Opinion | Hybrid education: The future of Stanford?

Opinion by Divya Mehrish
Jan. 18, 2022, 7:46 p.m.

Amid the uncertainty of our return to undergraduate in-person classes, which has already been twice delayed from Jan. 3 to Jan. 24, I have begun to wonder about the viability of a long-term hybrid educational approach. If we do not receive another inauspicious email from Provost Drell in the next two weeks, and finally get to engage with our winter quarter professors and classmates in person on the 24th, we would have already lost three of the ten weeks of the quarter to the doom of Zoom. The uncertainty of our return date, however, should not come as a surprise to most undergraduates. Many of my peers and I agree that this Omicron-instigated delay mirrors our memories of COVID-19’s initial devastation in March 2020, as we experience frighteningly strong waves of déjà-vu

It has dawned on us that the rise of new strains of COVID-19 does not bode well for our academic futures. Should we learn to expect seasonal waves of COVID-19 that send our cities, schools and workplaces into full or partial lockdown? And will universities be able to ride these waves successfully or will they — as well as our educational journeys — buckle? If Stanford continues to stick to periods of online teaching amid spikes in COVID-19 cases, perhaps hybrid education with semi-in-person quarters is a form of learning we should grow accustomed to. By standardizing a hybrid approach that equally supports seasonal periods of virtual learning accompanied by pre-established periods of in-person study, I imagine Stanford’s administration might be able to strike the right balance that would grant all students a holistic college experience. In my view, one of the most valuable aspects of this experience is sustaining meaningful relationships with each other and with our professors. With sufficient notice and time for planning, faculty members could structure course formats ahead of time to maximize peer-to-peer engagement while equipping students with timely information necessary to make informed choices, for instance, about which classes would make the most sense for them to take in person versus online. To understand how current students are grappling with this possibility, I interviewed a diverse cohort of freshmen.

Ishita Gupta ’25 argues that using online education to moderate waves of COVID-19 is a good idea in theory, but not “sustainable for students’ mental health.” She states that beyond just giving students proper notice, the administration would need to plan, well in advance, shifts to hybrid or online learning. However, due to the likelihood that COVID-19 strains will continue to arise unpredictably, it appears nearly impossible that Stanford could provide students with sufficient warning unless, for example, scientific research precisely correlated colder weather with spikes in cases. Then, Stanford might be able to officially designate winter quarter, for example, as hybrid or fully online.

Gupta goes on to suggest a “hybrid contingency plan” that she believes could be implemented in COVID-entrenched periods: Stanford must selectively move online only those classes with a size and structure that increase the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission (for example, big lecture classes), as well as those whose material and class dynamics can be replicated in an online format. Gupta adds that Stanford must keep those classes and activities that “absolutely need to be in-person completely in-person.” She notes that while no one wants to do a project on Zoom or take a virtual field trip, it would not necessarily detract from a student’s experience if the administration were to move online those elements of classes that are already as much or more effective in an asynchronous format. For example, departments like Computer Science and Symbolic Systems were already offering asynchronous material to students in pre-pandemic times.

Looking beyond educational models, Lila Shroff ’25 feels more concerned about the lack of consistency in student residence situations if the university were to consistently transition between in-person and online formats. While she agrees that “the pandemic has forced everyone to practice flexibility,” she emphasizes that “college students are particularly vulnerable to changes in campus residential policies.” She believes the readjustment periods required when settling back at home or on campus must be accounted for, as the “constant flux of changing environments” has the potential to “impede relationships” both at school and at home. Other students that I have spoken to feel that as long as the social dynamics of the school are not heavily implicated and “human connection” is still present and possible, as Teddy Suisman ’25 notes, students could adapt to a hybrid educational model.

However, Roman Scott ’25 argues that a long-term hybrid model is unsustainable because a virtual course format weakens the very quality of education offered. Scott feels confident that the disconnect between professors and students in online learning environments distracts and disengages students. Moreover, to combat the constant uncertainty that has begun to imbue our academic careers, Scott believes that Stanford must make a final decision on whether or not to “fully commit to in-person or virtual courses until COVID goes away.” 

But the question remains: Will COVID-19 really ever go away? Perhaps the answer to this question is more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.” Recently, governments globally have been pushing towards treating COVD-19 as endemic rather than a pandemic — a viable approach as long as COVID-19 continues to mutate in an increasingly less severe direction. This, however, poses another question. While the World Health Organization has acknowledged this debate, leaders warn against treating COVID-19 as endemic right now due to the “intense pressure” many regions around the world are facing. Thus, with the end of this virus not yet in sight, we must critically examine and modify our approach to education rather than waiting for external forces to ease up. 

While every student I spoke with offered a unique perspective on the long-term sustainability of a hybrid model, all of them agreed on one point: the need for consistency and the necessity for the administration to keep students in the loop. As Devy Weir ’25 states, the most draining element of Stanford’s current approach is “not knowing” and a lack of the ability to plan ahead, due to what appears to some as the university’s unwillingness to be forthcoming with new information.

I do believe, that if necessary, a hybrid balance can be struck annually until COVID-19 becomes endemic, without jeopardizing students’ abilities to have a holistic college experience. For example, I can imagine the administration designating both autumn and spring quarters as fully in-person to allow students — particularly freshmen — a proper introduction and adjustment to on-campus life, as well as seniors to finish their final year among their peers and have an in-person graduation ceremony. If the world continues to witness spikes in COVID-19 cases in the winter months, the administration could designate winter quarter as a hybrid quarter, with large lecture classes moved online, while smaller, discussion-based courses remain in-person.

Whatever plan Stanford decides to execute, it is critical that the administration heeds students’ voices while minimizing the spread of new contagious strains of COVID-19 and at the same time maximizing the potential for every undergraduate to fully experience Stanford. 

Divya Mehrish '25 is a writer and poet from New York City who is part of the Opinions section. She is intrigued by the intersections of the written word with medicine, public policy, and the arts. Contact her at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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