Hybrid Learning – making a virtue of necessity

Dr David Parsons – The Mind Lab

In 2020, when COVID-19 first disrupted education worldwide, there was much debate about the impacts on students and teachers of being forced to move schooling online. As the COVID years have rolled by, learning has become hybrid at best, and there have been unpredictable switches between face to face and online learning. 

Of course the idea of flexibly blending online and face to face learning was well-known many years before the arrival of COVID-19. The Christensen Institute says blended learning is when students learn “at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace”. Teachers have no doubt been experiencing exactly this, albeit perhaps in a very unplanned way, in their own practice. We have had to acknowledge student agency over their time and their preferred ways of working as well as acknowledging the lack of agency they may have over access to devices or connectivity. 

In conversation with the teachers on our Postgraduate Certificate in Digital and Collaborative Learning programme, who are facing these challenges on a daily basis, many of them have referred to trying to deliver hybrid teaching by treating their face to face classes and online students as separate cohorts, or having minimal shared time between these two groups. However, this approach is difficult to manage and gives students an inconsistent experience as different subgroups move in and out of the physical and virtual classrooms.

The only way we can help students to be their best in this situation is to give them the necessary control over the time, place, path, and pace of their learning.

Some use the term HyFlex (hybrid-flexible) to mean not only online and face-to-face learning, but flexibility, where students choose whether or not to attend face-to-face sessions. Many teachers will feel that their students are already de facto using this model, whether it was intended or not, but the key aspect of HyFlex is that students get the same learning opportunity whether they elect to attend online or face to face. If online students feel like second class citizens then they will soon disengage.

What began as a crisis can be turned into an opportunity to rethink the nature of teaching and learning.

We might think “half the class is missing” or we might take the view that “this is already a HyFlex classroom, how can it be made to work for everyone?” We need to avoid losing our engagement with students who, for whatever reason, are not in face to face classes, to make them feel fully included, and not assumed to be in a deficit model of learning. How can we make this happen? Just sticking a laptop at the back of the room and having a Zoom session running while teaching the face to face class as normal is not going to work. It may be necessary to be more flexible around the timetable, to have students learning collaboratively together in groups that combine both in-class and online students, and for online students to have their own communities of learning, supported by their teachers. Learning will have to be student led – perhaps inquiry based – and there will have to be clear ground rules agreed with students about how they will effectively learn together online when some are in the classroom and some remote. This also needs to address learning activities where those in the classroom may have different tasks to undertake than those at home, for example in performing experiments. Given that many teachers will be covering for absent colleagues, having  a clear set of expectations and a process based on students leading the learning will be essential.  If learners feel they can move seamlessly between different modes of learning to suit their circumstances, without being disadvantaged, and feeling that they can step back into the physical classroom without feeling that others have moved on without them, we will have made a significant step forward.

Read more on Dr David Parsons on why using digital technologies in the classroom is so important.

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