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How to Use Face Time to Improve Communication in Hybrid Courses

This professor uses her research in organizational behavior to enhance student experiences in and out of the classroom.

Educator

Ekaterina “Kate” Elgayeva, PhD

Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior, University of Minnesota, Duluth

PhD in Business Psychology/Organizational Leadership, MA in Library and Information Science, BA in English

Communication struggles are nothing new to Moscow-born Ekaterina “Kate” Elgayeva: After moving to Chicago in 1995 at the age of 12, Elgayeva struggled at first to communicate in the unfamiliar language of English. She remembers asking for help from a middle school teacher, who categorically told her no and to look for help elsewhere.

That might seem like a harsh response, but Elgayeva feels it helped her become “self-propelled” (as she calls it) and seek her own answers to life’s challenges. Her grit and determination eventually drove her to become an avid researcher in the field of organizational behavior, in which she earned a PhD in 2015. Her dissertation—“Analysis of Tacit Knowledge Codification in the Higher Education Sector: A Case Study”—examined the difficulty of exchanging and applying implict, highly embedded knowledge among various stakeholders in organizational settings. (Since then, she has done research on a variety of related subjects, including mentoring and leadership development.)

Findings from her dissertation research revealed that relationships among various stakeholders in organizations are incredibly important in facilitating effective communication and exchange of highly embedded knowledge. In other words, when individuals build a relationship, they create a foundation to connect on a level that moves beyond one-way communication into more transformational, two-way exchange.

This area of study proved helpful recently when, as an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, Dr. Elgayeva rose to a new challenge: converting traditional courses into a hybrid (part in-class, part online) format. Insights from her research helped Elgayeva realize that in order to make communication in hybrid courses effective, students need a foundation to begin exchanging highly embedded knowledge.

Not surprisingly, she was excited to chart a new course by applying her years of industry research in a new way. Below, she shares some resultant observations and strategies for building more effective communication within hybrid course communities.

Context

“I’ve asked students for input. I don’t make this experience about myself; I make it about them. I see them actually start to trust me. I know that’s the beginning of better learning. It’s building trust and mutual respect.”

— Ekaterina “Kate” Elgayeva, PhD

Course: MGTS 3401 Organizational Behavior and Management

Description: Introduction to organizations, management processes, and understanding human behavior at work. Covers the effects of the external environment, organizational structure, job design, teams, and leadership on employees, attitudes, motivation, and behavior.

See resources shared by Ekaterina “Kate” Elgayeva, PhD

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How to build face time into online coursework

Elgayeva has spent years on research that demonstrates the benefits of face-to-face interaction as a foundational stepping-stone toward a functioning organization or community in an industry setting. For example, her studies showed that one face-to-face meeting can have a positive impact on future collaboration online (e.g., over Slack, Skype, or email). In the university setting, she has also found that just one in-person interaction between teacher and student can have a significant impact on that student’s learning.

Below are some ways in which she puts this finding to practical use in her hybrid courses.

Require the first class to be in person

Elgayeva sets up the first class of the semester as an in-person conversation—a chance for students to share what they expect to learn, and for the instructor to set expectations for student behavior and participation. Elgayeva goes around the room and has students share their expectations as an icebreaker. It is simple, she notes, but it works. “You get a sense of who’s in the room just to get an A and who really wants to learn,” she says—stressing that there is nothing wrong with either.

Use face-to-face interactions to build trust

It is also important to build trust, which you also need to do face-to-face. “To do this, I’ve asked students for input,” she says. “I don’t make this experience about myself; I make it about them.”

As Elgayeva’s research shows, trust is the building block of the foundation for two-way communication—which, in turn, is key to transformative learning for students in hybrid environments. Building trust requires face-to-face interaction because such settings allow for greater mutual understanding through affirmation, humor, and emotional support. When students share their expectations for the course in the first face-to-face class meeting—setting the intention to become a better communicator, for example— Elgayeva can relate to individual students, reiterate the value of sharing their expectation with other students, and begin building a safe space to work toward meeting those expectations throughout the semester. Creating a safe space for this process in a face-to-face setting is a vital step toward supporting virtual interactions as well.

She says that suddenly students realize that this person, their teacher, is not standing there waiting to evaluate or demean them. “I see them actually start to trust me,” she continues. “I know that’s the beginning of better learning. It’s building trust and mutual respect.”

Then add virtual discussion

In the hybrid approach that Elgayeva uses, students have the chance to earn weekly participation points either by attending class and participating in face-to-face discussions or by completing equivalent work online. (There are due dates for online materials to ensure that students stay on task.) Both approaches cover the same objectives, but activities are adjusted to reflect the difference in format.

Tailoring instruction to accommodate learning dynamics in hybrid settings, Elgayeva uses active learning exercises (in the classroom) and reflective discussion (in the virtual setting) around specific content. For example, when teaching emotional intelligence (EI), Elgayeva facilitates a face-to-face class debate. The class is split into two large groups and each side “teaches” the case for and against EI as a concept in organizational behavior. In the virtual environment, students are similarly engaged in “teaching” their stance on EI to others in the class through an informal debate format within a virtual discussion. So, while students might engage with the concepts in a different manner, the learning outcomes—in this case, understanding the value of EI in organizations—are consistent across both face-to-face and online settings.

Introduce your expertise

After that first class, when you establish trust and mutual respect, it is important to introduce your own expertise, Elgayeva says. “I do this both through in-person instruction and online through a module or video lecture,” she says. “I expunge the hierarchy by conveying, ‘Here’s what I know but I also want to know what you know.’”

To illustrate this, she tells students that the beauty of organizational behavior is that they know more about it than they may think, though they may not have had a formal label for what they will explore in class. For example, they may have considered such questions as, “Are you the kind of person who plans your trip carefully or do you prefer to wing it?” That, she tells them, is an example of a personality facet, which plays a role in people’s workplace experiences (e.g, are you the kind of person who plans your project carefully or do you wing it?).

Allowing students to discover how such fundamental questions relate to their individual experience with organizational behavior concepts through active learning and reflection, Elgayeva creates connections to her research, underscoring the foundational role of positive workplace relationships in the learning process to support effective communication and knowledge exchange.

Share real-world applications

Elgayeva teaches her students that mastering communications both in person and online will help them with all the facets of business life, including face-to-face meetings, conference calls, video presentations, and emails. To instill in them her own “self-propelled” approach, she wants students to ask themselves, “How do I apply what I have learned to real life?”

“Especially for students in the business school, what they learn will inform what they can contribute to a future career,” she says.

The hybrid format of the class fits into that lesson, she notes. In today’s world, technology is the platform through which communications, including work communications, take place. An increasing number of businesses, in fact, are adopting a hybrid approach, allowing a mix of work-from-home and in-office days.

Elgayeva’s anecdotal evidence

Elgayeva says that her hybrid-class students become well versed in on- and offline modalities that make them professional, empathetic, ethical, and contributing members of society and the workplace. “Recently a former student wrote to tell me that he has become a better communicator,” she says. “Another wrote to say she’s experimenting with various ways to inspire and empower colleagues, based on the different people and personality styles she’s encountering in the workplace.”

Though Elgayeva’s first concern is always her students, she admits that she feels good when she reads such anecdotal evidence that her approach is effective. Helping students become successful communicators has always been her intent, and she is gratified to hear that it works.

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