Beyond the buzz: far off from a quality hybrid learning environment

What do we need to consider for the ‘hybrid learning environment’ to be a real success?

The ‘hybrid’ or ‘blended’ learning model fast became buzzwords in education over the last 12 months. While specific definitions vary, the terms generally refer to greater adoption of technology within the classroom or a model whereby some students attend class in-person, while others join the lesson virtually from home.

There’s a perception that, given how quickly technology was adopted to facilitate homeschooling and minimise disruption during the pandemic, hybrid learning is here to stay. But it’s important to recognise that this is a temporary solution born out of necessity, not natural evolution. We are far from the widespread adoption of technology in schools and even further from it blending frictionlessly with traditional ways of learning without significant disruption to a child’s education.

“We are far from the widespread adoption of technology in schools and even further from it blending frictionlessly with traditional ways of learning without significant disruption to a child’s education”

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed before hybrid learning becomes a reality – from the systemic to the practical.

Child support for parents

As the UK experienced its first shutdown in March 2020, kitchen tables and living rooms across the nation became makeshift classrooms. A child’s need for a device and connectivity took priority over a parent’s. There was a great amount of pressure on parents to not only be able to provide a device if they could, but also replicate a traditional classroom environment – all the while juggling working from home and homeschooling their children. As a father of two myself, I can personally attest to the challenge of all this.

For parents to take a more active, long-term role in a child’s education, there needs to be broader systemic changes that take into account how parents or guardians are employed, paid and supported in terms of childcare and mental health. During the first weeks of lockdown, ONS research found that women were delivering an average of three hours 18 minutes of childcare per day, compared to just two hours for men. This divide significantly increased when looking after younger children. With such disparities among the genders and insufficient financial and social support, there are a myriad of challenges to address before long-term homeschooling becomes a viable option for families in the UK.

Inadequate training for teachers

While the nation celebrated them from afar, teachers have had multiple challenges to overcome during the pandemic. The main one was adapting to – and becoming proficient in – new technologies. In many cases, the now popular online platforms for teaching such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Classroom only made their debut during the pandemic, so teachers lacked the training and skills needed to realise the tools’ full potential.

Let’s consider for a moment the amount of training teachers have to undertake throughout the year through INSET days, which are already costly. Ross Morrison McGill has done a great job at working out the rough cost of training and found that just one Wednesday afternoon for CPD training would amount to a financial cost of  £52,500 per secondary school annually.

Couple traditional teacher training with upskilling in digital and the scale of the challenge becomes clearer. Using technology in the classroom isn’t new, but when it arrives before its time or without adequate accompanying training, swathes of technology ends up gathering dust in storage cupboards, as the tools did not fit into the curriculum or existing lesson plans.

“Using technology in the classroom isn’t new, but when it arrives before its time or without adequate accompanying training, swathes of technology ends up gathering dust in storage cupboards, as the tools did not fit into the curriculum or existing lesson plans”

A combination of a gap in technical skills, a change in teaching style and not having the curriculum properly adapted to a digital environment – inside and outside the classroom – will have huge ramifications on children’s overall academic performance long-term.

This means teachers need to be adequately supported with both the tools and the right skills if they are to introduce new learning methods into the post-pandemic classroom.

Digital divide

It was widely reported during the various lockdowns that students on the wrong side of the digital divide struggled to keep up with their peers because of a lack of access to devices. A report by The National Foundation for Educational Research showed that leaders from the most disadvantaged schools in the UK believe that only 30% of their students were engaging with school work during lockdown, compared to 49% in the least deprived schools. One of the main reasons was a lack of access to the technology required for them to learn from home.

The problem of digital exclusion is particularly detrimental for those from lower socioeconomic groups who are often the most vulnerable and has shown to impact everything from behavioural issues to future career opportunities.

Whilst there are initiatives such as Ukie’s Tech Pledge, which asks companies to donate technologies that could benefit schools, they can only go so far. Even with these projects, a hybrid model cannot go mainstream while it still excludes certain groups. The first priority must be to level the playing field in terms of resources and access to technology for all students.

How technology can help

But it’s not all doom and gloom – while we may not be ready for a fully-fledged hybrid learning environment, it’s important to recognise that remote learning has unlocked a number of opportunities for children and enabled a more active and personal role for parents and teachers. While access to edtech remains an issue for many children at school and at home, according to an Oxford study, 75% of parents reported an overall increase in their children’s screen time during the first lockdown. This presents an interesting opportunity to normalise digital learning for children in a small but effective way.

Our experience has shown that the key to engaging children is to mirror the experiences and environments that they are already familiar with. As screen time increases in their personal lives, it makes sense to blend learning with entertainment to help children develop new skills from literacy to coding. This is particularly powerful as numerous studies have shown the importance and effectiveness of learning through play and the benefits span everything from enhanced language and communication skills, to creativity and problem-solving.

While different stakeholders try to affect systemic change through lobbying education bodies and the government to improve childcare, increase access to technology and improve the existing curriculum, others in the education space should focus on meeting children where they are. By tapping into their existing habits, passions and environments and creating enjoyable learning experiences there, we can start to reimagine what learning looks like. These small steps are the beginning of a long road but if we get them right, they could pave the way for a new and innovative education model that works for the good of every child.


You might also like: ‘Immersive technology can prepare young people for the post-pandemic working world’


 

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