The pandemic university is not the hybrid model we need

In Universities without Walls, a recent report from the European University Association, a vision for universities in 2030 is laid out as “open, enforcing the vision of universities without walls”. Universities are described as cooperative and networking institutions which take the form of communities with open boundaries that build bridges between countries, cultures and sectors.

Furthermore, the report states that “the nature and structure of universities will be hybrid. They will be open as physical and virtual spaces and will work to cultivate both of these when engaging with society”.

But what does it actually mean to be hybrid? And how can we grasp the notion of hybridity beyond mere technical systems, solutions and set-ups to see the ways in which it transforms both future universities and universities’ futures?

What does it mean to be hybrid?

Drawing together the last five years that I have spent writing about the theory, method and practice of hybrid higher education, the first important distinction that emerges is the distinction between hybrid, hybridisation and hybridity.

A hybrid refers to a new species, form or culture that is a cross, fusion or dissolution of already existing species, forms or cultures. A hybrid such as a mule is neither a donkey-horse nor a horse-donkey, but something ‘other’, a new form; a mule. In higher education this means new designs or formats (hybrids) for institutions and systems.

Hybridisation describes the process of cross breeding, fusing or dissolving species, forms or cultures to create new hybrids, that is, the processes undertaken by universities or academics to develop or design for new hybrids.

And, finally, hybridity is a term for the relationship between a hybrid and its source material. Hybridity highlights what makes a hybrid hybrid – ie, its ‘otherness’, distinctiveness or signature traits when compared to other species, forms or cultures, that is, the distinctive or salient characteristics of the new hybrid coming into being.

Hybrid universities, then, utilise hybridisation to dissolve dichotomies or create fusions between the dimensions of, for example, onsite/online, formal/informal, campus/society, closed/open, synchronous/ asynchronous, digital/analogue, situated/distributed or internal/external in order to develop new hybrids or hybridity.

Not just a technical fix

The next important distinction to make is how hybridisation is concretely undertaken through fusing dimensions or dissolving dichotomies in order to create new hybrid institutional frameworks, educational formats or academic practices.

Thinking ‘alternatively’ about the above dichotomies or dimensions – while working intentionally and reflectively like an alchemist trying to create gold, and keeping the traits of ‘universities without walls’ in mind – we can envision and design for ‘other’ – more open – futures, frameworks and formats for universities, and, subsequently, create new hybrid beings.

Importantly, this understanding of hybridity also points towards potentially the most important distinction when it comes to hybrid universities and hybrid higher education: the distinction between, on the one hand, an understanding of ‘hybrid’ as a technical solution or set-up (something that has become particularly prominent during the pandemic) and, on the other hand, an understanding of hybridity as a certain kind of institutional or academic being connected to deep structures of theory, method and practice within the field of hybrid higher education.

During the pandemic – with its emergency teaching and stages of panic, survival and endurance – both institutions and academics have, understandably, witnessed a deep disconnect from theory and research. There was no time to develop or connect emergency teaching and pandemic campuses to existing theories, methods and educational development within the field. There was no time to think; there was only time to act.

However, we must now take the time to re-connect with the field of hybrid theory, research and practice to create deeper structures and understandings of what the notion of hybridity brings with it for universities and higher education.

To do so, we must re-orient ourselves to see hybridity as being about deep institutional and academic being that carries with it an intricate and distinctive entanglement of roles, contexts, practices, spaces and materials in higher education.

This entanglement in the form of hybridisation positions universities and their inhabitants as deeply cooperative, networked and networking with and in the world. Universities can use hybridisation to build future bridges and create deeper dialogues between different people, societal ecosystems and cultures.

How does hybridisation and hybridity concretely change the university? And what kind of development agenda is needed for the university to become genuinely hybrid and foster hybrid higher education?

Post-pandemic, post-digital hybrid higher education

First, it requires a move from the ephemeral digital no-where university or the global every-where university – characterised by being universities for no-one or any-one – and towards universities as hybrid communities. Hybrid communities are characterised by being ‘spirited places’ (genius loci) that create a cultural atmosphere of being a ‘some-where for some-one’.

The hybrid university is its own particular something, a certain kind of hybrid – a unique being that stands out in the world. All hybrid universities should have a hybridity that is identifiable as a design signature and have a signature pedagogy which makes its inhabitants distinguishable as belonging to that particular hybrid wherever they are in the world. The hybrid university is not a system or space but a home and a place.

Second, the hybrid university demands a move from emergency teaching and the pandemic emergency campus towards the formation of post-pandemic hybrid universities. It is time to leave behind the quick fixes, blind actions and technical set-ups that carried us through the pandemic and to look ahead towards a post-pandemic future.

The pandemic mindset must be replaced by building deep connections to and engaging scholars and specialised experts in the field of hybrid education. We cannot learn (much) from the pandemic university about how to think, do and be as a hybrid post-pandemic university – or about what meaningful hybrid teaching and learning looks like or how to practise it.

Third, the hybrid university necessitates an opening up of the university – to let it become both hybridised and hybridising, networked and networking; to curiously and creatively, intentionally and innovatively, work with the fusion of dimensions and the dissolution of dichotomies to create new hybrids in the form of cooperative and networking universities.

Hybrid universities and hybrid higher education are integrated within and open towards surrounding ecosystems. A hybrid university sprawls across an array of technologies, systems, spaces and cultures to constitute a networking and networked ecosystem where new hybrid forms of thinking, doing and being emerge.

Fourth, and this is perhaps perplexing, the notion of hybridity demands a move away from current digitalisation into post-digital futures. The dissolution of dichotomies and the fusion of dimensions also pertain to the distinctions between digital and physical, online and onsite. Through hybridisation these are fused into something ‘other’ – something hybrid.

In designing for the future hybrid university, higher education institutions need to design for hybridising post-digital thinking and practice. Within post-digital hybrid universities there is an academic engagement with known unknowns and even unknown unknowns to drive societal change, create transformational learning environments and open up institutional spaces to form universities without walls and beyond traditional dichotomies.

Last, but not least, all of the above establishes the hybrid university as a holistic open ecosystem nested within – and in dialogue with – other ecosystems. Within the ‘ethics of hybridity’ lies concern, compassion and care for the ways in which hybrid universities influence the hearts, hands, heads and habits of all their inhabitants as well as their surrounding ecosystems.

The hybrid university points towards putting humans before systems, hybrid pedagogy before digital tech and the deeper purpose of the university before ‘effective’ technical solutions. Building on Danish philosopher Knud Ejler Løgstrup’s concept of ‘the ethical demand’, we can see how we must first and foremost make sure we are developing ethical kind-hearted hybrids.

Løgstrup writes: “Trust is not of our own making; it is given. Our life is so constituted that it cannot be lived except as one person lays him or herself open to another person and puts him or herself into that person’s hands, either by showing or claiming trust.

“By our very attitude to one another we help to shape that person’s world. By our attitude to the other person we help to determine the scope and hue of his or her world; we make it large or small, bright or drab, rich or dull, threatening or secure.

“We help to shape his or her world not by theories and views, but by our very attitude towards him or her. Herein lies the unarticulated, and one might say, anonymous demand that we take care of the life which trust has placed in our hands.”

Frontloading the ‘ethos of the hybrid university’, universities must make sure that the hybridity of their institutions, frameworks and practices does not take the form of sinister or cold-hearted hybrids. To do so, universities must draw together and fuse the elements of hybridity (see below) that transform them into a post-pandemic post-digital hybrid university beyond technical systems, solutions and set-ups.

Rikke Toft Nørgård is associate professor in educational design and technology at the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University and a steering committee member at the Centre for Higher Education Futures at Aarhus University, Denmark. This article is based on a talk she gave recently on “The Hybrid University: As place, network and heterotopia” for the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States, and the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society.