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Is 2021 the year of hybrid learning? Here are 5 hidden advantages.

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on January 27, 2021
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It’s a new year. But for colleges and universities in North America, Europe and elsewhere, the uncertainty of 2020 is here to stay. Maybe that’s why so many postsecondary schools – 21% at last count – are using hybrid learning as a way to deliver the educational experience that students need, regardless of 2021’s inherent challenges.

Hybrid learning, as the name suggests, combines online and in-person instruction in ways particularly well suited to our current COVID-19 reality. But more than that, it opens up options for students and faculty that ensure its value won’t end when the pandemic does.

The scoop on hybrid learning

Judging from the countless postsecondary think pieces and lists of edtech trends I’ve been receiving in my inbox, hybrid learning is on everyone’s minds. But there’s still confusion about what exactly it means. A lot of different definitions are floating around – some from long before COVID-19 brought this educational approach into the spotlight.

At its core, hybrid learning can describe a variety of models that all have one thing in common – to deliver some instruction through face-to-face classroom learning and some online. Though sometimes used interchangeably with blended learning, advocates for the hybrid approach view online activities as replacing physical classroom activities, not just supplementing them.

It can all get a little confusing. But in the current pandemic reality, most people who talk about hybrid learning for higher education have the same thing in mind – a learning scenario that combines students in a physical classroom with others who join class remotely. Students may alternate which days they attend in person, opt-in to their preferred scenario from the start or choose what works best each week (as in a HyFlex model). But the result is the same – fewer bodies in the space, more distancing, more safety.

Hybrid learning isn’t without challenges. But it has some clear advantages over in-person and online learning. Here’s how it can help your university or college – this year and beyond.

1. Flexibility today

In this most unpredictable of times, hybrid learning lets you roll with whatever comes next. And we need that this year more than ever. As COVID-19 rates rise at the same time as vaccination rollouts begin, it’s hard to know what choices will be best for the months ahead.

Hybrid learning equips you with a full range of options that work for a variety of scenarios. Once you have classrooms ready for effective audio and video conferencing, faculty who know how to teach in them and students who are ready to log in from anywhere, you can adjust your approach as needed.

If new health regulations require you to reduce the number of students attending class in person, remote learning options are ready to go. Once vaccination rates begin to rise, you can vary the numbers of in-person students while keeping remote attendance open for those who need it. By setting up hybrid learning spaces now, you’ll be able to make better choices no matter what comes.

 

Student and instructor in a flexible hybrid learning course

2. Adaptability tomorrow

If 2020 has taught us anything, we don’t know what’s around the corner. So even when COVID-19 becomes a distant memory, hybrid learning means we won’t get caught off guard again.

Here’s one example that I keep coming back to – will we ever feel comfortable coming to class with a bad cough or runny nose? Campuses will likely need different rules and guidelines to make sure that germs don’t get spread like they used to. If your classrooms are set up for hybrid learning, it’s easy for students or faculty to join remotely when they’re too sick to attend but not too sick to learn.

When spaces are equipped for remote learning, other possibilities emerge. Bringing in guest lecturers gets simpler and lets you draw from a much wider pool. Classes on different campuses can be combined easily as needed. And professors who travel frequently have another way to stay connected. Here’s how UNC assistant professor Gary Kayye uses his hybrid learning classroom to keep teaching even when he’s on the road.

3. Connections maintained

We’re all feeling a little disconnected these days. But improvements in hybrid learning technology have actually given instructors more ways to bring students together.

Breakout rooms are now a feature of most UC&C platforms, letting students work together even when health regulations mandate that everyone stays distanced. Professors can place students in small groups (which include those in the room and remote) to discuss a given topic or resolve a problem, before coming back to share with everyone. All they need is a laptop plus headphones with an integrated mic.

Advances in audio conferencing technology also make it possible for full-class discussions to continue. There are now easy-to-use conferencing systems that give you full-room audio coverage, without relying on handheld or lapel mics that require sanitization or charging. Here’s how Nureva® audio does it, using patented technology that ensures voices are picked up in every corner of your spaces.

Remote student in a hybrid learning class

4. Engagement multiplied

Hybrid learning goes beyond just maintaining the status quo in terms of engagement. It opens up new ways to reach students, especially those who rarely speak up in a traditional classroom.

When discussions are dominated by a few voices, an online backchannel – within your conferencing platform or a separate message board – can give rise to broader participation. Students can connect with each other and share ideas and reactions, without necessarily having to speak out loud. Plus, it’s a nondisruptive way for remote students to flag technical problems. It often helps to assign a student to monitor the chat to raise issues and questions.

Hybrid learning also brings with it asynchronous learning possibilities. This can be as simple as creating an online space for conversations about course readings and lecture materials. Or to take things further, Faculty Focus has a few more ideas.

5. Expanded toolset

When considering hybrid learning, it’s easy to focus on what might be missing – in-person connection. But that mindset ignores all the opportunities that these courses create.

Once you’ve made the decision to bring technology – like laptops, conferencing applications and equipment – into the classroom, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Every day more hybrid learning solutions become available to supplement learning, synchronously and asynchronously.

You can use online whiteboards that will feel familiar to instructors, with the bonus that students can contribute to them as well in real time. Many free and subscription-based options are now available – including ones that come with the Google™ or Microsoft® platform your institution already pays for.

Or bring videos into your classroom with apps like FlipGrid that add a different dimension to the classroom (here’s how one instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder does it).

The possibilities are endless.


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Topics: higher education hybrid learning