Is the hybrid classroom here to stay?

Exploring the innovative ways that educational institutions can use collaborative technology to enhance the education experience

Thousands of new students are embarking on their next chapter as they begin to settle into a new term like no other. Whilst the typical social and extra-curricular activities that schools are renowned for have been significantly reduced and, in some cases cancelled, lecturers and teaching faculty members are committed to ensuring that the education experience isn’t compromised.

Despite these challenging and turbulent times, many academics and university lecturers are choosing to view this large-scale digital transformation as an exciting opportunity. It presents a chance to create and revise existing content to ensure it’s not only engaging and challenging for students, but has long-term potential.

An accelerated blended learning experience

Combining technology and teaching isn’t a new concept, but has been accelerated in the current climate, with this style of teaching offering an opportunity to provide a bespoke experience to suit the learning styles of every student. The blended learning approach combines online educational materials and opportunities for interaction online with traditional place-based classroom methods.

A huge benefit of this approach to teaching is that it allows schools and universities to offer greater flexibility for their students. For example, many universities will be extending in-person teaching hours to help facilitate social distancing in labs, having the option to attend mandatory tutorials at varying times throughout the day could also prove invaluable for mature students and those with external commitments. Meanwhile, with online teaching, students will have the option to revisit recorded content to help prepare for examinations and assessments and will also have access to 1:1 online sessions with tutors for additional support, all at a time that suits them.

Dr Gareth Healey, senior lecturer at Swansea University medical school, has been utilising collaborative technology – not only for his teaching, but also for research and business development opportunities. He’s excited about the flexibility this offers.

“Outside of teaching we have been utilising collaborative technology to expand our university business network combining pioneering technology, research facilities and scientific expertise with leading healthcare businesses to develop essential new medical and pharmaceutical products,” he explained. “Now we are looking at ways that we can bring this technology into the classroom, connecting our students with global experts in their field and utilise features such as live polling and attendance tracking to help us support them.”

Keeping classrooms connected

Prior to COVID-19, video-enabled room technology was typically associated with corporate meeting rooms and business technology. But now as schools and universities have been forced to get creative to facilitate social distancing measures and student safety, we are beginning to see the benefits of this technology for the classroom.

Malden Catholic is the first high school in Massachusetts, United States, to utilise a whole portfolio of collaborative technology to ensure that both remote and live students feel as if they are in the front row of the class, while maintaining social distancing and experiencing full in-class work, with features such as intelligent video framing capabilities that follow the teacher’s movement and highlight the flow of conversation by learning who is talking. It can reframe the scene on the speaker while keeping everyone else in view, so even remote students feel connected. A whiteboard view even allows teachers to broadcast the board image to remote students and share notes in real-time. Plus, with the option to access recorded sessions that have been automatically transcribed with captions, the classic ‘missed the lesson’ excuse will no longer apply.

John K, Thornburg, Malden Catholic headmaster, views this technology as the perfect partner for keeping students and staff engaged.

“Through the use of collaborative technology,” he said, “Malden Catholic was able to move to distance learning without missing a beat and now we can create a stimulating and safe classroom designed for seamless faculty and student engagement. In these challenging and uncertain times, this technology is the way to guarantee that our students’ education will not be compromised”

A short-term solution or long-term investment 

Pre-pandemic, remote learning was reserved for mature or part-time students – it was never expected to go mainstream. And before now, this style of learning may have been viewed as less effective than in-class teaching, but with the right mindset and technology in place, this doesn’t have to be the case.

While many parents and students will be apprehensive about starting or continuing their education this way, the blended learning approach offers an exciting opportunity, for staff and students alike, to re-define the education experience.  It’s common knowledge that there is so much more to education than what’s taught in the classroom. By viewing collaborative technology as a tool to give students greater control of their education, schools and universities can find new ways to engage and challenge their students and empower them to take this knowledge beyond the classroom.

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