The hype of hybrid learning

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

As schools in New Zealand and around the world reflect on what they have learned from the lockdown period(s) caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the fact that the need for school closures may still occur into the future, the prospect of a ‘hybrid’ approach to schooling has been getting airtime from a number of commentators, as noted in a recent post on the TES site for example, which states that local lockdowns and self-isolating staff and students mean schools around the world must prepare for hybrid learning and all that it entails.

During lockdown the primary aim of educators was to make any remote student experience as educationally robust and effective as the in-class experience – but the reality proved challenging, requiring new ways of thinking and new skills to be learned. Students and parents alike are hoping for a return to normal, but it’s more likely that the 2020-2021 school year will be a mix of online and in-person sessions for many.

The concept of hybrid schooling (or blended learning) focuses on a combination of both traditional classroom-based learning with learning at home, usually mediated by the use of digital technologies and online platforms. Unlike the period of lockdown where all learners were learning from home full time, there appear to be two emerging perspectives of what a hybrid model might be into the future:

  1. In parallel – where some students attend class in-person, while others join the class virtually from home – both groups are being catered for simultaneously.
  2. Split time – where students spend some days in school and others at home learning. The exact split depends on the context, and there may be some ‘compulsory’ attendance days in the mix.

Both of these perspectives create challenges in terms of the logistics of managing time and place. As we experienced in the lockdown period, it was the structures of schooling that were the most immediate challenge, and so the solutions we saw emerge first were structural – e.g. provision of devices, internet connectivity, finding places to study, organising and managing time for synchronous connections etc. As we look ahead to a hybrid future, I note the same emphasis on structures emerging in much of the thinking – for example, a recent article titled Sustaining Student Learning and Success from the Fielding Institute that provides a really insightful view of how we might re-think the physical teaching spaces in schools as we look to a future where we may be dealing with learners in physical spaces at the same time as involving those working from home.

Don’t get me wrong – consideration of the structures that support what we do is critically important, and without that many in our system will encounter barriers that prevent them from accessing and participating fully in the emerging paradigm of a hybrid or blended future.

That said, we cannot let our focus on structural issues be the only thing that leads us into a hybrid future. A change in the logistics of how schooling works won’t guarantee any sort of change in the nature of the learning process or how we think about success in learning for example. Having put the structures in place the focus must shift to considering the pedagogical changes that this will bring. In my view, a hybrid future is, in fact, more of a pedagogical change than it is a structural one.

Consider the following examples of pedagogical practice that will require re-thinking in a hybrid learning environment;

  • goal setting and objectives – as learners enter our physical classrooms each day there’s generally an acceptance that ‘someone knows’ what is going on and what will be introduced to learn (and why!). Whether this is in the form of a ‘WALTs’ list or merely ‘it’s in the curriculum’, learners (and teachers) generally accept that for the time they’re in the physical space there’ll be some form of purpose behind what happens. When physical proximity is removed consideration needs to be given to how learning goals and objectives are arrived at and expressed. This is key to motivation and engagement for learners – and their sense of ‘ownership’ of learning.
  • self-directed and self-managed learning – without the immediate presence of a teacher, learners at a distance are expected to demonstrate a much higher degree of self-directedness and self-management. These skills must be learned – but not through simply ‘teaching’ them. They must be developed as a consequence of careful planning and scaffolding of learning tasks, together with attention paid to the provision of support (see below) at every step of the learning process. Risk taking and learning from failure are important here, so the pedagogical design (with support) must take account of this too.
  • motivation, engagement and support – boredom, distraction and fear of failure are all characteristics of learners in our on-site classrooms – but with just a 50 minute period to sit through these things can often be disguised or ignored. Not so in a distance learning context. Bored students simply don’t turn up to synchronous sessions. Distracted students learn quickly where the ‘mute’ button is on Zoom, or fall increasingly behind on their asynchronous tasks. And those who fear failure are also likely to fall behind or engage in excuse making behaviours. Building sufficient levels of motivation and support into the design of online/distance learning is key – it must be front and centre of the teacher’s mind, and not crowded out by the desire to ‘deliver’ content and make sure it is engaged with. Finding the right balance of synchronous and asynchronous activity here is important, as is ensuring you use the principles of Universal Design for Learning to create meaningful learning activity that will accommodate the learning needs of all of your learners.
  • collaboration and learning conversations – we mustn’t forget that a lot of learning is a social experience. Distance education should not be an isolating experience just because of the lack of physical proximity. There are plenty of online tools and environments that can be employed to provide the sense of ‘presence’ of others in the learning process. This includes both synchronous and asynchronous tools – not all learning conversations have to be in the form of a video call. Online forums, chats, shared docs etc are all powerful ways of forming connections between learners who are separated by distance.
  • feedback and formative assessment – feedback and various forms of formative assessment play an important part of the learning that occurs in our face to face settings. Not all of this comes from the teacher. Other students are often involved – think about student peer-coaching and tuakana teina strategies for example. Strategies need to be designed and implemented to ensure the same happens remotely. Many online learning interfaces have built-in feedback and ‘next steps’ suggestions built into their design for example. Teachers, and others, need to be conscious of the need to make responses to any questions or comments made in online forums and not leave students waiting for an unreasonable amount of time for a response.
  • summative assessment – there are many challenges to our current form(s) of summative assessment, particularly the ‘exam-based’ approaches that test memory and recall of what has been learned (or “delivered”) during a period of time before. Moving forward we must focus increasingly on including a competency-based emphasis in our learning programmes, providing learners with multiple opportunities and ways of demonstrating what they have learned, including the use of micro-credentials. The notion of assessment being integrally a part of the learning process is what needs to be aimed for here.
  • learning support – school environments are often rich with support for learning – think of libraries, physical resources and specialist teachers or teacher aides. We must give particular attention to how these supports will be provided in a non-school environment, and what alternatives there might be to call on. Use of public libraries or community resources must be considered. Important here also is the role of parents/whānau and other community members. Consideration of this must be incorporated into the overall design of the learning experience in a hybrid learning situation, with adequate support provided for those providing support for the learners in addition to supporting the learner directly.
  • support for learners with disabilities or special learning needs – much progress has been made in recent years to address the needs of learners with special needs in our classrooms – including specialist equipment, support staff and facilities. In moving to a hybrid situation we cannot overlook the needs of these learners in their home context. Use of the online environment can exclude some learners (e.g. visually or hearing impaired) so consideration should be given to things such as transcripts of any video material the hearing impaired, or colour-adaptive interfaces to cater for vision impaired for example. Again, the role of parents/whānau and other community members will be important to consider here.

And then there is the issue of teacher professional development. Most teachers in our current system were trained to teach in the same environments that they experienced success in as learners. The knowledge and skills necessary to work effectively with learners when the physical proximity of teacher-learner is removed are very different. It cannot be assumed that a good classroom teacher will automatically become effective in a distance or online learning context, or that the assumptions behind our pedagogical design and implementation apply in both contexts.

A focus only on structures (e.g. timetables, devices, connectivity etc.) without the required emphasis on pedagogical change will inevitably consign any attempt to introduce hybrid learning to the trash can of ‘good ideas’ as has befallen so many other attempts to transform our education system in the past.

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