3.1. Data Processing Based on GT Approach
As described in the Methodology section, the first step of our analysis consists of the calculation of the sample size which has high importance in the description of respondents’ distribution. After calculation, a sample size of n
= 149 students (number of interviews) was obtained, 75 male (50.3%) and 74 female (49.7%). Interview respondents have ages ranging from 18 to 26 years. The student distribution n1
, and n3
are presented in Table 1
The 149 interviews have been completed over a one-month period from the 18th of December 2020 when the initial information took place till the 14th of January. The respondents have been enrolled in one of the three faculties that have adopted the hybrid approach in Politehnica University Timisoara for the first four weeks of the first semester in 2020–2021. With a total number of 668 enrolled students in the first year of studies for the three faculties, the 149 interviews are representative. Even if Politehnica University Timisoara has a total of ten faculties, only the three already stated have adopted the hybrid approach, the rest started directly in an online system.
The data coding process was a constant comparison between the theory and theoretically sampling interview cases. Data from interview notes and transcriptions have been conceptualized line by line, while the iterative phenomena in the text have been temporary labeled. The coding process started from open coding—where labels have been offered to different ideas, grouping concepts at an abstract level—axial coding—whereby the main categories have been formed—and selective coding—where the categories have been integrated to form the initial theoretical framework.
The analysis started with the chronologic order of the interview data arranged in a memo type form and the retrieved codes have been numbered sequentially, adding new codes with each interview data analysis based on constant comparison of data. Clusters of initial codes have been formed till basic categories emerged. The open coding phase comprised a total number of 149 memos which contain 220 new original concepts. Codes were raised at a conceptual preliminary category level. The constant comparison process continued until all possible categories have been concluded. The axial coding phase comprises 13 categories (Table 2
) based on 203 of the concepts retrieved from the open coding phase, 3 concepts have been encountered as similar in formulation and 14 concepts have been abandoned due to lack of relevance for the present study.
The selective coding process explored the relations between categories in the search of core categories to which most codes will furthermore relate to. The 13 categories have been related to face-to-face education and online education, these two concepts being the focus of the present article. The open-access Social Networking Visualizer (SocNet V) (Patras, Greece), tool has been used because it enables a visual understanding of the strong relationships between the 13 formed categories and the two envisaged educational systems (Figure 2
Starting from the idea of centrality in a graph-theoretic network, Grofman and Owen [25
] hypothesis has been that the more central a position in a network, the more likely is the occupant of that position to emerge as a leader. For the relevancy of the relationship network, a degree of centrality (DC) has been computed for the 15 nodes (13 categories and two proposed central nodes: face-to-face and online education) and it is presented in Table 3
. DC index in directed networks (as the one in our case) is the sum of outbound arcs from node u to all adjacent nodes. DC’ is the standardized index that can be computed taking into consideration DC divided by N-1 (non-value-added nets) or by sum DC (valued nets). DC range: 0 ≤ DC ≤ 14 and DC’ range: 0 ≤ DC’ ≤ 1.
As we can see from Table 3
, the three educational systems, namely face-to-face, hybrid and online represent the most important links (leaders) to the network. Face-to-face education is central for better understanding, socialization, university experience, better explanations, pandemic-related restrictions and practical activities and online education is the core category for online benefits, information overload, presence and concentration hurdles, limited interaction, teacher-related hindrances, and improvement opportunities. The hybrid approach connects the two main core categories being associated with specific characteristics like adaptation, improvement, transition, and better accommodation.
The study of the grounded theory approach is continued with a second theoretical sampling stage named literature sorting, where researchers compare the emergent theory to the existing literature to model the results in a theoretical manner.
3.2. Literature Sorting, Discussions and Final Theoretical Model Proposal
Thornberg defines bibliographic analysis as a constructive method of GT [21
], which gives liberty to the researcher without forcing data. Literature sorting is left until this moment for not jeopardizing data from the start with preconceived ideas [26
In the last decades and especially in the last year with the coronavirus outbreak, scholars have been concerned with the study of differences between face-to-face, online, and blended or hybrid learning [27
]. Even if [32
] was one of the most supportive articles of distance education, arguing that there is no difference between face-to-face and distance systems, [33
] cited errors in the previous study. From their perspective, several critical factors differentiate face-to-face and online learning like the task, student and instructor characteristics and student motivation. The researchers from [27
] found that students expressed less satisfaction in online learning than face-to-face learning in the following areas: instructor explanations, enthusiasm, openness and interest in student learning and course discussions, quality of questions, evaluation, and grading. Nevertheless, Soffer and Nachmias [28
] consider that online courses are as effective as, or more effective than, face-to-face courses.
The present study on Romanian first-year students’ perceptions presents a mixed result in this line of reasoning. There is a clear preference for face-to-face learning, probably due to a better understanding of information, tasks, and evaluation criteria [29
]. The students involved in the current study emphasized that face-to-face education helps them understand and be attentive throughout the class (62 explicit answers that linked face-to-face education with better understanding). Thus, feedback is immediate, the information is easier to remember and they have more courage to ask questions or say that they did not understand something.
More than 85% of interviewees expressed that they want to go back to school and interact face-to-face with one another. This is correlated with [27
] the argument that the lack of face-to-face interaction can leave students feeling isolated. Also, it strongly links face-to-face education with socialization needs (34 students explicitly linked face-to-face education with better interaction). Other scholars militating for socialization in learning environments are [34
] who researched student experience in university transitions and [35
] who studied student engagement with information technology. The latter also linked face-to-face socialization with university experiences, by saying that “supportive campus environment is a measure of the degree to which students’ perceive that their institution supports their academic and social needs and the quality of relations among different groups on campus, including students, faculty, and administrators”. Throughout our research university experiences have been often associated with student dorm room socialization, life on your own, friendships and student guidance in learning.
If face-to-face is influenced and influences student interactions or university experiences, this traditional education system is also linked with better teaching or better explanations as argued by [27
]. This situation is not new. Indeed, [36
] considers that the tendency to shift the conversation to traditional environments where we are more comfortable is normal since it is closer to our pedagogical beliefs. Interviewed students opinioned that their teachers are well trained for both face-to-face and online teaching but in traditional education environment they exert higher impact due to nonverbal communication feedback.
Practical activities can be a reason for the success and longevity of face-to-face learning. [37
] raises the question of whether online teaching encourages creative thinking. The authors of [38
] argues that the effectiveness of teaching and learning in engineering disciplines is strongly determined by practical exercises, experiments, and laboratory classes. Our interviewees connected practical activities with better understanding and better explanations, being eager to make experiments once again in the laboratory.
Besides the advantages of face-to-face education, there have been hurdles due to pandemic restrictions that impacted learning processes. As argued by [39
], although undoubtedly essential in protecting participants’ health, there are numerous physiological, psychological, social, and economic complications associated with the wearing of masks. Socialization in face-to-face learning is considerably hindered by wearing masks. Some of the discussions with the sample size student group concluded that it was nice to meet colleagues even with masks, but it was not the same thing. COVID-19 has an impact on students undergoing physical distancing as worries for their health that hinders them to carry out daily activities [40
]. Also, Fraser at al. conclude that the limitation of physical distance will determine a variety of mental and psychological problems [41
]. Our students considered that distance restrictions have impacted their socialization needs and their university experiences.
Even if interviewees preferred face-to-face learning, they also considered as necessary to use the university online platform even after the pandemic and saw as possible (and even desire that) university courses to be performed in a blended manner. Thus, the hybrid approach brought a different mindset and new challenges to the educational system.
The hybrid system was considered by our students as protective, helpful for student life idea formation, a tool for a gradual transition from traditional education to the online system. Students proposed improvements especially to the itinerary issues in this system to avoid close face-to-face and online shifting activities in one- or two-hours period. But in general, the hybrid system has implications on both face-to-face and online education, also on several of their characteristics.
Hybrid education started early with the emergence of technology-enabling environments. However, drop off rates were then as high as 70–90% as argued by [42
] due to the poor quality of student experience [43
]. The year 2020 with all its challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic has clarified that it is time for emerging research directions, clarification of methodologies and practice communities because higher education has never been more important [44
]. In some cases, hybrid education creates confusion because of different implementation strategies chosen by universities like the rotating presences in the classes [45
]. Moreover, Santos et al. argue that the hybrid educational system mostly fosters a perception of safety when students are in the faculty [45
]. According to [46
], the teachers shall use the face-to-face interaction at the beginning of the hybrid learning period to provide clear instructions to students about the virtual tools, where to get help, and how the evaluation will be done [46
]. The hybrid approach or sometimes called blended learning has been widely considered a solution for the current situation as a bridge towards distance learning adaptation at a global scale. For post-COVID-19 higher education strategies the hybrid approach can be improved to become an alternative to a changing world. Despite its adaptability to pandemic situations, hybrid learning has as the main challenge the need of support for enabling the implementation of technology-based and pedagogy-informed teaching [47
]. In this direction, the development of new online educational platforms shall consider also a future possible pandemic situation when arising the need for online or hybrid learning. From Romanian students’ perception analysis results that they feel satisfied if an online educational platform provides functionalities as multiple devices availability, online access to scholar situation, online administrative documents/requests evidence and submission, chat services between the users etc. [48
]. On the one hand, online education has been associated with inherent benefits, but on the other, with significant hurdles. If we study the benefits of learning online, some of the most important ones are time and cost efficiency [13
]. Other stated benefits are flexible access to content and instruction at any time [13
], from any place, and increase the availability of learning experiences for learners who are marginalized [50
], cannot, or who choose not to attend onsite offerings. At the same time, low achieving and high achieving students benefit from more attention or personalized task allocation [55
]. The present research results show that online benefits experienced by engineering Romanian students confirm the existing literature and add some more like increased course presence due to the ease in connection, information disseminated through a practical online educational platform and increased comfort. Regarding the educational platform, our interviewees proposed a list of improvements that could make the online experience even more attractive.
Interviewed first-year Romanian students expressed four main problems in online education, namely: information overload, limited interaction, teacher-related hindrances and presence and concentration hurdles. Among the difficulties encountered in the online environment by scholars, [56
] presents technical issues as most important, followed by teachers’ lack of technical skills, teaching styles improperly adapted to the online system and the lack of interaction with teachers or peers.
Teacher-related hindrances cover up a wide pallet of issues. Firstly, many teachers have not been previously familiar with online platforms [57
]. Thus, they just translate their discipline for the online environment instead of adapting it. Secondly, interviewees expressed feelings of demotivation when the teacher was reading from a PowerPoint presentation or when explanations have not been adequately provided for difficult tasks. In most cases, they consider that teachers have very high expectations without providing appropriate course instructions.
Regarding the limited interaction of the online environment, [58
] and [59
] argued that the lack of physical presence of classmates determines feelings of isolation. This lack of communication and interaction with teachers and peers is considered by [60
] as the main challenge students face in online learning. The difficulty to socialize and ask questions has been well expressed by our students.
Information overload has been addressed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [61
] when discussing the challenges in the online environment, namely, keeping an equilibrium between online courses to avoid students spending many hours in front of a screen that could affect their health. Our students also complained about the difficulty to understand a course and to solve a task, linking information overload with teacher-related hindrances. Student motivation, presence and drop out incentives are linked with information overload in online environments.
The presence and concentration hurdles are the most addressed difficulties in online education by our sample group. 43 from 149 students explicitly linked online learning with serious concentration hurdles. Most of them consider online presence a false presence since they are not attentive to the teacher as in face-to-face environments. The lack of concentration is put on account of family, phone, perceived easiness, or other priorities’ distractions. The authors from [56
] gives them justice by saying that it is more difficult to study and be focused online. They also consider technical issues to hinder their online presence like poor internet connections, power failures or educational online platform blockage. The research from [59
] emphasizes that during the university closure and lockdown, students may be developing feelings of fear, stress, and worry due to internet problems. Capone et al. conducted a research in the field of student mental well-being and the analysis has shown that the information-seeking level during the pandemic increase in the direction of collective risks, personal risks and psychological well-being etc. [62
]. The study from [63
] also suggests that technical availability is the core characteristic of successful online education. If we do not provide this availability to all students, presence and even concentration hurdles may often occur.
In the end, interviewees have proposed a set of improvements for both hybrid and online education. Regarding teacher-related hindrances, they consider as very important that teachers should adapt their discipline to the hybrid or online environment. The study conducted on [56
] expresses the same idea by saying that online obstacles can be overcome with the help of teacher adaptability. The authors of [59
] argues that teachers themselves will be subject to significant learning both in a move to different pedagogic approaches as well as needing to become expert users in the technologies employed. Garcia-Alberti et al. [64
] conclude that there is much room for improvement, especially when focusing on the formative assessment.
As suggested by some of our sample group, students’ hindrances can also be overcome if students become responsible, understand to differentiate between learning time and family time/space for concentration purposes, and start discovering ways to synthesize information and manage their time efficiently and effectively. In the end, virtual platform improvements are also suggested.
The responses of our first-year students determined a theoretical model which visually expresses the current Romanian higher education situation in engineering specialities. In Figure 3
, the proposed theoretical model is outlined.
The hybrid approach is associated with all its perceived characteristics and is presented in the COVID-19 lockdown situation as a necessary bridge from exclusive face-to-face to online education. Even if face-to-face education is preferred, in some regions with a high number of COVID-19 cases, the hybrid system will be a solution. But lessons learned from a first hybrid semester in Politehnica University Timisoara, Romania need to be applied for improvement purposes for semesters to come. In addition, when the pandemic will end, blended learning can continue in adaptable forms for student satisfaction and qualitative results. In the future, if higher education institutions gain sufficient experience and open to students’ needs, it will be possible to offer them the choice between various forms of teaching without being constrained by reasons of a health emergency.