One of the most hyped concepts associated with the post-pandemic future is hybridisation – “hybrid” working, “hybrid” offices, and “hybrid” classrooms.
But while these buzzwords are splashed across cover pages of magazines and speculation about hybrid learning seems to be everywhere, there is still a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity around it.
It doesn’t seem possible to apply a one-fit-all approach – instead each university will need to mix and match components to create the best solution for their staff and students.
What students want
Various surveys asking students about their preferences and suggestions for the post-pandemic future of higher education show that they have a clear desire to continue using the aspects of remote learning that they found useful (one of the most popular examples is access to recorded video lectures and other digital materials).
According to the Digital Learning Pulse survey, published by Bay View Analytics, most students want to keep the option of studying online to some extent, which confirms a need for hybrid solutions in higher education.
Unsurprisingly, first-year undergraduate students lean towards a full return to on-campus learning. For many of them, this is a beginning of a new, independent and exciting adult life away from their parents. It is a time when their academic, personal and social lives have many crossovers. For them, socialisation, making new friends, participating in student clubs and sporting events are integral parts of this new life, which can never truly be replaced by virtual alternatives.
On the other hand, when students progress towards their final undergraduate year, they have more reasons to find flexible hybrid models helpful. By that time, many students have started internships or jobs, so a hybrid model allows students to combine study and work more efficiently.
Preparing students for future employment is one of the main tasks of higher education. Students must understand and be ready for the new working environment shaped by the global pandemic. One of the major traits of the “new normal” working environment is the wider adoption of remote working and the concept of a hybrid office.
Almost all of the UK’s 50 biggest employers questioned by the BBC said they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time. Some 43 of the firms said they would embrace a mix of home and office working, with staff encouraged to work from home two to three days a week. This means that instead of returning to the office, employers are embracing hybrid working and blending on-site and off-site approaches. This move towards a hybrid future highlights the inevitable changes that will impact higher education.
What the research tells us
According to a systematic literature review existing research shows the potential of synchronous hybrid or blended learning environments where both on-site and remote students can simultaneously attend learning activities. One of the main findings is that existing research suggests cautious optimism about synchronous hybrid learning, which creates a more flexible, engaging learning environment compared to fully online or fully on-site models.
But it’s not just about opportunity and possibility – challenges associated with transitioning towards the hybrid model need to be explored from both the tutors’ and students’ perspectives.
On the one hand, tutors have to adapt their teaching approach while maintaining comparable learning standards. Tutors are expected to continuously learn how to use new technology and new platforms and be able to understand and evaluate their benefits and constraints. The hybrid learning environment demands better coordination so that the tutor can pay attention to and accommodate the needs of both student cohorts: on-campus and remote. All this significantly increases the teacher’s mental load and leads to stress and fatigue after teaching in this learning setting.
On the other hand, students experience hybrid synchronous sessions differently depending on whether they are remote or on-campus. Remote students who participated in research described their experience as “ambiguous”. They said they felt like an outsider at times and wanted to be treated the same as if they were physically present in the lecture room.
Inclusion and engagement
Technology also plays a big role in whether remote students feel included or excluded.
When the technology works well, distance students can engage with tutors and students on the campus in a way that would otherwise not be possible. But when remote students have technical or connectivity issues, or audio and video quality are poor (for instance, due to the position of a camera or mic in the classroom) or they have to sign in several times during the class they don’t feel welcomed and part of a group; rather, they can feel isolated, stressed and embarrassed.
Another challenge is the level of engagement of remote students compared with their in-class peers. This study showed that remote students were more passive and often behaved as if they were watching TV and not attending a lesson. A monologue-based teaching style and the difficulty of making the teacher aware that remote students want to answer a question contribute to students feeling frustrated and uninvolved.
Overcoming the challenges appearing in hybrid educational environments will be a complex, multi-dimensional task. A single silver-bullet solution is unlikely to work. Instead, a set of measures, approaches, techniques and practices for each university to mix and match could eventually create a successful customised solution. Different universities and even different departments within the same institution might have different solutions and approaches to hybridisation. Most solutions will probably include:
- Re-thinking pedagogy, curriculum and course design to move from instructor-centred (e.g. traditional lecture) to student-centred (e.g. active learning) approaches and making them a better fit for hybrid learning. We need to shift the main focus from instructor delivery of content and to student application of content (e.g. problem-solving). One approach is building hybrid synchronous sessions upon asynchronous activities using a flipped-classroom approach.
- Training and support for teaching staff (both pedagogical and technological) and students. We need to think about providing regular and on-demand training to tutors, creating knowledge-sharing opportunities as well as using technical support or coordinators for complex sessions (or even encouraging students to take a role of technical support and troubleshooting, enabling more student ownership of the learning environment). For students, training, instructions and support should familiarise them with the platforms as well as provide guidelines on how to communicate with tutors and peers during the sessions.
- Activities for increasing student engagement. Tutors should be able to interact with both in-class and remote cohorts, as well as facilitate discussions where all students feel included and have equal opportunities to participate. For example, a tutor should regularly ask questions and be attentive to students from both cohorts.
- Physical and virtual spaces that are suitable, inclusive and welcoming for all students as well as tutors. In well-designed and well-set-up hybrid auditoriums both student groups (remote and on-campus) should equally be able to see and hear the tutor and each other, participate in group exercises and be able to ask a question or respond. On another hand, a tutor should be able to comfortably monitor a class and interact with students.
- Holistic well-being support – promoting, supporting and prioritising physical, mental and emotional health and managing the negative factors affecting it. Supporting the development of psychological resilience capabilities, ethical awareness and emotional intelligence and recognising that people are first, technologies are second.
The global adoption of the hybrid approach most likely will shape higher education. The task of designing and implementing hybrid or blended learning experiences will involve several areas – pedagogical approaches, technological solutions, ethical issues, digital well-being, inclusion, the reorganisation of physical spaces and curriculum changes.
Building highly effective hybrid educational ecosystems, where all feel welcomed and supported and remote students are not spectators, but protagonists, will require a customised convergence of technology, pedagogy and an inclusive environment.