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Technology has played a vital role in transforming higher education to better accommodate students' individual learning needs and styles. From learning management systems (LMS) to adaptive learning tools to videoconferencing, these technologies have changed how and where students learn. 

Many colleges and universities have been successfully incorporating distance learning and educational technologies into their curricula for more than a decade. In 2018, more than one-third of college and university students took at least one online course, citing a gradual shift away from the traditional classroom. 

During times of crisis or uncertainty, such as the recent global pandemic, hybrid and blended learning models become necessary for higher education institutions to maintain enrollment and allow students to continue learning safely. A survey conducted by the Institute of International Education (IIE) indicated that nearly nine in 10 higher education institutions implemented a hybrid learning model for the fall 2020 semester.

As reopening guidelines continue to evolve for higher education institutions, administrators must understand the principles of hybrid and blended learning and be prepared to implement and optimize these models to achieve their learning outcomes. 

What is hybrid learning?

Hybrid learning is a combination of traditional face-to-face instruction with additional offline or distance learning techniques, such as experiential learning and digital course delivery. The goal is to apply the right mix of learning techniques to effectively teach the content and meet the learning needs of students. The additional learning techniques used are designed to enhance and reduce traditional face-to-face instruction. For example, if a class meets two days per week, an instructor using hybrid learning might schedule one day for in-class lecture and the second day for a hands-on lab or online assignment. 

What is blended learning?

Blended learning is a blend of offline and online instruction. Unlike hybrid learning, blended learning uses online instruction to complement or supplement traditional face-to-face instruction, not replace it. Blended learning usually consists of students interacting online to complete assignments, ask questions, collaborate with other students, and virtually meet with their instructor. Using the above example, an instructor using blended learning might schedule both days for face-to-face instruction and assign students to write an online forum post outside of class time.

Hybrid learning versus blended learning

Hybrid learning and blended learning are often used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference between the two terms. Blended learning focuses solely on incorporating distance learning with traditional instruction, while hybrid learning focuses on incorporating any possible learning technique to best teach the content, no matter if it's online or offline. Another differentiator is that blended learning focuses on an equal balance of distance learning and traditional instruction while hybrid learning typically leans more heavily on online or nontraditional instruction.

Hybrid and blended learning fall in the middle of the learning spectrum between fully in-person instruction and fully online instruction. From left to right: face-to-face, blended learning, hybrid learning, online learning.
Hybrid and blended learning fall in the middle of the learning spectrum between fully in-person instruction and fully online instruction.

Blended learning models

The Clayton Christensen Institute, a non-profit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to improving education, founded seven models of blended learning to help institutions structure their approach. These models can also be adapted for hybrid learning by adjusting the ratio of traditional instruction to distance learning and/or by substituting distance learning for other offline or experiential learning methods. 

Blended learning models include:

  1. Station Rotation Model: Students rotate through stations on a fixed schedule, where at least one station is a distance learning station.
  2. Lab Rotation Model: Like the Station Rotation Model, but the distance learning station occurs in a dedicated computer lab. 
  3. Individual Rotation Model: Students rotate through stations based on individual schedules determined by the instructor or software algorithm.
  4. Flipped Classroom Model: Students complete online coursework and lectures outside of the classroom so instructors can use class time for guided practice and projects, encouraging deeper learning.
  5. Flex Model: Instructors provide support, as needed, while students work fluidly through course content.
  6. A La Carte Model: Students choose to take online courses alongside face-to-face courses for increased flexibility in their schedules.
  7. Enriched Virtual Model: Students complete most of their coursework online, but attend required face-to-face sessions with an instructor, usually twice per week or less.

Hybrid learning models 

In addition to the above models, there are two hybrid-specific learning models that have recently gained traction among higher education. 

The Hybrid-Flexible (HyFlex) Course Model

In the HyFlex Course Model, each class is offered in-person, synchronously online and asynchronously online to provide a student-centered, flexible experience. Both students and faculty choose how they'd like to participate. For example, an instructor can teach remotely or in-person, while students learn remotely or join physically in the classroom. Technology plays a major role in this model to keep students connected, whether through videoconferencing, instant messaging, or other means of interaction.

Modified Tutorial Model

The Modified Tutorial Model is geared toward more personalized learning with small group meetings and, oftentimes, distance learning. This model overlaps with the flipped classroom model (defined above) and can be customized based on faculty time, costs and technology availability. An example of this model is delivering didactic material online and then meeting in small groups for follow-up discussion or activities. Regardless of the exact approach taken, the Modified Tutorial Model is meant to enable students to take greater responsibility for their learning. 

Hybrid and blended learning benefits

Students, faculty and administrators can experience many benefits from hybrid and blended learning. By leveraging multiple mediums of instruction, institutions can personalize student learning to help meet their learning outcomes. In a 2010 study conducted by the Department of Education, it found that higher-ed students who participated in courses using a combination of online and face-to-face instruction performed better than those in fully online or fully traditional courses. 

Here are some of the top benefits for students, faculty and administrators. 

Illustration of a student sitting at a desk while working on a computer with floating symbols representing the various benefits of hybrid and blended learning.

Student benefits:

  • Greater flexibility in scheduling.
  • Increased engagement through online content.
  • Ability to track learning.
  • Ability to learn at his/her own pace.
  • Encourages ownership of learning.



Illustration of an instruction with floating symbols representing the various faculty benefits of hybrid and blended learning.

Faculty benefits:

  • Potential time savings through less in-person learning.
  • Higher-quality interactions with students via email, discussion forums or online chat.
  • Ability to appeal to varying learning styles. 
  • More purposeful face-to-face instruction that emphasizes deeper learning.
  • Increased collaboration among students.


Illustration of an administration on a computer screen with floating symbols representing the various administrative benefits of hybrid and blended learning.

Administrator benefits:

  • Potential cost savings if using less brick-and-mortar classroom space.
  • Better student data to write measurable learning outcomes, track real-time progress and apply early student intervention. 
  • Opportunities to upskill faculty. 
  • Ability to expand course offerings to more students. 

Hybrid and blended learning challenges

There are several key challenges to be aware of before embarking on this transition. When many colleges and universities suddenly switched to hybrid and blended learning this fall due to the ongoing safety concerns, it revealed an onslaught of issues ranging from technological to course design to student experience. Higher education institutions must be prepared to address the following challenges of hybrid and blended learning. 

Outdated technology infrastructure 

At the core of hybrid and blended learning is the technology that supports it. Generation Z students expect a seamless, high-quality digital learning experience. While there are several technology components to consider when moving to a hybrid or blended learning model, here are a few key questions to answer: 

  • Can the network accommodate an influx of off-campus traffic? 
  • Is there an effective way for students to collaborate online? 
  • How will faculty manage assignment submissions and grading? 
  • What videoconferencing options are available? 
  • What integrations are available to create a streamlined experience? 
  • Is security in place to protect student information and course materials?

Lack of technology knowledge

After ensuring the right mix of technology is in place, the next challenge is training instructors and students to use it. For many instructors, hybrid and blended learning will be new to them. Take time to provide training on how to get started, best practices and specific use cases to get instructors comfortable using the technology. When instructors understand and believe in the importance of the technology, it will shine through to their students. At the beginning of a course, instructors should provide students with instructions and expectations for using the technology to ensure successful adoption.

Course design and strategy 

Hybrid and blended learning are a shift in mindset from traditional face-to-face instruction. It's not simply uploading in-person lesson plans to an online platform and calling it hybrid or blended learning. It requires instructors to completely rethink how courses are designed and strategize which components are best suited for online instruction and which should remain in person. Not to mention, the components moving online will most likely need to be restructured to be effective. Institutions that carefully weld together traditional instruction with online instruction will reap the full benefits of hybrid and blended learning. 

Tips for achieving learning outcomes with hybrid and blended learning

No matter where or how students are learning, it shouldn't be a hindrance to achieving your institution's learning outcomes. With the right people, processes and technology in place, hybrid and blended learning can be a positive step forward for higher education. Here are a few tips when getting started. 

  1. Build a solid technology foundation: A learning management system (LMS) is just one component of the technology foundation needed to successfully deliver hybrid and blended learning. Institutions should also look to incorporate tools like videoconferencing, messaging, scheduling, office hours and interactive whiteboarding. Cisco Webex Education Connector and Webex Classrooms are great options for seamlessly integrating these features into an interface that instructors and students are familiar with.
  2. Identify champions: Seek out champions within your institution that are passionate about distance learning and willing to help faculty during the transition. It's important instructors feel supported during this time.
  3. Share success stories: It's crucial to maintain a positive attitude among instructors as they adapt their courses. Keep instructors motivated by sharing what's working (and not working) so they can apply those learnings to their own courses.
  4. Be realistic: Hybrid and blended learning take time to perfect. Avoid stressing out faculty by setting realistic goals when starting hybrid and blended learning. These goals can be reevaluated each semester or year as your institution's model becomes more robust.
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