U of T’s Information Technology Services (ITS) recently launched the Hybrid Hub, a web page with faculty and staff oriented information on available services and supports for hybrid work. Hybrid work involves both in-person and remote components.

The purpose of the Hybrid Hub is to provide the necessary support for effective hybrid work by informing the U of T community of services that are already available to them. 

The decision to return to in-person learning for the 2022 winter semester received significant backlash from the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA), students, and professors. Following the announcement, a number of students used social media to demand more hybrid learning options from the university. 

For the remaining winter semester, some professors adopted a hybrid teaching model that attempted to accommodate students’ demands for a safe learning environment as well as the university’s decision to return to in-person course instruction. 

However, many members of the U of T community expressed technological and pedagogical concerns with the shift to hybrid teaching. 

In a previous statement to The Varsity, Terezia Zorić, president of the UTFA, had pointed out the additional workload an instructor would take on by facilitating hybrid courses. She added that a professor might lack the necessary resources to accommodate both virtual and in-person classes. The task of acquiring the skills and resources necessary to facilitate effective hybrid learning would increase their workload. 

The Hybrid Hub attempts to alleviate this problem by compiling all available resources onto one web page. 

The Hybrid Hub outlines technological support for running efficient hybrid meetings as well. The web page outlines AV guidelines for meeting rooms, video conferencing solutions, and tips for facilitating a hybrid meeting.

The platform lists the Connect+Learn information sessions as a resource. Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI) — part of ITS and responsible for managing U of T’s computer systems — offers these Connect+Learn sessions to help staff and faculty effectively organize hybrid meetings. The sessions cover methods and equipment for improving engagement and room setup. Additionally, the sessions provide training for the online platforms Microsoft Teams, OneDrive, and SharePoint, as well as for VPN technology. 

On the web page, ITS also includes EASI’s “Return to Workplace” report, which provides the university with recommendations on how to facilitate a gradual return to campus through the implementation of hybrid work elements. EASI released the report in December 2021, in anticipation of the university’s plans to increase in-person activities in February 2022.

The Hub also addresses the importance of information security when working in a remote or hybrid environment. The web page provides a set of information security guidelines to ensure online safety, as well as tips to maintain security and privacy for Microsoft 365.

In a statement to The Varsity, Franco Taverna, an associate professor in the Human Biology Program, outlined the benefits of online learning: “Most of us have gotten used to holding certain things online (like meetings, or advising) which work very well and are great for convenience and accessibility.” He continued, “It is always nice to meet students in person, but I have never in my career had as many meetings with so many students these past 2 years… and that is a great thing.”

Yet Taverna ultimately considers hybrid learning a challenge, explaining that “[students] online during the session don’t have as good an experience [as those in-person].” 

“It is easy to simply broadcast lectures online with something like Zoom — but it is very difficult to moderate good engagement with the online students when you are in classroom,” wrote Taverna.

Sherri Helwig, chair of the UTFA’s Teaching Stream Committee, also shared her perspective on hybrid teaching in a statement to The Varsity

Helwig noted that “resources available to faculty and librarians are not the same across the university” and “different learning environments… pedagogical approaches, and learning outcomes can require very different resources.”

She further explained that “online resources that inform hybrid teaching can certainly be beneficial, but they are only one part of a bigger and more complex puzzle.” Helwig suggested that it would likely be quite challenging for professors to design each class in a manner that allows sufficient engagement for audiences in different types of settings. Depending on the faculty member, the appropriate technology and resources to facilitate a hybrid course may not be accessible.

According to Helwig, the UTFA believes that “faculty members should be able to make decisions about the most appropriate mode of delivery for the courses they are teaching.” However, the association does not believe that this is currently the case at U of T.

When asked about the Hybrid Hub, she noted that the site seems to focus on providing resources relevant to staff, rather than faculty or librarians. She explained that more local resources such as “information from UTSC’s Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) or UTM’s Teaching and Learning Collaboration (TLC)” could be valuable additions to the web page.