Hybrid learning is a good thing – let’s make it a good thing for everyone

The pandemic has accelerated innovation and investment

Sponsored If you didn’t know what hybrid learning was 18 months ago, you should have a better idea by now. Hybrid learning combines in-person interaction in the classroom with online education and, during the Covid pandemic, has been an invaluable tool in teaching millions of students all round the world.

The benefits of hybrid learning (sometimes also known as ‘blended learning’), taken with the experience of the pandemic, all point to this learning model entering the education mainstream. Implementation can vary-- some students learning at home simultaneously with others in a classroom, or a teacher in a classroom teaching multiple classrooms and remote locations.

No more snow days

The benefits of hybrid learning are manifold. Most importantly, it provides continuity for students: “Providing students with the ability to learn any time, anywhere, regardless of interruptions because of a pandemic, transportation issues, severe weather, or other kinds of constraints that they might face, is a critical facet of hybrid learning,” says Delia DeCourcy, senior global education solutions manager at Lenovo. “We’ve already seen some school districts in the United States proclaim no more snow days. Weather need never be an issue again when it comes to learning.”

Making a disconnected environment connected

Equity of access is another big benefit of hybrid learning, because it should mean that all students have access to the highest quality of instruction, perhaps using the master-teacher model, where virtual lessons are planned and delivered by the top teachers in their field.

Quality teaching is, of course, essential to get the best out of students and enable their success. “If the best teacher is teaching multiple classrooms then there’s equity of access. The potential of this is tremendous,” says DeCourcy.

She cites the Prairie Spirit School Division in Manitoba, Canada as an example of hybrid learning success. Prairie Spirit has a large geographic spread, and its IT supervisor Troy Sigvaldason says that building audio and video bridges between classrooms and homes, teachers and students, has been its number one goal.

Lenovo’s hybrid learning solution has made a “disconnected environment connected,” he says, and “it’s also helped keep students who maybe would have dropped off the map stay in touch with their friends and stay in touch with their teachers. Keeping these kids in the classroom, whether virtually or in person, has been our goal”.

Giving students choice and personalised learning

The opportunity to personalise learning is another benefit. Hybrid learning gives students more choice over how they work. Students may be more comfortable and learn better at home, or there may be reasons why it’s hard for them to attend school. Hybrid learning gives such students the opportunity to continue to connect to the classroom.

Low-income households are more likely to rely on expensive mobile phone data packages than have broadband

But while we can all agree that hybrid learning is a good thing, there’s still a lot of work to be done to make it a good thing for everyone, and not just for children from middle and higher income families. Students need a device and Wi-fi access to take full advantage of hybrid learning, so the digital divide leaves children from lower income families at great risk of being left behind in an education environment that unavoidably favours those with easy access to technology.

The figures are pretty sobering. An Ofcom report from last year found that between a million and 1.8 million children in the UK do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home. Broadband costs are a struggle for six per cent of families in the UK, while five per cent can’t afford their mobile bills. Low-income households are more likely to rely on expensive mobile phone data packages than have a broadband connection in the home. And a Pew Research report from earlier this year found that about four in 10 Americans with lower household incomes ($30,000 a year or less) don’t have access to home broadband or a laptop or desktop computer.

The pandemic has exposed the digital divide

The pandemic has really exposed the digital divide and the huge digital poverty in UK schools and elsewhere. As DeCourcy says: “The digital divide existed long before the pandemic, but the pandemic has shone a really bright light on it. That perhaps is the silver lining in all of this, in that the pandemic has prompted governments to put a lot more funding into one-to-one education, so one device for every student.”

In the broadest terms, schools need devices that are optimised for remote learning, that have endpoint and cyber security controls and content filtering for at-home use. They need methods for device distribution and reclaim, and they need robust platforms and tools and a curriculum that works remotely.

It’s true that some governments were already addressing these issues prior to the pandemic, with Japan’s GIGA project being a good example, DeCourcy says. But the pandemic has meant that governments around the world have had to put much more focus and money into their efforts to digitise and connect classrooms. “It's really sped up all that innovation, in a positive way,” she says.

Tech company partnerships

It’s worth noting that these issues are not just for governments: Wi-Fi access, for example in remote areas, needs to involve partnerships with private companies, local communities and governments in order to happen. There are some stand-out initiatives from private companies - T Mobile last year launched Project10 Million, a five-year commitment to close the homework gap for US schoolchildren by supporting hybrid learning with free internet and mobile hotspots for 10 million eligible households.

DeCourcy adds that there are some interesting initiatives in South America, in developing countries where network infrastructure is still limited and where students have spent a lot of time off school because of the pandemic: “It's very interesting to see what countries like Colombia, Peru, Mexico, are doing to accommodate hybrid learning. There’s not a lot of Wi-Fi connectivity in more rural communities in Latin America, and they're using other forms of media, like radio and television, to get learning materials out to students. You have to use what you have to make learning happen.”

Equally tech companies need to develop products that leverage cellular data and so ensure ease of access. Many of Lenovo’s education products are LTE enabled, for example, meaning that students can access learning via a mobile signal and not need to be tethered to Wi-Fi. Says DeCourcy: “We believe that students deserve the advantage of educational technology as they’re going to make up the workforce of the future. We can only make sure our education customers have access to high-quality hardware at affordable prices and that we support them as much as we possibly can.”

Lenovo works with other tech companies, such as Google, SentinelOne, Absolute Software and Lightspeed Systems, to provide a range of hybrid learning tools and solutions for students, as well as with several content partners. “Creation tools for students are really important to hybrid learning,” says DeCourcy. “You want to be able to position students as creators in the classroom, not just as receiving information.” Lenovo also has a virtual reality classroom offering that aims to provide students with experiences they might not otherwise have.

A complex picture

Access to devices and connectivity are important but they’re just part of this difficult, multi-layered picture. Student engagement and success very much depends on the design of the education programme and the quality of the instruction, so the professional development of teachers also needs to be tackled.

This isn’t just about getting teachers to learn on the job, it means addressing the content of teacher training programmes so that teachers understand how to teach effectively using a hybrid model. And let’s not forget that engagement also depends on a student’s own digital literacy skills, also something that might need to be examined. As DeCourcy says: “Implementing hybrid learning can be complex. Considerable support for teachers and students is required to ensure its success.”

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