First-year students undergo several transformations like the transition from high school to university schedules, teaching methods, and discipline specificities to social changes that come with meeting new colleagues or moving to other locations far from family and friends. The COVID-19 outbreak brought additional concerns and uncertainties once educational systems implemented distance learning schemes for public health management. Nevertheless, higher educational organizations preferred to implement hybrid approaches for student engagement motivation and high dropout rate avoidance. In Romania, such an educational system has been applied with caution. Since the pandemic needs to be understood as an opportunity for adaptation and education improvements, the purpose of the present paper is to uncover lessons learned and to develop a systematized model based on students' perception regarding face-to-face, online and hybrid systems. For this reason, a grounded theory approach has been preferred. Thus, 149 Romanian students enrolled in the first year in engineering specialities with ages between 18-26 years both male (50.3%) and female (49.7%) have answered the research questions in an online environment due to pandemic restrictions. Based on the online asynchronous student interviews, 220 codes and a further 13 categories have been developed. After a pertinent analysis of the relationships between categories and relevant literature sorting, a theoretical model for the Romanian higher educational current pandemic situation has been proposed. The main face-to-face and online education characteristics are outlined, the hybrid approach becoming a bridge between the two systems. Management implications are outlined together with further research directions.
Keywords: face-to-face education; grounded theory; hybrid system; online asynchronous interviews; online education; student motivation.