This article was originally published by EdTechX.
As the immediate influence of the Covid-19 pandemic recedes, a key takeaway for many educational leaders is that hybrid learning, enabled by new technologies, is the way of the future. Here, we outline how hybrid learning, implemented correctly, can benefit students and instructors, improve educational quality, and create operational flexibility for institutions.
The terminology is often used in different ways, but for us, hybrid courses or programs are those that combine diverse modalities, including synchronous and asynchronous learning, as well as in-person and online instruction, enabled by digital technology. According to this definition, a digitally-enabled course that is all in-person is not hybrid. Courses or programs that have some in-person and some online meetings, or that have substantial self-paced, asynchronous work, complemented by either in-person or virtual synchronous meetings, are hybrid.
Hybrid learning offers many potential benefits, including more efficient use of campus space, opportunities to utilize new learning platforms, and flexible scheduling for both students and instructors — which can better meet the needs of many learners, especially those for whom access to education has traditionally been challenging, such as working adults or students with disabilities. Unlike traditional online learning, with its emphasis on convenience, low cost, and massive scale, hybrid programs can incorporate the best of what digitally enabled learning can provide, while retaining the quality and social connection of in-person, cohort based education.
For many institutions, hybrid learning is unfamiliar, and presents logistical, educational, and marketing challenges to overcome. To address these challenges, leaders must focus on creating an intentional, integrated, and cohesive hybrid learning experience for their students, rather than simply combining ineffective traditional educational approaches. For example, when hybrid courses perpetuate ineffective instructional techniques, such as large lectures, they bring little benefit to students beyond convenience. Alternating between in-person and online modalities does not improve lectures, as is evidenced by Zoom rooms in which most students have their cameras off and mics muted, leaving the instructor wondering whether there is anyone actually paying attention.
Another example is HyFlex learning, where some students participate in class meetings in-person, and others join virtually. When done skillfully and with the right technology, HyFlex can provide benefits of connecting students across disparate locations, but the degree of difficulty is high and many instructors struggle to implement Hyflex, creating a poor quality experience for everyone.
The key to implementing hybrid learning effectively is to focus on the student experience, and how the different components of a hybrid experience can each add distinctive value. One aspect to consider is the goal of each learning activity: asynchronous learning works well for information transmission (readings and videos), as well as low stakes practice applying skills and knowledge. Synchronous sessions are best used for facilitated active learning, where students can interact with an instructor who can answer questions and provide immediate feedback.
Experiential learning and project-based learning can deepen students’ understanding of how to apply skills and knowledge in realistic scenarios even further. By focusing these kinds of activities on practical applications of the same learning outcomes students are engaging within their academic coursework, students become more proficient and prepared for professional opportunities available to them during and after their course of study.
One of our partners, Esade School of Business, created the Bachelors in Transformational Leadership and Social Impact, which combines skills-focused, active learning courses delivered virtually by subject-matter experts, with Socratic seminars held in-person to build community, and in-person projects on Esade’s innovation campus, utilizing maker-spaces and proximity to in-residence startups to provide students with exposure to entrepreneurs. By selecting each learning modality based on the goal of the program component, and structuring the program around a core set of learning objectives, Esade has created one of the most innovative hybrid learning programs available to undergraduate business students.
To make the student experience cohesive in a hybrid program, it is important to be thoughtful about the adoption of technology to support hybrid learning. When students are required to use multiple different technologies to participate in different learning modalities — an LMS for assignments, a video conference platform for virtual meetings, and separate platforms for discussion boards, courseware, and polling for in-person meetings — they often struggle to master each platform, which can create barriers to learning. Simplifying the approach to digital learning tools, and where possible adopting a solution that provides a comprehensive learning environment across modalities will provide the best overall experience.
The same goes for student services — when students begin to take coursework both in-person and virtually, they need support that is relevant to, and available across, different modalities. Virtual resources to help them navigate the hybrid experience, including appropriate orientation and ongoing support, are a key success factor for the overall student experience.
Instructors who are excellent teachers in a physical classroom may struggle with virtual teaching and need to understand the ways in which the tools and techniques used for each medium differ, and how they can be used cohesively. We have consistently found that instructor training and coaching, as well as team teaching approaches, create collegial opportunities for instructors to learn with their peers how best to engage with their students.
When instructors are empowered with the right support to serve students well, and hybrid courses are designed to integrate program components in an intentional and fit-for-purpose fashion, students have the opportunity to experience the best of what technology-enabled education has to offer.
Taking all of these considerations together, educational leaders can develop a strategic approach to implementing hybrid learning at their institutions, and thereby improve the accessibility and quality of their offerings.