Quest’s Hybrid Exerience

by Wayne Cotter (representing Council)
from the Quest’s General Meeting, Nov. 10, 2022

To begin I would briefly like to describe Quest’s experience with online learning over the past two-and-a-half years.

On March 13, 2020 Quest shut down due to Covid concerns. Less than three months later in 2020 we began conducting Zoom sessions from home for the summer session.

In the fall of 2020, we continued to conduct all our classes from home via Zoom as we researched whether we could – at some future date – simultaneously conduct classes for those at 25 Broadway and at home.

Throughout the 2020-21 academic year, none of our classes were conducted at 25 Broadway. All were Zoom-only classes emanating from our homes. This was a fairly straightforward process and generated very little controversy.

During that year, Quest invested about $30,000 in new technical equipment to allow us to simultaneously present classes to those in the classroom and those at home.

Council then decided that the fall of 2021 was an appropriate time to return to 25 Broadway, but recognized a sizable number of members would be uncomfortable or unable to participate in person. We therefore decided to try to offer virtually all our classes in hybrid form. It was an extremely ambitious undertaking and we managed to do that for the entire academic year. No other lifelong learning center in the country was offering anything nearly as ambitious at the time.

Throughout that academic year in which we offered this vast array of courses in hybrid form, Council was becoming alarmed about how severely attendance had dropped off at 25 Broadway. The drop-off in attendance also had a snowballing effect. People who were making the effort to come in person to 25 Broadway often found few other people attending classes in person so then they too stopped coming.

Believing that meaningful social interaction is essential for the long-term health of this organization, Council determined it was time to scale back on the number of hybrids offered in the fall to determine if that would help boost attendance at 25 Broadway. In Council’s view it was an experiment worth undertaking.

Thus, for the current fall semester, Quest scheduled about 18 hybrid courses, roughly one for each morning and afternoon time slot. Although some members no longer could view all their favorite courses from home, Council strongly believed reducing the number of hybrids was essential to the long-term growth and vitality of this organization.

Thus far, Council has been quite pleased that members are once again returning to 25 Broadway and that new and prospective members are getting an idea of what the “old Quest” looked like.

Today I am speaking on behalf of Council, but my remarks also reflect my experiences as co-chair of the Tech Committee. Obviously, not every member of Council feels exactly the same way on this issue. Some Council members think we should offer fewer hybrids than we currently do; some believe we should offer more. But Council has, in my view, reached a remarkable consensus on this issue, while carefully considering both Quest’s short-term and long-term interests.

Below are answers to some of the most common questions I have encountered over these past few months and perhaps they will clear up a few misconceptions.

Q: Why doesn’t Quest just hire some tech people to set these hybrid classes up every day?

A: Hiring qualified tech people is, I believe, a red herring. This is not a technical issue. Even if we could hire the most talented and experienced people, Council does not believe it is in the best long-term interest of the organization to offer every one of our courses in hybrid form.

Q: My favorite course is not offered in hybrid. Why not?

A: This semester, we are offering 18 courses in hybrid format. This is a sizable number of courses, but invariably someone’s favorite course will be left off the list of hybrids. The alternative would be to offer every single course in hybrid format, which Council believes, as explained earlier, is not in the best long-term interest of this organization.

Q: Attendance at 25 Broadway has improved this year, but how do we know that is because fewer hybrid courses are being offered?

A: We can never know that for sure, but many members have acknowledged that they would definitely not be coming to 25 Broadway if a particular course was being offered in hybrid format, which certainly makes sense.

And we are told by the membership committee that every prospective member has been impressed by the live experience at Quest. There are literally hundreds of Zoom learning institutions throughout the country that a prospective Quest member can participate in from home. Quest’s unique strength in attracting new members is the meaningful social interaction that we engage in every day. Zoom-only organizations cannot possibly replicate that dynamic.

Q: Does Quest rely too heavily on lead coordinators to determine whether their courses are hybrid or in-person only?

A: First a little background. Once Council decided that scaling back the number of hybrids was appropriate for this fall, we were faced with the question of how to determine which courses should be hybrid. This may not seem like a complicated issue, but there is really no ideal way to achieve this.

In an attempt to resolve this problem, Council decided to first get input from the lead coordinators on the hybrid question and see how that would work. It actually worked very well. We told lead coordinators that we were ideally aiming to schedule one hybrid course per time slot and sought out their preferences.

But really, who is better than a lead coordinator to provide input for such decisions? Lead coordinators are the lifeblood of our organization. Without them, Quest is nothing. Lead coordinators design the courses, seek out presenters, devise schedules, assist presenters. I could go on and on. They – more than anyone else – need to be a major part of this process.

Some Quest members have suggested Quest should simply direct lead coordinators to conduct hybrids or to conduct in-person only courses. Well, compelling lead coordinators to offer a course in a format they are uncomfortable with is not really a good idea. That lead coordinator is not likely to volunteer to design a future course. And without lead coordinators, well there is no Quest.

Before I take some of your questions, I would just like everyone to keep in mind that these types of Zoom-related issues now face just about every organization, be they small or large, private or nonprofit. There are no magic answers to many of these questions, nor is it possible to please everyone.

I don’t believe there are currently any other unsubsidized life-long centers in the country offering as many hybrids as Quest provides to its members. I would also like to make clear that Quest’s Council is committed to achieving strong social interaction at 25 Broadway, while ensuring that a range of courses are accessible to those who cannot join us in person.

Update for Spring Semester
Wayne Cotter, Nov. 13, 2023

This spring, Quest is offering 20 of its 35 courses as hybrids. In the first week of the spring semester, attendance at 25 Broadway is again robust, the lunchroom is full and more than a dozen prospective members have visited Quest classrooms. Several special events and lunchtime activities have also been planned.

To our knowledge the only life-long learning centers offering more courses to their at-home members are those that have decided to only present via Zoom to their members, all of whom stay home to watch. This is not a business model likely to attract new members or one which bodes well for the long-term viability of a lifelong learning organization.

Since May 2020, Quest has been in the forefront of embracing technology that allows us to share a majority of our classes with those at home. We’ve invested heavily in such technology, in terms of dollars as well as blood, sweat and tears. We accomplished all of this during a time of unprecedented uncertainty throughout the country. Quest’s Council also revisits its hybrid assumptions and decisions on a semester-by-semester basis.

Here are additional questions to supplement those from our fall 2022 general meeting.

Q: Why did Council require at-home presenters to have a co-presenter at 25 Broadway this year?

A: Presenting entirely at home to a roomful of attendees did not prove effective in the 2021-22 academic year. This conclusion is not a judgment on the presentation skills of our at-home presenters, but rather reflects the fact that it is nearly impossible for a presenter at home to hold the attention of a group of people sitting in a classroom for 90 minutes. We strove for a compromise that would allow at-home members to still present provided they worked with a co-presenter at 25 Broadway to more effectively engage our in-person attendees.

In addition, prior to instituting these requirements for at-home presenters, we felt compelled to list on NWAQ which classes would feature at-home presenters. This was because our members were telling us such information was crucial when they were deciding whether to attend in person that day. A member’s decision to stay home impacts not only the in-person attendance at the class with the at-home presenter, but also negatively Impacts the attendance of other classes offered that day. Council will evaluate this requirement for the fall 2023 semester, taking into consideration its impact on both members confined to their homes and members who regularly participate at 25 Broadway.

Q: Is Council likely to significantly reduce the number of hybrids in the future. Is anybody advocating eliminating hybrids?

A: Hybrids are here to stay at Quest. There are certainly some members who long for the “good old days” when we all participated in person at 25 Broadway. But during those so-called good-all-days, a member who was incapacitated had no other choice but to leave the organization. That is no longer true. Each semester the number of hybrid offerings will be tweaked but hybrids will not disappear.

Q: Sometimes the lighting and sound are not ideal when I participate at home via Zoom. Can anything be done about that.

A: Our goal when providing hybrid offerings via Zoom is to make sure the presenter can be clearly heard at home and that any accompanying PowerPoints and videos can be seen and heard. It is not possible to fully replicate the in-person experience on Zoom. At times, the lights in the classroom may shut off. Often you will not see people in the classroom asking questions. At times, the tech person at the laptop monitor may not see your chat message. Zoom is an amazing technology and our volunteer tech people work extremely hard, but please understand that Zoom presents unique challenges, especially in hybrid form.

Q: A major goal of limiting hybrids at Quest was to increase attendance at 25 Broadway. Did that happen?

A: Yes, attendance has increased significantly since the year we first returned to Quest in 2021. Many of you may recall how empty many of our classrooms felt that first year back. Some members have dismissed the impact of Council’s decision, pointing to other factors for the increase. Yes, other factors did contribute to the welcome boost in attendance in this academic year, but be leery of anyone claiming to know the “real” reason for the increase. Anyway, Council is just extremely pleased that more and more people are coming to Quest and that we can offer well over half our courses in hybrid form.