Guest Post: Towards the hybrid future – expectations from the ALT conference by Dr Gennadii Miroshnikov

One of the most anticipated concepts associated with the post-pandemic future is hybridisation. Hybrid working, hybrid offices, hybrid classrooms… This year’s ALT conference is a great opportunity for learning technology professionals to think, reflect and share their perspectives on this emerging trend.

Students’ preferences and preparation for a new normal

Various surveys asking students about their preferences and suggestions for the post-pandemic future of higher education demonstrate their clear expectation to continue to use the aspects of remote learning that they found useful (one of the most popular examples is access to recorded video lectures and other digital materials). According to the Digital Learning Pulse survey, published by Bay View Analytics, a majority of students want to keep the option of studying online to some extent, which confirms a need for hybrid solutions in higher education.

Unsurprisingly the first-year students lean towards a more or less full return back to on-campus learning. For many of them, this is a beginning of a new, independent, adult life, away from parents where academic, personal and social lives have many crossovers. For them, socialisation, making new friends, participating in student clubs and sporting events are integral parts of this new life, which are almost irreplicable by virtual alternatives. On the other hand, when students progress towards their final year, they have more reasons to find flexible hybrid models advantageous. By that time many students have started internships or jobs, so a hybrid model allows students to combine study and work more efficiently. As preparation for future employment is one of the important tasks of higher education, ensuring that students understand and are ready for the new work environment shaped by the global pandemic becomes more and more significant. It seems to be very clear that one of the major traits of the ‘new normal’ working environment is the wider adoption of remote working and the concept of a hybrid office. Almost all of the UK’s 50 biggest employers questioned by the BBC have said they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time. Some 43 of the firms said they would embrace a mix of home and office working, with staff encouraged to work from home two to three days a week. This means that instead of returning to the office, employers are embracing hybrid working and blending on-site and off-site approaches. This clear direction towards the hybrid future raises questions about its impact on higher education and potential changes, which are almost inevitably coming.

Benefits of hybrid models for higher education

What universities across the globe have been seeing over a year of remote teaching was not only a massive experiment but also an intense process of developing, enhancing, adapting and improving digital systems, pedagogical methods and practices. For many universities, this accumulated experience as well as newly built or upgraded digital educational infrastructure becomes an important commodity allowing and driving changes and creating opportunities. Among them: increasing recruitment rates via the wider offering of distance education, providing more inclusive education, flexibility for students and equality in learning outcomes by ensuring access to education regardless of location and improving efficiency by eliminating the need to teach the same course multiple times to students located at different campuses (Bell et al. 2014; Bower et al. 2015; Brumfeld et al. 2017; Weitze et al. 2013; Wiles and Ball 2013). Flexibility in class attendance for the students is one of the most cited benefits; it allows students to attend sessions even when they feel unwell or cannot commute to the campus due to work or family commitments. This kind of

flexibility is very much in line with the projected future work environment and anticipated as a new norm. Out of all of the possible models, the blended or hybrid one seems to accommodate this flexibility the best.

What research tells us about hybrid learning

A systematic literature review on synchronous hybrid learning conducted by Annelies Raes, Loulou Detienne, Ine Windey and Fien Depaepe concluded that existing research clearly shows the potential of synchronous hybrid or blended learning environments in which both on-site and remote students can simultaneously attend learning activities. One of the main findings is that existing research suggests cautious optimism about synchronous hybrid learning which creates a more flexible, engaging learning environment compared to fully online or fully on-site instruction (Raes et al. 2020).

Among the identified pedagogical and technological challenges from the teacher’s perspective are the need to adapt their teaching approach; continuing learning how to work with new technologies and; coordination to pay attention and accommodate the needs of both on-campus and remote students. All this significantly increases the teacher’s mental load and leads to stress and fatigue (Weitze et al. 2013).

From the student perspective, remote and on-campus groups experience hybrid synchronous lessons differently (Beatty 2007; Olt 2018; Szeto 2014; Zydney et al. 2019). Some remote students described feeling like an outsider at times. Technology was named among the main factors for both inclusion and exclusion of distance students. Another challenge identified by existing studies is the level of engagement of remote students compared to their in-class peers.

Guidelines and recommendations

To overcome challenges appearing in hybrid educational environments, some studies suggest recommendations and guidelines related to several aspects: training and support to students and teaching staff both pedagogical and technological; activities for student engagement where all students feel included and have equal opportunities to participate and; curriculum and course design alignment.

Therefore, the task of designing and implementing hybrid or blended learning experiences most likely includes different areas to work on: pedagogical approaches, technological solutions, ethical issues, inclusion, organizing physical spaces and curriculum changes. The solution for building highly effective hybrid educational ecosystems will be the convergence of technology, pedagogy and an inclusive environment. This makes the 2021 ALT annual conference’s topics especially relevant for hybrid and blended learning: inclusive practice (how to provide equal opportunities to learn to both remote and classroom students ensuring they are not spectators, but protagonists), digital well-being (how to manage negative factors, affecting tutors’ and students’ mental health; how to increase engagement), digital and physical spaces (how to create and organize a hybrid environment where all feel welcomed and supported) and leadership in learning technology (how to lead a change, how to influence and inspire others).

How the conference can help

Along with the accumulated experience in the digital transition of the educational process and, in several cases even in digital transformation, another trend has emerged – the significantly increased importance of the role of learning technologists. Over a year of tremendously hard work, experimentation, trying, doing, re-doing, implementing, fixing, implementing again… all at a previously unimaginable pace has raised the profile of learning technologists. Their voice is being heard and they are more involved in making decisions at the very top level, influencing the future of their institutions. The upcoming conference is a great opportunity for sharing knowledge and experience and looking at different perspectives; what has been tried and how did it go, what would each of us do differently and what we are proud of the most. As a result, this event will be invaluable for those who are leading EdTech projects and teams precisely because of the dramatically increased importance of these roles as well as the higher responsibility that comes with it. This is an important moment for EdTech and so the gathering hundreds of EdTech professionals at the 2021 ALT conference could not be more timely or more pertinent.


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