In sync: implementing hybrid learning - Education Matters Magazine
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In sync: implementing hybrid learning

Introduced out of necessity due to disruption caused by the pandemic, blended and hybrid learning models are now here to stay. But are teachers adequately prepared? Education Matters investigates.

Early in the 2022 school year, Independent Schools Victoria (ISV) published a report exploring the experience of, and possibilities for, hybrid learning in schools.

It surveyed 83 independent Victorian schools and 124 school leaders and educators, collating its report when some schools were emerging from extended periods of remote learning, imposed as a result of six government-mandated lockdowns.

Independent Schools Victoria surveyed 124 school leaders and educators to inform its report on Hybrid Learning.

The report found participants felt more confident in implementing blended learning (81%) than hybrid learning (50%). Across all hybrid learning models presented to the survey participants, ISV’s report noted more than half (55%) implemented the differentiated model, where students at home and in-person engage synchronously on the same lesson. This is considered the easiest hybrid model to plug into conventional schedules and instructions, ISV noted.

According to the report, most teachers experienced considerable difficulty in implementing a hybrid model. The biggest challenge was teacher competency (30%), followed by quality student learning and engagement (27%) and technological issues (24%). 

It found teachers were generally less motivated to pursue implementing a hybrid model as they regarded hybrid teaching as a temporary solution during lockdown.

The majority of participants (61%) described a blended learning model as an ideal situation for the future, and about a third (30%) nominated a hybrid model.

“Our findings reveal that it will be useful for school leaders to constantly re-evaluate their technological choices to invest in infrastructure that is fit for purpose based on their budget, expertise and digital maturity.”

What part does technology play?

The survey also explored what kind of changes teachers made in the technology they used and how they were set-up to incorporate a hybrid learning model. 

The most common technology used was Microsoft (Teams, OneNote, OneDrive, SharePoint), followed by Zoom, Google (Classroom, Meet, Docs), and learning management systems such as SEQTA and CANVAS, and classroom apps like Seesaw. Other less common technological software and apps mentioned included Compass, Edrolo, Showbie, Firefly and Blackboard.

Teachers reported combining technological and digital tools to provide effective instruction and most established a specific set-up after several trials. However, some reported that they still struggled with audio – particularly listening to remote learners and teaching concurrently.

Participants in a 2022 survey reported they struggled with audio – particularly listening to remote learners and teaching concurrently. Image: master1305/stock.adobe.com

“Overall, across the hybrid learning models, the differentiated model was mainly adopted as it was considered the easiest to ‘plug into’ the conventional classrooms and instructions in a short period of time,” ISV’s report noted. 

It concluded most teachers pivoted as needed in their instruction and made use of various technology platforms and digital tools to ensure learning continued.

“Unsurprisingly,” it said, “the majority suggested that professional learning and ongoing training is important to improve teachers’ digital literacy skills. 

“Some mentioned that this is needed to boost confidence in teachers’ technical competency in running a hybrid model, particularly in anticipating potential technical glitches and planning lesson contingency.”

ISV observed a strong desire among survey participants to explore the best technology and digital platforms for interaction and collaboration between learners in real time, and to create a good face-to-face and online experience. 

Those who have implemented hybrid learning were more likely to suggest that its delivery requires an automated, streamlined approach to technology and digital tools across the school for seamless teaching and learning. 

Most of this group have encountered issues running a hybrid model and felt that careful consideration is needed to choose the right technology that is user friendly and fit for purpose.

“Overall,” ISV’s report concluded, “this will help ensure they end up with tools and technologies that align with the school’s educational goals.”

‘Something you do, not somewhere you go’

When Mr Hassan Baickdeli was a student, ‘hybrid learning’ meant video-recording classes, and being able to play it back later, on Betamax or VHS.

Today, with the capabilities across Microsoft Teams, and collaboration on one-to-one or shared devices within the learning environment, he says education is “starting to become something you do and not somewhere you go”.

Mr Baickdeli is Head of Emerging Technology and Solutions at Lenovo Australia and New Zealand – and parent to a primary-school aged child.

“My role entails leveraging existing and emerging technologies and the solution stack that sits around those to bring technology to life in order to deliver specific desired outcomes,” he says.

Hassan Baickdeli, Head of Emerging Technology and Solutions at Lenovo. Image: Lenovo

He liaises directly with schools, including principals, digital curriculum specialists, and educators “at the coal face of e-learning”. He says technology for hybrid learning is unquestionably part of their conversations.

“COVID forced a lot of schools and IT departments onto the backfoot; they had to suddenly send laptops out, and support connectivity for students – it was obvious learning had to be done remotely,” he says.

But it wasn’t a new idea.

“I worked with St Catherine’s in Waverley some time ago, where they had the capability for students to dial in when they were sick, and be able to see what was happening in the classroom. But COVID really forced the hand for all schools to go down that path,” Mr Baickdeli says.

“Being a father to a five-year-old prep student during COVID, it was not only a huge eye opener, but a massive impact in relation to the forced requirement of digitisation.”

In his conversations about hybrid learning with educators, Mr Baickdeli says it’s important to get a handle on how they want to teach.

“It needs to be properly thought about from an individual class perspective, as well as an individual educator perspective, because there’s a variety of ages – and digital competencies – among educators; some are new to the school environment having recently completed their studies, others are quite seasoned,” he says.

“It’s about understanding how they want to teach and being complementary to that. For instance, video collaboration equipment might suit some, or taking Microsoft Teams for schools environment and OneNote Class Notebook and doing something as basic as digitising PDF forms so educators don’t need to be leaning over the shoulder of students to see how they’re progressing; they can see that in real time in class.”

As a large technology partner, Lenovo not only provides hardware for hybrid learning, it has also done its due diligence of going into schools, universities, and educational institutions to understand how they’ve been impacted coming out of the pandemic.

“We’re also looking to how schools want to enable transformation and seeing firsthand what could be implemented to achieve that,” Mr Baickdeli says.

To illustrate his point, he describes how Lenovo recently worked with a school on a project about liveability – but the school was physically located 500 kilometres from its closest city.

“The students were wanting to learn about liveability in different locations, but they were isolated from their closest city. To assist, Lenovo leveraged Microsoft Teams; I walked around Chatswood, in inner Sydney where Lenovo ANZ is head-quartered, with a mobile phone, showing the students the streets and infrastructure,” he says.

“As I walked around, I talked about services in the area, public transport, office buildings, residential blocks, et cetera. We started to have an exchange around what the level of poverty is like within the city, what housing is like, how expensive housing is, what services and facilities are available, how multicultural it is.”

He continues: “It was really interesting because these students, who probably haven’t travelled outside of their state let alone visited their closest capital city, were seeing first-hand such a variation in geographical environment compared to their own at home.” 

Mr Baickdeli says the next step would be walking students through a digital twin of a city in virtual reality allowing students to see elements of infrastructure and key service networks, such as power and water supply. 

Understanding each school’s hybrid learning requirements and desired outcomes is more important than what kind of technology is used, Mr Baickdeli says, but technology is part of making it happen.

Location – and budget – are not necessarily limiting factors.

“It’s all about the learning outcome. Budget is something you can work with; in one-to-one programs, which a lot of public schools have right now, a student has access to a web browser or access to Microsoft Teams through a web browser, even if it’s not a native app,” Mr Baickdeli says.

“It’s about how do you provide experiences that are inspiring, without causing too much administration in terms of planning and preparation and sign-off forms and so forth for travel. It’s about making things easy, but making experiences deliver something richer, such as the liveability lesson.”

Connectivity is slowly becoming something for all, with states like South Australia leading the way with high-speed fibre-optic internet at 99% of schools.

“Depending on where the school is, and its network bandwidth, some educators might run into some challenges teaching with a hybrid learning approach. But there are ways around that. We’ve worked with some exciting partners to be able to deliver high speed connectivity in rural areas,” he says.

“There’s also the possibility of On Demand, which would allow for bandwidth not to be all in one location at one given time but to be buffered so it’s downloaded to the school’s environment, and then it’s leveraged on the local area network, as the student requires, so it might not be in real time, but as close to as possible.”

How effective is hybrid learning?

Assessing the effectiveness of a hybrid learning model for teachers and students is “a complex question once you look under the hood”, says Dr Stefan Schutt.

For Dr Schutt, a Senior Lecturer in Learning Design (ICT/Digital) in the School of Education at La Trobe University, it’s important to note that the term ‘hybrid’ is an umbrella term that has been used to mean different things. 

“A range of models combine face-to-face learning with online learning in different ways. Scholar Lora Bartlett has broken these down into three categories: parallel (happening at the same time but separately), alternating (switching from face-to-face to online and back) and blended (where the two are integrated). There’s also the HyFlex model where students can switch back and forth between online and face-to-face depending on their needs,” he says.

“We also need to consider the huge variety of contexts that such learning takes place in. This is an important consideration because what might be effective in one context might not be effective in another.”

For instance, Dr Schutt says, for students in remote or regional areas who can’t easily get to a school, or a school working with neurodiverse teens, a model might lean more towards online learning (because some neurodiverse kids actually prefer mediated communication), whereas a metro primary school might place more emphasis on face-to-face learning. 

“We also need to consider the ability of students and teachers to access the technology. In some low socio-economic areas, as well as rural ones, decent access to computers and internet – the ‘digital divide’ – remains a persistent barrier to participation in education,” Dr Schutt says.

In addition, the impact of mental health issues resulting from increased isolation are increasingly coming to the fore. 

“I’ve heard this concern from schools and others working with teens, and reports from my own daughter who is currently in high school. I’ve also seen it in my own students at the university I teach in,” he says.

Dr Stefan Schutt is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at La Trobe University.

Evaluating the effectiveness of hybrid learning also needs to consider the ability and confidence of teachers to use the technology, Dr Schutt reflects.

Overall, he says, there have been some genuine successes in the COVID era with teachers showing incredible flexibility and ability to pivot quickly to online teaching, with some developing innovative and engaging programs in the process. 

Others, though, have found the reliance on digital technology challenging.

“US research from the time has revealed a drop in teachers’ sense of self-confidence as their practice changed overnight. We shouldn’t expect teachers to become technology experts, only to be open to trying new ways of doing things – and we need to be as supportive and helpful as possible as they navigate this transition,” Dr Schutt says.

In the foreword of ISV’s 2022 report, Chief Executive Ms Michelle Green wrote that, amid the challenges, the past two years’ experience with hybrid learning suggests there are opportunities for teachers to reimagine how education is delivered in ways that better reflect the emerging and changing needs of their students.

Schutt agrees, noting there are several ways that technology-based approaches can be combined with face-to-face learning. 

“One particularly interesting area is place-based learning – how can we use technology to augment or add to learning about real places, whether that’s in the sciences, arts or areas like Indigenous studies. Approaches like augmented reality offer promise here.” 

So too does virtual reality (VR) and the ability to completely be immersed in other worlds, as well as turning learning into game-based activities. 

Dr Schutt says that although this approach has tended to be the domain of wealthier independent schools that can afford technology like VR headsets, robots, and coding kits, it doesn’t need to be that way, with some lateral thinking and imagination.

“For instance, it’s easy and free to create QR codes that can be placed in real-life locations and turned into games. Another example is the cardboard VR headsets that kids can build and then slot their phones into,” he says. 

“Our computers and phones can tap into many sophisticated onboard and remotely accessible tools that can be used for education, especially education about real life issues and problems – but we also need to be mindful of the impact of educational policy, such as the mobile phone ban, as well as privacy and safety considerations.”

ISV’s report unquestionably demonstrated that many teachers and school leaders share concerns and challenges in implementing a hybrid model. For Dr Schutt, it’s important to recognise that those concerns are real and valid. 

“I don’t think we’ve yet reached a ‘new normal’ post-COVID where we have a shared communal understanding of how to study,” he says. 

“Before 2020 this was clearer, and the sense I get is that young people, including my own kids, have seen the ground shift under their feet and they are a bit at sea in terms of expectations about when to turn up for school – hence the huge growth in ‘school refusal’ – and how to engage with others in a shared space.”

Mental health issues add to a sense of shifting sands in terms of how to connect and relate to others, and to feel part of a shared endeavour, he says. 

“Learning is a relational endeavour and the rules of those relations have become murkier. What is ‘best practice’ now? The COVID shift to online learning was massive, and adding to that is the teacher shortage and increased administrative workloads for those who have stuck it out: where do you find the time to experiment and try things?,” Dr Schutt asks.  

In addition to hybrid learning, he says it is equally important to consider the impact that artificial intelligence (AI) is having, and will have, on education – especially in terms of the essay-based assessments many teachers are used to assigning. 

“Increasingly, the rapid adoption of this technology – often by students independently – is forcing teachers to think of new ways of teaching and assessing, with greater focus on demonstrating process, such as in problem-based learning, rather than submitting one artifact, such as a written essay,” Dr Schutt says.

“This is a challenge but also an opportunity on how educators can use technology to support this kind of learning.”

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