Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

An illustration depicting an instructor in the center of a circular room with glowing red displays, several circular tables with students with glowing red laptops, and several floating faces at the periphery, also glowing red.
The learning is in the ether. Credit: Amy J. Ko

Imagining equitable hybrid learning

As global vaccination efforts begin to offer glimpses of a return to social spaces, talk of hybrid abounds. I shared some ideas about hybrid conferences recently, Google’s writing about their hybrid work plans, and I’ve been talking endlessly with colleagues about the intrinsically hybrid nature of pre-pandemic academic work, which has long stretched across classrooms, offices, labs, coffee shops, airports, and conferences.

But what about hybrid teaching? In some ways, since the early embrace of the internet by universities in the 1990’s, higher education has always been hybrid in some form. Students submitted assignments online; faculty posted syllabi online; faculty and students corresponded over email and discussion boards. Yes, most classes met in classrooms, and many students came to office hours, but learning has always mixed synchronous, asynchronous, in-person, and remote communication. Some classrooms have been asynchronously hybrid. For example, when I’ve taught larger lecture courses and recorded my lectures, many students simply opted to skip synchronous class, watch the recordings, and make up any synchronous activities asynchronously. Sometimes I’ve live streamed my lectures, meaning that students could at least watch remotely. Such variations on hybrid experiences were thus already the norm for large lecture classes, where opportunities for social interaction are minimal.

But as this pandemic has stretched remote teaching further, its not only made visible the inequities of remote learning, but also revealed other inequities that made collocated learning infeasible for some. Consider these examples of real teaching and learning scenarios I’ve encountered this year in my teaching:

  • A mother of two no longer had to commute one hour to campus, or even attend class synchronously, freeing her to more easily fit school into her busy days at home with her children.
  • Students in other countries, or traveling for family or work reasons, could attend synchronously from wherever they were, rather than missing class and having to make things up.
  • When students got sick or injured, they could attend class from their home without the risk of infecting me or other students.
  • Rather than being restricted to local panelists and guest speakers, teachers could invite people from anywhere in the world to attend class synchronously, bringing regional, national, and even global perspectives to my teaching.
  • Most of my students were on time most of the time, because of the reduced uncertainty of public transit and parking in our urban campus.

What made all of this work so well was that everyone was online, avoiding the creation of two tiers of in-person and remote experience. It wasn’t perfect—Zoom has been abysmal, even as alternatives emerged—but remote learning still benefited many in surprising ways.

This has made me wonder: how might we offer teaching experiences that offer the flexibility of both collocated and remote participation, without creating two tiers of experiences, and without further burdening teachers to manage two contexts for participation?

I have an idea!

The first and most critical element is to select a single online platform for participation. This is key, because it prevents teachers from having to manage two different modes of participation and it ensures that remote students can participate fully, avoiding tiered participation. To hear or see anyone, or to read what they have to share, students and instructors would need to use the online platform to communicate. For remote students, this would mean the usual set up that they’ve had at home this past year—computer, headset, optional camera. The big change would be for collocated students and the instructor: they would also be on a laptop, headset on, also with optional camera, attention on their computers, just like the remote participants. Because they would be using their own screens to view content and instruction, they might even have a better view: no more dim projector bulbs in bright rooms, or sitting at the back of the class. Everyone would have a bright screen of their in front of them, whether they were.

Why have a classroom at all then? Having a physical space still offers collocated students many benefits:

  • Reduced distractions. Students who are aware about their self-regulated learning gaps can come to the classroom to focus on class, leveraging the social pressure that comes with being in a shared space with a single intent. Of course, students will still get distracted by smartphones and laptops, but likely much less than if they are at home with no other incentive to focus.
  • Serendipity at the seams. Before class, during class, during breaks, and after class, students will encounter each other and form bonds. They’ll go to meals together, pass notes, whisper to each other, find shared study spaces after class, share their lives, and make lifelong friendships. Creating awareness that collocated students are doing this might even create incentives for remote students to more meaningfully engage online, especially if these social activities are part of the structure of classroom activities.
  • Accessing campus resources. Not every student—or teacher for that matter—has high bandwidth connections to the internet, or spaces sufficient for learning at home. Schools offer built environments and infrastructure designed for learning, unlike our many of our homes.
  • Physical grouping. Virtual breakout rooms are great in their ability to instantly and randomly connect peers, but being collocated allows for connecting along social ties, with friends or around affinity groups. Remote participants could still use virtual grouping mechanisms, which offer these different benefits.
  • Embodying a life of learning. I’m a strong believer that physical campuses and schools create an atmosphere of learning, curiosity, and discovery. When I’m on campus, surrounded by thousands of other professors, and tens of thousands of bright and eager students, my mind shifts towards a sense of purposeful wonder. When I visit K-12 schools, I hear teaching and learning all around me. It feels very different from being in an office space for a business, or working home, because I see the physical embodiment of people with a shared goal. I believe students get the same value out of campus and collocation.

Remote students would of course miss out on these benefits, but in trade for other things: flexibility with child care, space to manage health and wellness issues, and reclamation of transit time. These are key resources for learning, and students should have the freedom to decide for themselves which trade to make, especially as these considerations change over time. For example, a student might prefer learning in-person, but then injure their leg, and participate remotely for a month, then return to class after healing.

There are some new classroom norms required to make this work. Everyone would need to stay muted unless speaking to avoid microphone feedback. All students and instructors would interact via their devices when engaging in primary learning activities. To be mobile, the instructor might need a more flexible camera to track their movements and wireless, internet-connected microphone to capture their speech. And if they move away from their computer, they might need a mobile device to carry with them to view online content, or large displays around the room to keep the virtual classroom context visible.

None of this would come for free, but I’m convinced that the costs aren’t particularly high. This year we already saw the need to subsidize student access to all the necessary hardware to participate online via computer. We should have been doing that all along already. We might need a bit of extra teaching hardware to enable instructor mobility. Perhaps the biggest expense might be redesigning classrooms. In higher education, one might imagine instead of big lecture halls with projectors and rows of seating, a more circular, modular design, with an abundance of comfortable, accessible seating for clusters of students, and the instructor in the center, freely able to rotate to address different groups. Many K-12 classrooms already have this flexibility. These are all valuable changes regardless of the kind of teaching is happening in a space.

There are many open questions about how this might work, and likely some limitations. One major limitation I can see already is managing the balance of collocated and remote students. If most were collocated, the incentive to be online weakens, potentially eroding the experience of the minority of remote participants. And if most students were remote, the benefits of collocation would be muted, disincentivizing the added effort of transit. I could see many ways to achieve balance: perhaps students have a minimum number of collocation attendance days, or perhaps they declare their location a few days in advance, so that others can see who they might see if they came to class. Some students might commit to collocation every day; others might commit to remote every day.

Another limitation is that when there are connectivity problems, everything would halt. This sacrifices one benefit of collocation, which is that when technology stops working, we can still communicate in non-digital ways. A platform going offline or a wifi outage would severe remote participants from the room. Brittle infrastructure would inevitably tier participation, privileging collocated students.

Finally, there’s a big open question about what kinds of online platforms would make any of this a worthwhile, rich experience. It’s definitely not Zoom. But it might be something like Ohyay, or its more polished successors. As I noted in my previous post on the platform, there’s something powerful in both its flexibility, enabling rooms to be designed to fit pedagogy, and its multiple forms of engagement, making space for my ways to engage. Add a dedicated video feed into the room for context on the physical space, and dedicated displays around the classroom to make the virtual classroom visible, and I think many pedagogies could be quite successful in hybrid.

Does any of this sound exciting? If so, I think we’re going to have to build it sooner than we think. Maybe even by August 2021, when many schools, colleges, and universities plan to return to collocated learning. And if we punt on figuring it out, I think we’re going to be abandoning some of the improvements to equity that remote learning has offered, leaving behind some students that need to stay at home, and worse yet, reverting to some of the many bad habits of collocated teaching. Let’s not do that. Instead, let’s make 2021–22 is another year of experimentation like this past year, but this time, centered around equity and inclusion rather than crisis and survival.

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