the definitions of hybrid above, including the example of a hybrid vehicle. As a mechanic’s daughter, he’ll really love that I’m using an automotive example in my work. 

We will soon be owners of a Jeep Wrangler 4xe, a plug-in hybrid that will get us up to 20 miles on electric – as long as we recharge it. It’s still on my to-do list to install a charging station in the front of the house. 

Sure, we can drive it like a “normal” car if we don’t recharge, relying fully on gas, but Jeep warns, “Frequently recharging can really help save on gas. Once you use up the battery, the 4xe hybrid only gets around 20 mpg, which is no better than the Wrangler’s regular V6.” As I write, gas prices are climbing in Los Angeles and across the country – currently $6.65 at our nearby gas station. Yeah, I gotta get that charging station installed.

Which got me thinking, where is the hybrid charging station for higher ed? 

This is important because the power in hybrid is in the pause – or what I’ll refer to as a charging station. 

As most hybrid cars explain, you’ll frequently need to recharge – and I hope the questions below will be your fueling station before you hit the ignition and drive.

Filling the Hybrid Disconnect

The pause I am asking of you – especially this summer or whenever you’re considering a hybrid model – is to look at your current campus realities, resources, and readiness.

I expect you’ll find digital, fiscal, and human divides, and you’ll need to decide if/how/when to fill them.

For example, you may find campus partners can fill these divides, providing timely tools at scale that would not be possible if homegrown by your campus. You may also discover the need to cut back on “normal” operations or offerings, to include online options. Or you may find the reality that you are not currently meeting the outcomes promised with a program or service – as is – and adding on hybrid won’t solve it. So the bigger question is, do we continue to do this event/experience/program at all?  

It must be stated: Hybrid will not solve your outcome gaps for outdated offerings, services, and programs. 

Higher ed is notoriously clogged up with traditions, doing things because they always have – even if they aren’t working, even if they aren’t making an impact. 

So this audit may also be a reality check. As you recharge and hit the road toward a hybrid campus – here are five things that should be on your checklist. As you review and move through these, make sure equity, inclusion, and belonging are top of mind.

Check your philosophy: 

  • If you were really honest, how do you feel about going hybrid or online? Do you have pre-existing judgments or negative experiences with these tools or approaches? What about the people you supervise/manage? How has this philosophy impacted how you approach digital and/or serve students in all contexts?
  • What would a philosophy and practice of intentional, holistic, and integrated feel like, rather than a language like a blend, mix, or add-on? Who do you reach with campus-based services? Who have you been able to reach with the inclusion of online tools? 

Check your purpose: 

  • What is your institution, division, department, or program actually here to provide? What progress are you achieving in these outcomes? How are you currently tracking and communicating these – not just once per year in a report? 
  • Do you currently have things you “always” do that have struggled for years, even before the pandemic? Unpack why these continue. What could you do if you put these resources into fully online or hybrid needs? 
  • What would be the highest level of priority program, event, or experience that can be your beta hybrid initiative? What would be the second thing? How can you build out a phased approach to a hybrid campus, division, department, etc.? 

Check your community:

  • Have you asked your community what they want or how they are currently experiencing your in-person and online services? I’ve heard countless examples of students begging for online advising sessions, choosing that option over an in-person appointment 2-1. 
  • What are the response and usage rates for services and programs you’re offering online? How does this differ from campus-based numbers? How could you create an accessible educational series or scale your services? 
  • Are there marginalized groups with needs that should be prioritized first? What might a parent, veteran, or low-income student need – outside the bounds of business hours vs. a traditional learner? How do other equity-based considerations elevate the importance of transforming to hybrid? 

Check your workforce:

  • What human capital do you currently have to deliver on-campus services? How many open positions do you have? Failed searches? Faculty/Staff, that are eyeing the doors? Hiring is tough right now, with more of the workforce calling for work-from-home options. With an increase in hybrid approaches, how can you attract candidates that align with your hybrid operation needs? 
  • How do job descriptions align with hybrid environment expectations? From work schedules to program delivery. If you have open positions, how can you reorganize or redefine responsibilities that address a hybrid approach? 
  • Do your people have proper training, skill sets, and competencies for an expanded hybrid portfolio? What campus or industry resources exist to fill gaps? 

Check your campus resources:

  • How are hybrid operations communicated in your strategic plan? What about your funding processes? Campus guidelines and policies? 
  • Does the campus have a technology, information, and communication architecture that supports workflows and systems to sustain hybrid? 
  • Where in the process do things get clogged up when attempting hybrid operations? Email, teams, paperwork?

Hopes for Hybrid

Going hybrid is not going to be a light switch. This is actually good news! In March 2020, we were forced to go fully online overnight. That was emergency operations. In 2022, whatever we call this phase, we can be purposeful. 

A recharge is necessary; a rewiring of higher ed is required. It’s not a simple task – without intention and reflection, it is possibly doubling the amount of work … especially if you are carrying over your “going back to normal” expectations.

The hybrid campus is exciting. Transformative. It has the possibility of reaching twice the amount of students – to truly meet them where they are.

I’m still a hype woman for innovation and change. But I’ve learned so much from a decade ago. It will take a lot more than hype. A hybrid campus will require a charging station. Informed by purpose and people, backed up with data, and sustained by human capital and substantial campus resources. 

With intention and purpose, I have a lot of hopes for a hybrid campus approach. How about you? 

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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