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Is Hybrid Learning Here to Stay?

June 7th, 2021

A second-grade teacher uses a white board to teach both her in-class and online students at Wesley Elementary School.

The academic classroom model is centuries old. While some corporations have embraced remote workforces, and some online universities have carved a niche for themselves in the higher education space, ask any educator if two years ago they would have predicted even the possibility of permanently hybrid learning, and the vast majority would have been highly skeptical of the concept. Such doubt is for a good reason. Students of all ages benefit in their social-emotional development from in-person social interactions. Perhaps even more practically, parents who work out of the home rely on the academic system as a form of daytime childcare. These two constructs alone would have made advocating for hybrid learning unrealistic. Yet, one global pandemic and 15 months later, and the permanence of hybrid learning is not only possible but also probable.

Adapting and Evolving to Online Learning

In the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic, most teachers, parents, and students were not prepared for homeschooling. Many homes were not equipped with such essentials as high-speed Internet, ergonomic desks and chairs, quality headsets and microphones, or even privacy for each independently learning child in the home. Complicating matters further, parents were adapting to the new expectations of their employers as they shifted to at-home work or suffering the economic fallout of layoffs and furloughs. Teachers were also scrambling to learn new software and hardware systems and fine-tune their classroom engagement and attention control tactics to accommodate students being physically separated from their peers by miles of space.

As is our way, however, we have evolved and adapted. Many families have invested in dedicated home working and learning spaces and equipment, and many communities have improved their Wi-Fi infrastructure to help close the digital divide. As the COVID-19 infection rate decreases and the vaccination rate increases, many companies are shifting their long-term workforce models. In response to employees’ desires to continue skipping long commutes, they are embracing hybrid work models that will only require employees to travel into the office on an as-needed or part-time basis. It is no wonder then that school districts are facing similar pressures to continue leveraging recent investments in technology and preferences for at-home learning and working to enable sustainable hybrid learning environments for teachers and students.

How are Educators Defining Hybrid Learning?

Hybrid learning is one of many new terms, such as social distancing, that have become part of our communal lexicon over the past fifteen months. However, in its current, generally acceptable format, hybrid learning refers to an academic modality in which online components leveraged for teaching and learning replace some face-to-face classroom experiences. At times during the height of the pandemic, under some hybrid models, teachers lectured virtually from their empty classrooms while students tuned-in from home. As our response to the COVID-19 pandemic evolved, and we learned more about the virus’ contraction risks, many schools shifted to a model in which students participated in classwork from the school grounds some days and home on others. As educators look to the future of education, what does hybrid mean next?

The Shift to Hybrid Learning

For decades, northeast communities have been plagued by the disruptions that come from snow days. Now that teachers and students know how to confidently attend lessons, collaborate on group work, and complete homework assignments using online engagement tools, snow days can simply become at-home learning days, eliminating the academic burden that comes from sudden, unpredictable disruptions.

Northeast communities are not the only ones that see hybrid learning in their future, however. Some school districts intend to continue asking students to come into the classroom only part-time. Some school leaders plan to accomplish this segmented learning by asking certain grade groups—typically older students in need of less parental supervision—to learn from home full-time while younger students return fully to in-person learning.

Schools are preparing for the logistical expectations of successful hybrid learning. In San Antonio, Texas, at a public school district of 49,000 students, voters recently approved a $90 million bond to invest in cameras, microphones, and other technology to help teachers broadcast lessons from their homes.

How far will some districts take their investment in online learning? A February survey by the RAND Corporation found that approximately 20 percent of schools plan to establish and expand online courses in response to a growing interest in more flexible, virtual learning capabilities. For example, in Utah, the Jordan School District is establishing the Jordan Virtual Learning Academy. The entity expects to educate around 1,200 of the district’s 3,000 students virtually through core curriculum courses such as math, reading, and science.

Older Students’ Expectations for Greater Flexibility

Perhaps most interestingly, teens are proving that they share their parents’ practical sensibilities for the convenience of at-home learning and instruction. According to research conducted by the education company Chegg, 75 percent of college students want their education model to at least leverage some hybrid learning. With student loan debt associated with traditional on-campus models reaching astronomical levels and more students embracing online education, K-12 districts will face new preparatory expectations. They will need to provide students with foundational learning and skill development to manage the self-discipline and technological proficiency that comes with self-paced and online educational modalities. Therefore, academic models that incorporate online learning and collaboration into the traditional classroom experience will be valuable and necessary.

Long-Term Predictions for Virtual Learning

While greater technological proliferation, equitable access to equipment and wireless infrastructure, and hardware and software proficiency will be vital to success, all social indicators point to an academic future that holds at its core at least some aspect of online, virtual learning. The school districts that will be best poised to address students’, teachers’, and parents’ evolving expectations for hybrid learning modalities will be those that embrace rather than resist the opportunity for change and collaborate with stakeholders to architect a future that leverages virtual learning for the success and satisfaction of everyone involved.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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