|Photo by Col·legi de Farmacèutics de Barcelona on Unsplash|
Educational institutions all over the world are busy redesigning their classrooms and buying lots of hardware to facilitate hybrid teaching. The pandemic has revealed a need to offer more flexibility in how courses are run, offering students the choice of whether to attend classes on site or online. Many institutions have been doing this for many years but suddenly hybrid has become mainstream and there is a frenzy of ed tech investment. The challenge is to ensure that the online students are not simply passive observers but can participate as fully as their counterparts on site. This inevitably involves more advanced technology in the classroom with multiple screens, microphones and cameras so that everyone can be seen and heard clearly and that slideshows, whiteboards and collaborative tools can be easily shared.
Some excellent examples of hybrid classrooms are described in a detailed post by Zac Woolfitt, The future is bright - the future is hybrid. He describes how four European universities are redesigning their classrooms for a hybrid future: University of Amsterdam, KU Leuven, Imperial College London and Oulu University of Applied Sciences. All are very impressive and I urge you to read the article to get the details. Online students are visible on large screens, cameras automatically focus on the speaker in the classroom and high quality microphones ensure that everyone is heard. Not only have they upgraded their larger lecture theatres to cope with hundreds of students at a time but they have also equipped smaller classrooms and group rooms for hybrid sessions. Some solutions are like sophisticated TV studios and each lesson will require careful planning between teachers and production staff. Others are less complex but still demand that teachers rethink their teaching to adapt to the technical affordances.
However, all of them admit that they have still not found the best solution and that hybrid teaching still presents many challenges. Complex technical solutions demand qualified staff to assist the teacher, or require teachers to be well trained in using the equipment; resulting in an almost impossible juggling act trying to focus on both teaching and on managing the technology.
Finding ways to combine collaboration online and on campus remains a challenge. Those presenting here thought that there is more hybrid collaboration than every before. The solutions provided currently work, but it is expected the demands and context will change in a few years. Some have only been running Hybrid classrooms for less than a year. The feedback from students will provide lots of input. Creating really good hybrid breakout rooms has not yet been achieved yet and requires improvements in the technology. For some students, it is not easy to learn remotely, and they want to be in class, in contact with fellow students.
They are all impressive initiatives that aim at providing all students with a high quality experience no matter how they choose to participate. However, I wonder if we are asking the right questions here. These solutions are expensive and unrealistic for many institutions, especially in less developed countries. I also wonder if we place too much importance on synchronous events. No matter how much technology you have in the classroom, any gathering of more than 30 students means that the majority of them will not say a word during the session and that interaction will be limited. Large lecture theatres, no matter how much technology you buy, will always favour lecturing with the teacher in focus. Of course there is value in gathering all students in a synchronous event from time to time. It reinforces a sense of community and common purpose. But I would like to see a greater emphasis on group work, investigating, analysing and solving problems, and this is done in a combination of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration rather than in large class meetings. Maybe the hybrid classroom does not need to be so sophisticated. Shorter focused hybrid sessions to set up the task and then let the students work together in hybrid groups. This requires lots of flexible group rooms on campus but those require often only a screen, webcam and microphone. Learning to work in virtual teams to solve problems and find solutions are also vital skills to learn for most professions in a world where international travel is likely to become increasingly unfeasible.