Celebrating Hybrid Education in Horticulture

It is my first semester with a full teaching load and I’m astounded at how quickly the weeks have passed. After what has felt like some of the longest days and shortest weeks, we have entered week six! I am a big fan of reflective writing and, perhaps irritatingly for my students, try to incorporate it into classes as often as possible. For me, putting thoughts down on paper is immensely helpful in working through complex ideas. Beyond the content itself, I believe completing a task and taking a moment to summarize what was learned is a useful habit to form for professional and personal growth. So, here is my 6-week reflection, overdue and available for your feedback.

In the Fall, I created a poster to display at the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research Midwest regional conference with the title “Towards Accessible, Student-Centered Education in Horticulture”. On it, I summarized the diversity of educational opportunities available to those interested in horticulture, be that on- or off-campus, in-person or online, degree-seeking or other, and was pleased to see the (growing) opportunities we have to offer. What I’ve especially come to appreciate in these last six weeks is the “hybrid” learning across online and in-person platforms. As I’ve previously discussed, horticulture is an inherently active, hands-on discipline. However, this does not mean it is excused from the modern online learning format. On the contrary, utilizing online educational resources can broaden our reach and bolster our in-person experience. In this way, we really are moving “towards accessible, student-centered” education.

In HORT 100, Introduction to Horticulture, Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor and I deliver asynchronous content to 100+ students interested in improving their lives through the cultivation of plants. Our off-campus students receive small seed packets in the mail, complete with everything needed to germinate a few species in a kitchen or bedroom window, of which students take notes and provide photographic documentation of the experiment. For those who really crave hands-on experiences, we’ve just introduced an in-person lab component to complement the online HORT 100 class, and have about a dozen students voluntarily enrolled in its first semester. Here, they cover most of the lecture material online before class, and use our precious moments together for plant ID, greenhouse experiments, demonstrations, and more.

I’ve taken over HORT 435, Urban Food Production, previously taught by Dr. Bruce Branham. This is also an online course, but with a synchronous meeting time. We meet over zoom weekly in the evenings, tailored for those remote students who may have to work during the day. Here we “flip” the classroom, where students complete readings and view most of their lectures through recordings prior to class. This way, we can spend our two hours together primarily in discussion and group work, generating interesting and creative online discussion boards such as the one pictured below.

Students in HORT 435 use Google “Jamboard” to make notes during small group discussions.

Finally, with Matt Turino at the Sustainable Student Farm, we are revamping the internship program, where students are given more agency over planning and cultivating their own beds. Even in this largely in-person experience, hybrid learning is employed, where interns are given online materials that help contextualize the week’s activities and create a bank of resources for them to consult for years to come.

Ultimately, I’m discovering that our hybrid approach to education in horticulture offers access for a larger audience and allows us to make the most of our time together. Better yet, what I’ve described here is only the beginning of our blended horticultural offerings, of which availability, quality, and access will continue to grow.

Keep growing,

Jack McCoy, Ph. D.

Lecturer of Horticulture

Department of Crop Sciences

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