If hybrid learning is the way of the future, let’s learn to do it well

Tiles spelling out hybrid learning

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the word pivot may have become part of your regular vocabulary. In March of 2020 we at RRU—like educators in many parts of the world—were faced with the challenge of how to continue teaching as we pivoted to fully online learning.

At the start of this New Year, the word hybrid is becoming increasingly common in our vocabulary. We now find ourselves cautiously optimistic about the possibility of returning our residencies to campus in the months ahead. However, health concerns amidst the enduring pandemic, coupled with learning and teaching preferences; a range of equity, justice, inclusion, and accessibility considerations; and goals to reduce carbon emissions have given rise to a new challenge: designing a hybrid classroom.

Hybrid classrooms will allow students to access uninterrupted learning while needing to self-isolate when experiencing symptoms (assuming they’re still well enough to join online) and will mitigate any travel delays due to border restrictions or challenges obtaining study visas. Hybrid classrooms will also allow educators to accommodate and support a range of other life circumstances adult students face, e.g. access for people who want to continue their studies and are living in remote communities, who have recently had children, or who are undergoing medical treatment. Hybrid classrooms may present an opportunity to orient to possibility and contribute to a more just, equitable, and sustainable world.

Online, Blended, and Hybrid Classrooms

When the pandemic hit, we at RRU were well-positioned for the pivot to fully online learning. Although we had never taught one of our signature two-week intensive residencies in the online environment, we did have 25 years of online teaching experience. We also teach mid-career professionals who tend to appreciate the flexibility online learning has to offer. However, as we talk more about hybrid learning, let’s get clear about the differences between fully online, blended, and hybrid classrooms.

In many programs at RRU (e.g., the MA in Global Leadership and MA in Leadership) we have been doing what we call blended learning. Students start their learning in the online environment by logging into a Learning Management System (we use Moodle) to complete a range of learning activities. There are a few synchronous meetings, but most of the online learning takes place asynchronously. This means that—like responding to email—most online activities are completed within a reasonable timeframe, but according to students’ own schedules (often after putting their kids to bed!).

Following this online experience, students enter an intensive synchronous experience, which normally runs for one or two weeks. Pre-pandemic, this was done in-person on the RRU campus, thus the term residency. Online learning coupled with on-campus residencies is what we call a blended learning experience. During COVID-19, this residency is what we had to redesign when we pivoted to the fully online environment.

As we pivoted, we knew online learning was more than simply speaking into our laptops in hopes that students would stick with us. We knew we needed to create a rich learning environment with activities to engage the whole body, the imagination, and all the senses. We knew we needed to pace and take care of ourselves and one another, especially by offering ample breaks from the screen. And we knew this wasn’t like early correspondence learning where students mostly read texts and completed assignments; students needed to engage with one another and the instructor as well as with audio, visual, and text-based resources to enrich the learning experience. In other words, we knew the importance of building a learning community—after all, being caring and community-based is a foundational part of our Learning, Teaching, and Research Model (LTRM).

Now we have an opportunity to pivot yet again to hybrid learning. For us, hybrid means running a synchronous (live, real-time) residency that is simultaneously online and in-person.

Designing Quality Hybrid Classrooms

Many of us have encountered poorly executed hybrid experiences, where the online audience is an afterthought or the in-person audience is left waiting while technological issues are resolved for those joining online. Fully integrated, high-quality hybrid models value and attend to both online and in-person students equally. Providing rich and engaging learning experiences for both audiences requires thoughtful instructional design, skilled educators, technological know-how, and appropriate tech and human resourcing. A quality hybrid classroom entails more than setting up a computer with a webcam in the corner of the room. A hybrid classroom considers sound and video quality while leveraging the benefits and mitigating any difficulties of the online and in-person modalities. Building community between online and in-person students remains challenging, yet if hybrid learning is the way of the future, now is the time to learn how to do it well.

Benefits of Team Teaching to Students and Instructors

In our blended model, we already know the value of team teaching to maximize student learning and support one another as a staff and faculty delivery team. Team teaching:

  • Allows students to learn from diverse instructors, who have different teaching approaches and areas of expertise;
  • Instructors likewise learn from one another or can step in for one another if something goes awry;
  • Large cohorts can be divided into smaller working groups working with each instructor, which benefits both students and instructors; and
  • Students can learn about teamwork through observing it modelled by a high-functioning teaching team.

In the fully online environment, we expanded this understanding of team teaching to create different roles: ideally, audience-facing speakers work collaboratively with tech hosts who (for example) monitor the chatbox, create breakout rooms, or run audio-visual files. This means that instructors aren’t as distracted by the technology while they’re speaking and students generally have a better quality experience, with seamless transitions and fewer delays while behind-the-scenes tech details are set up.

In a hybrid model, we now need to combine these areas of responsibility, attending to tech, physical, visual, and verbal presence for both the in-person and online audiences.

The Qualities of Good Courses, Period

In June of 2020, our RRU colleague, Dr. George Veletsianos, wrote an article on the qualities of a good online course. He suggested that a good online course is first and foremost informed by issues of equity and justice, or what we might call an orientation to justice, equity, decolonization, diversity, inclusion, and cultural safety. This means being trauma-sensitive and using principles of Universal Design for Learning while addressing the ongoing and systemic trauma caused by colonization, ableism, racism, sexism, heteronormativity, Anglocentrism, and more.

Moreover, Veletsianos stated that a good online course:

1.      is interactive, which is foundational to RRU’s LTRM, as described earlier;

2.      is engaging and challenging;

3.      involves practice—not just watching and reading, but applying learning in action. The 70-20-10 learning model, as advocated by our colleague and cultural safety educator, Harley Eagle, suggests that 70% of our learning occurs through practice.

4. is effective in identifying, teaching, and evaluating the skills, abilities, and knowledge students will gain by the end of it;

5.      includes an instructor who is visible and active, and who exhibits care, empathy, and trust for students; and

6.      promotes student agency, autonomy, and flexibility through redistributing power.

Veletsianos argued that “physical proximity isn’t a precondition for good education” and that these aren’t solely the qualities of good online courses; “they are qualities of good courses, period” (para. 15).

As we pivot to a future of hybrid learning, let’s remember these qualities of a good educational experience when assessing whether or not we’re doing hybrid well.

Author notes

1. Thank you to Lisa Corak, George Veletsianos, Niels Agger-Gupta, Cheryl Heykoop, and Keith Webster for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this post and to everyone at RRU working to make quality hybrid education possible.

2. The context for this post is an educational setting for graduate-level adult learners who are mid-career professionals. Different considerations may be required for children and their parents or undergraduate students.