The Student preference and the preparation for a new normal
Various surveys asking students about their preferences and suggestions for the post-pandemic future of higher education demonstrate their clear expectation to continue to use the aspects of remote learning that they found useful (e.g. access to recorded lectures is considered highly important). The results of the Digital Learning Pulse survey, published by Bay View Analytics (requires registration – a summary of the results are available in this article), confirm the need for hybrid solutions in Higher Education – students value the flexibility of online learning.
Unsurprisingly, first-year students lean towards a full return to on-campus learning. For many, this is a beginning of a new, independent, adult life, away from parents where academic, personal and social lives have many crossovers. Socialisation, making new friends, participating in student clubs and sporting events are integral parts of this new life, which are almost irreplicable by virtual alternatives.
On the other hand, as students progress through their studies, they start to see greater benefit in flexible, hybrid models. A hybrid model allows students to combine study and work more efficiently, and as preparation for future employment is one of the important tasks of higher education, ensuring that students preparedness for the new work environment becomes increasingly significant.
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 have 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. I Instead of returning to the office, employers are embracing hybrid working. This clear direction towards hybrid raises questions about the impact on higher education.
What research tells us about hybrid learning
A systematic literature review on synchronous hybrid learning (Raes et al. 2020) confirms the potential of synchronous hybrid or blended learning environments. This research suggests cautious optimism but concludes that hybrid learning has true potential to create more flexible, engaging learning environments, when implemented effectively. (Raes et al. 2020).
The pedagogical and technological challenges from a teacher’s perspective are the need to adapt their teaching approaches while maintaining comparable learning standards (Grant and Cheon 2007; Lightner and Lightner-Laws 2016); continuously learning and developing with new technologies and learning platforms; understanding and evaluating their opportunities and constraints. There are higher requirements to coordination from the teacher to be aware of and accommodate the needs of both those on-campus and remote. All this as was found significantly increase teacher’s mental load, which is referred to as hyper-zoom or hyper-focus (Bower et al. 2015; Ørngreen et al. 2015; Zydney et al. 2019) and leads to stress and fatigue after teaching in this learning setting (Weitze et al. 2013).
Remote and on-campus students experience synchronous hybrid lessons differently (Beatty 2007a, b; Szeto 2014; Zydney et al. 2019). Olt (2018) investigated the experience of synchronous hybrid learning from a perspective of the remote participant using the term “ambiguity” regarding group membership, the functionality of technology, and place. This study interviewed distant students who described feeling like an outsider at times, the term referred to by sociologists as being “othered” and expressed their desire to be treated the same as if they were physically present in the lecture room.
Technology can both include and exclude distance students. When technology functions normally, distance students can engage with professors and students on the campus in a way that would otherwise not be possible. But when remote students are having technical or connectivity issues, they don’t feel welcomed as part of a group; rather, they feel isolated, stressed and embarrassed. Another challenge identified in the research is the level of engagement from remote students compared with their in-class peers. The study of Weitze (2015) showed that remote students were more passive and often behaved as if they were watching TV rather than attending a lesson. One of the reasons for this was the monologue-based teaching style and difficulties to make the teacher aware that remote students want to answer a question, which caused frustration and impacted involvement.
Guidelines and recommendations
To overcome challenges appearing in hybrid learning environments some studies suggest recommendations and guidelines related to several aspects.
- Faculty should engage in training in both pedagogical and technological issues
- Facilitators can be used to support students in raising any issues during the session
- Encourage students to take a role of a “chat tracker” and “technology trouble-shooter” (Zydney et al. 2019) to relieve some of the tutor’s pressure and enable more student ownership of the learning environment. It is recommended that students receive an introduction and expectations on how to undertake this role.
- Promote engagement through activities that cognitively activate students and interact with both in-class and remote cohorts, holding discussions where all students feel included and have equal opportunities to participate.
- Focus on curriculum and course design alignment and a wider set of measures for transitioning from instructor-centred pedagogies (e.g., lecture) to student-centred pedagogies (e.g., active learning). Focusing less on instructor delivery of content and more on student application of content (e.g., problem-solving) (Saichaie, 2020). For instance, Zydney et al. (2019) suggest that hybrid synchronous sessions should build upon asynchronous activities from a flipped-classroom approach.
The task of designing and implementing hybrid or blended learning experiences covers many areas of practice: pedagogical approaches, technological solutions, ethical issues, digital well-being, inclusion, and reorganisation of physical spaces and curriculum changes.
The solution for building highly effective hybrid learning ecosystems, where all feel welcomed and supported and remote students are not spectators, but protagonists, will be the convergence of technology, pedagogy and an inclusive environment.
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Raes, A., Detienne, L., Windey, I. et al. A systematic literature review on synchronous hybrid learning: gaps identified. Learning Environ Res 23, 269–290 (2020).
Szeto, E. (2014). A Comparison of online/face-to-face students’ and instructor’s experiences: Examining blended synchronous learning effects. Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences, 116, 4250–4254.
Weitze, C. L., Ørngreen, R., & Levinsen, K. (2013). The global classroom video conferencing model and first evaluations. In Ciussi, I. M. & Augier, M. (Eds.) Proceedings of the 12th European conference on E-Learning: SKEMA Business School, Sophia Antipolis France, 30–31 October 2013 (Bind 2, s. 503–510). Reading, UK: Academic Conferences and Publishing International.
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Zydney, J. M., McKimm, P., Lindberg, R., & Schmidt, M. (2019). Here or there instruction: Lessons learned in implementing innovative approaches to blended synchronous learning. TechTrends.