Feb. 22, 2023 - The adoption of hybrid learning models that grew out of the pandemic is proving to offer a new world of benefits for students, teachers, and parents, too
Katie Dorsey has a story that will sound very familiar to a great many educators. Dorsey, who was head of school (aka "principal") at Herron-Riverside High School in Indianapolis when the pandemic hit, had to suddenly navigate the challenges of e-learning for an entire student body. "We had been using a free, educator-friendly website called 'Haiku,' where teachers could post fairly simple things, such as a syllabus," she says. When the high school shut its doors, Dorsey and her colleagues needed much more powerful solutions. They went "all-in" with the Google® Classroom Suite and Zoom Rooms® video conferencing, she says: "We first had to make sure that all teachers had platforms where they could not just post documents, but promote engagement and exchange information with students."
As the pandemic evolved, the school went through no less than six different learning-model shifts. "We went from full remote to hybrid and back again," says Dorsey. The challenges were both technical and psychological. "We had to ensure every student had a reliable device," she notes. Some of the students would claim they had the proper technology, worried about any damage costs they'd be liable for if the school provided the equipment.
The Hidden Benefits of Adding Tech Solutions in the Classroom
But as Dorsey and her team uncovered solutions, they noticed that something interesting had begun to happen — namely, an uptick in engagement for a growing number of students. "The addition of a chat feature on Zoom Rooms — or whatever platform you're using — is really interesting because then, essentially, you can double the amount of engagement that's happening at once. One person's commenting out loud while another person's typing in the chat." In the hybrid learning model, Dorsey's instructors would have the in-person learners log in to the Zoom meeting and then project the entire session on a display in the classroom. "All the faces are there," she notes. "Promoting dialogues is critical to our mission as a college preparatory school."
Dorsey also discovered that more introverted students found the chat function especially liberating — the pressure of speaking in front of others was no longer a factor. "Private messages to teachers were also helpful: 'Can you please go over that last math problem once more?' is something a lot of learners might be reluctant to ask out loud."
There was another concept that had already been utilized prior to the lockdowns. One of the school's instructors had recorded a lesson or two to use in case she was out — and that was another tactic that was widely adopted in the face of COVID restrictions. Those recordings are especially useful if a student needs to review some portion of a class or lecture they might not have fully absorbed the first time. "To be sure, we don't want to replace the live discussion and the relationships that often come from that type of environment, but didn't want to throw the baby out the bath water either," says Dorsey, and many tools that were absolutely necessary during the pandemic are now part of a broader array of teaching strategies.
The Data Backs Up the Examples: The Right Tech = Engagement
What Dorsey's discovered goes far beyond anecdotal examples from a single midwestern school — and well past the high-school or college-prep level. A 2022 report from Instructure titled "The State of Student Success and Engagement in Higher Education" that surveyed more than 7,500 students, administrators, and faculty from across the globe discovered that digital, connected teaching methods — coupled with compelling content — are absolutely vital in driving student engagement and success. (It's one of the report's six key findings, in fact.) The current generation of "digital natives" — learners who have never known a time without the internet — find critical human connection via technology.
The report also offers this caution: The right technology for the application or material is paramount. The delivery of quality online courses at scale is an absolute must for institutions of higher learning, along with the necessary training and support for faculty. The use of an "LMS" — a learning management system — is also strongly advised, given the data.
There are a number of technologies that are perfect for these kinds of educational applications. New AI technology that's part of Crestron's 1 Beyond solutions helps ensure that remote learners (or a remote instructor) can take in all of the nonverbal cues that occur during a classroom discussion or lecture. Speaker tracking, presenter tracking, or group framing can all be used to increase engagement and enhance the experience of the remote learner. (Some of the technology available from Crestron actually began development as a way to record lectures at universities such as Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Brandeis, and Babson without the need for a full video crew.)
Connecting With Parents, Too
The growing adoption of videoconferencing technology in schools provides another benefit: better parental engagement. "Instead of asking a parent, 'Can you come in for a 20-minute meeting on your day off?' now I'm able to say, 'Do you want to flip on your screen for 20 minutes so we can have a quick face-to-face conversation?'" It feels much more solution-oriented than a phone call. And that's true with students too." Does the learner need a quick check-in during the week? Virtual office hours are available.
There's been a lot written about some of the other less-than-obvious benefits of hybrid learning. Some examples:
Katie Dorsey — who has now become vice-president of strategic planning for Herron Schools — sums up precisely what she and her colleagues around the world are trying to achieve with hybrid learning technologies: "I hope it is the careful adoption of technology that can fuel engagement and feedback but doesn't compromise relationship and engagement with high-quality instructional materials.
"The SAT is about to go fully online. Now we owe it to our students to help them do their best thinking online."