Faculty Focus


How Conducting a Mixed-mode Class is Similar to Hosting a Late-night Talk Show

Talk show hosts

Faculty are increasingly called on to conduct “mixed-mode” classes, sometimes called hybrid or HyFlex classes. These sessions are conducted with some students in-person and others using Zoom or other conferencing tools to view and participate at a distance.

Mixed-mode classes present new challenges for faculty who are used to teaching an in-person or online class, where all the students are using one mode of access.  You might not realize it but teaching this type of class has a lot in common with hosting a late-night talk program, like “The Tonight Show,” with a monologue, guest interviews, sketches, and audience participation.  A mixed-mode class and late-night talk show both require a specific kind of planning and stagecraft that must engage an in-person and remote audience at the same time.

At Duke, the technical aspect of setting up mixed-mode class sessions is a straightforward process that works in conjunction with classroom support staff. Classroom support staff arrange for a permanent or temporary multimedia setup in the room with a camera, a microphone for the instructor, and a means to show your slides or computer screen to both the in-person and online students.

If you are teaching a mixed-mode for the first time, your first instinct may be to conduct the course similar to other in-person classes with the remote students simply sitting in. Ideally, mixed-mode instruction should fold the remote students into the classroom activities.

When you first implement a mixed mode approach to your classroom, you will probably find conducting the class disorienting.  How do you divide your attention between in-person and remote students?  How do you know if the remote students can see and hear you?  How do you know if the remote students are keeping up with the class and are engaged?  How do you fold the remote students into discussions and activities?

The first thing to consider is the physical space.  If you’ve seen a late-night talk show, you might have noticed that separate parts of the stage are used for different parts of the show, even though the host and guest can move anywhere around the stage and be visible to the in-person audience.  Of course, the reason for this is that the cameras can only cover so much space on the stage at any time—the cameras have to be reset or repositioned depending on what’s happening on the stage.  A typical setup uses one camera position for the monologue, sketches, or musical performances, and another when the host is interviewing guests at their desk.

As you teach, you need to have an idea of what the camera can and can’t see.  How much space can the camera see to your left and right?  Does your classroom camera see you from the waist up or close-up?  This gives you physical boundaries to keep in mind as you interact with the class. Knowing your camera angles will ensure the online audience can still see you if you emphasize what you’re saying with a physical movement or if you use a whiteboard in the room.  Some faculty place tape on the floor as a reminder.

Late-night talk shows have television monitors visible to the audience, often hung just outside and above the stage area.  So, if the host shows a funny newspaper article to the camera, which the home audience can easily see, the in-person audience won’t miss out since they can move their attention to the monitors.

Rather than studio monitors, your classroom may have a projection system or a whiteboard where students can watch your visuals through a computer or mobile device.  Think about visual aids you might be using—drawings, equations, PowerPoint slides—and if they can be read and understood both by the in-person students and the students viewing remotely.  In a classroom, you might present slides with dense text or draw equations on the board that can be seen and read from the back of the room, but this might not translate to the online audience where dense material can get lost. Some online students might view the lecture on a tablet or phone where these details are lost. The opposite can also happen, where online students can see the details of the text or visual that can’t be easily viewed by students in the back of your room. You may have to experiment and adjust how you write or put together slides so that they’re accessible by both your in-person and online students.

All of this also requires feedback from both of your audiences.

In a television talk show, the host is responding to the reactions of the in-person audience.  But what you don’t see is the feedback the host gets from the director and staff of the show. They watch the show on monitors in the control room. This acts as a stand-in for the remote audience since the host can’t see any online reactions, and the director often provides feedback to the host during commercial breaks. During a rare, live episode of a talk show, they may also have staff monitor social media to pass along reactions to the host.

You can get that kind of feedback from your own in-person and remote audience just by remembering to stop frequently and ask for questions or comments, or just to pause to find out if everyone can see or read the visual material you’re presenting.

It’s also essential to have a student in the class, or a teaching assistant, monitor feedback during class via the chat so they can bring comments or questions to you.  You can also remind the remote students at the beginning of the session to let you know in the chat if there’s a problem with the visuals or sound—you might accidentally step away from the mic as you talk and not realize that your remote students can’t hear you, for example. Using a Minute Paper at the end of class can be helpful for refining your presentation techniques and activities as the course progresses.

One big difference between a late-night talk show and your class is that you want your entire class—the in-person and remote students—to form a close-knit cohort.  Ideally, you want your remote students to feel as much a part of the course activities as the in-person students, both during and in between class sessions. This is where some thought and planning are key. 

For technical reasons, you can’t have multiple students in your in-person classroom engaged in simultaneous Zoom sessions with remote students since the different devices can produce unacceptable audio feedback. But you can adapt the types of interactions and discussions you have in a class to be inclusive of the remote students. 

Depending on the number of your in-person and remote participants, you could have remote students go to break-out rooms or chat sessions for a Think-Pair-Share or other type of group dialogue.  A mix of in-person and remote students can interact using online chat, a shared Google Doc, or other tools in small groups.  For discussions, you could establish a protocol that would be inclusive of both the in-person and online students, such as some kind of visual cue for students wanting to contribute or a roundtable format that checks in on groups formed in class.  Live polling can also be used by individuals or groups in the classroom to spark discussion or get immediate feedback on your class session.

Encouraging interactions between in-person and remote students will be easier outside of your live class sessions.  If you have students work on projects in teams, the groups could include a mix of in-person and remote students, with the students using Zoom for work sessions. Discussion forums can be used to kick-start class discussions, with remote students participating on an equal basis with in-person students.

If you’re new to teaching this type of class, it can seem a little overwhelming at first.  You’re really engaging two different groups of students that can see and hear different things, depending on where they’re sitting in your classroom or if they’re viewing your class on a screen. But with some thought and planning, and a little practice, engaging both audiences can become as seamless as an in-person class you’ve conducted many times before.

Randy A. Riddle is a senior teaching consultant and has been a member of the Duke Learning Innovation team since 2000.  His background is in public and applied history, and his other interests include research on and preservation of vintage radio and television programming.