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Hybrid Learning Goes Mainstream amid Response to COVID-19

Many school districts are planning to reopen in the months to come by using a hybrid learning model, but with specifics varying so wildly, it is worthwhile to examine what that will mean for students and teachers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools to explore new instructional models they never anticipated using, at least not at such an extensive level. And now with many districts planning to reopen for the upcoming school year with what they describe as a hybrid learning model, it’s worth taking a look at what this will — or should — mean.

For this discussion, we’ll leave aside all of the many health-related questions and concerns about schools’ reopening and focus just on the instructional aspects of their plans.

Hybrid learning is not a new concept. But it’s one that has never been tested on the kind of scale we’re about to see. In most schools’ view, it will be a combination of the remote learning model they used to finish the past school year, coupled with face-to-face instruction. A common plan is that half of a schools’ students will be in class two days a week, and then the rest of the week they’ll work online from home while the other students attend class, with schools closed one day each week for deep cleaning.

But at the risk of being overly academic, is that really hybrid learning?

The terms hybrid learning and blended learning are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same. They both pair face-to-face instruction with online learning. But the primary difference between them is this: Blended learning uses online learning resources to supplement face-to-face instruction, while hybrid learning uses online resources to replace portions of students’ instruction that would otherwise be delivered face-to-face. So, by this definition, yes, what schools are proposing is hybrid learning. But the more important question remains — as with any instructional model — will it be done well? And if so, what are some of the key components of a high-functioning hybrid learning environment that teachers should consider?

    1. A learning management system (LMS). A robust LMS is the backbone of a hybrid learning environment. It provides a location-independent place for individualized student assignments, instructional resources, assessments, links to online curricula, and a hub for student-teacher interactions and student collaborations. Though the LMS is especially important for the days when students are working away from the classroom, it will afford the greatest benefit if fully used for students’ in-class days as well. Additionally, the LMS offers parents the ability to keep tabs on their students’ progress, grades and deadlines.
    2. Individualized learning. One of the advantages of hybrid learning is the opportunity it provides teachers to better individualize their instruction for each student. Since teachers will be working in class with only half of their students at a time, they can better focus on each student's needs and learning goals, and then use the LMS to provide lessons and assignments personalized to each student.
    3. Project-based learning (PBL). When teaching and learning is more individualized, the possibilities increase for students to work on projects they self-select with their teachers’ consultation. This is especially true when students are working half-time from home, without the time and space constraints of their classrooms. Doing PBL has long been a goal for many teachers, but doing it well with a class of 25+ students is challenging. However, with the opportunities afforded by a hybrid learning environment, PBL becomes more doable.
    4. Teacher-created video. For teachers who use lectures or mini-lessons as part of their instruction, video recording these lessons and posting them in the class LMS serves two functions: It allows students to view them at their own pace, both at school and home, and it frees up class time otherwise devoted to these lectures, letting the teacher work with students individually or in small groups. Widely used by middle and high school teachers who have adopted the blended learning Flipped Classroom model, simple teacher-created videos recorded on a computer or smartphone are a great fit for hybrid learning.
To date there has been little research on hybrid learning in K-12 schools, so we have a lot to learn about what it takes to build out successful hybrid learning environments in a diverse range of schools. But as with their recent scramble to deploy remote learning, schools’ preparations for hybrid learning have been equally rushed and will unfortunately leave most teachers untrained in this new model and encouraged to simply “do their best” — not a recognized formula for success. But many schools and teachers will rise to the occasion, and they’ll provide the rest of us a chance to learn more about the potential of hybrid learning in K-12 schools.

Additional hybrid learning resources: 

  • The College of DuPage, an Illinois community college, developed an Introduction to Hybrid Teaching workbook for its instructors that should prove helpful to teachers at all levels.
  • A Clark County, Nev., teacher with a successful background in online instruction, writes in EdSurge about what her district is doing to prepare teachers for working in a hybrid learning environment, while also anticipating that their schools may have to revert back to a full remote learning schedule.
  • A recent Education Dive article looks at some schools that have already been using the hybrid learning model and examines how COVID-19 is leading them to further consider their options.
  • The Christensen Institute has long been working at the forefront of blended learning. Their Enriched Virtual model is akin to hybrid learning and is discussed in an article on blended learning models that can help schools reopen.

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.