Challenges of hybrid teaching and how we can overcome them

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

I was asked to deliver a workshop on hybrid teaching and learning to language teachers in Hungary. Of course, I was excited about it but I wanted to raise the level more by planning the whole training to be a hybrid event itself. This is how all participants, me included, could get a firsthand experience of what the challenges are and what we could possibly do to overcome them.



 

What is what?


Something to nail down first is terminology. There are so many conflicting understandings of certain types of online teaching that it can make a huge difference in how we interpret certain methods and setups.


There are a number of less professional sources (1, 2) that use "hybrid" as a way to describe alternating periods of remote and face-to-face teaching in one week or month, or to describe a whole approach to teaching in schools, in which case one class on a particular day studies online, while another class on the same day comes in to have an "offline" lesson.


These definitions, however, describe something different. We would be more correct to call them blended learning. Blended learning is basically when a whole course is made up of distinct in-person and remote elements (Hodges et al., 2020). The remote sections typically require independent, asynchronous learning, while the in-person ones are like normal lessons from the old times.


True hybrid learning, on the other hand, is when students can choose whether they wish to be present in the lesson online or in person (Szoke, 2021). But both groups are taking part in the same live lesson at the same time. The typical setup is that the teacher is physically together in a classroom with a couple of students, while there are some joining in online. But you could also theoretically have the teacher joining in online while most of the students are in the classroom with or without a supervisor. Now, this second version is much trickier, I'm sure you can see why.


Challenges 1-5


The training I held one week ago was an absolute eye-opener for me. I really wanted to show every aspect of hybrid teaching together with its pitfalls. Can hybrid lessons really be a long-term solution for future pandemics as well as for situations when some students would like to join but they physically cannot (they're either stuck at home due to some natural disaster or they just simply have to work somewhere else)? That's a question I'll answer at the end of the post, and one that I'd like you to ask yourself after each challenge.


No. 1 Tech setup

There's absolutely no other way to start this list - hybrid teaching is almost 100% dependent on your tech setup, I'm afraid. Most teachers I discussed the issue with (special shoutout to @joannaesl, and to Gergo and Daniel from HLS) said that on most occasions no matter how much they prepared for their lessons, technological hiccups ruined the whole experience.


For a proper hybrid class to run successfully, you'd at least need a laptop with a pretty good webcam, a portable microphone, speakers attached to the laptop, and stable internet. But as @joannaesl mentions, it's simply not enough if the teacher's or the school's internet is strong because if a student has slow internet access, they won't be able to follow the lesson, and the teacher will be required to repeat things over and over again even though the in-person students and those with good internet connection can understand everything well.


Gergo and Daniel mention feedback (this time it's not in connection with assessment!) when teachers have several devices turned on. You need to be careful not to have several mics or speakers on at the same time, which could cause unbearable noises. Something that could solve audio issues is a proper but quite pricey conference microphone and 360 camera, such as the Meeting Owl Pro or the Kandao Meeting Pro. These gadgets let you record a 360 view of the classroom, they usually automatically zoom in on the student currently speaking, they also work as a 360 microphone and speaker. In other words, they are all that you need to make everybody seen and heard in the face-to-face classroom. But they of course are very very expensive.


Finally, @joannaesl pointed out how much an interactive whiteboard, or even just an electronic whiteboard could help when doing activities. Both in-person and remote students can write on it, annotate the digital course book and other digital materials, and play online games. Using these whiteboards creates a totally different experience than writing on a physical whiteboard with huge letters which is then recorded by the webcam.


No. 2 Age group

I work with (young) adults in all my courses, so it didn't automatically occur to me that other age groups have their own needs and issues. As many of my workshop participants said, hybrid teaching is almost impossible with very young learners (under the age of 6 or 7) and with senior students (above 55 or 60). But while you could still spend some extra hours to train senior students to be able to use Kahoot, Wordwall and the annotate function on Zoom, for example, there's practically no way you can make a 5-year-old sit still in front of the computer for one hour and watch how the others are drawing, talking and playing games in the real classroom.


No. 3 Class size and student proportions

Another thing that can greatly influence your hybrid teaching experience is class size. In a smaller group with around 5-6 members, you can easily integrate both audiences, and you also won't probably need a conference mic and camera for such a group.


Teaching a larger group with 15-20 members is a whole different story. Because you normally have a variety of interaction patterns to keep engagement high and to focus on as many skills as possible, you probably would like to do the same in the hybrid setup. But there's the rub unfortunately since much more advance planning is needed to have the same group patterns in hybrid. It's not impossible of course, and with properly trained learners you can set up the tasks quite quickly, but you'd definitely need more physical space, for example, to spread out the online - f2f (face-to-face) pairs and groups so that they don't disturb each other.


When talking about class size, another important thing to consider is the online - f2f ratio. It could happen that even though you have a small group, only one student shows up in person, while the other 4 or 5 stay at home. Now, this is a completely different setup because how can you organise pair and group work in this case? Not easy or ideal but doable: What I'd do is either keep the whole lesson open class or I'd still create pairs but in order to monitor all the breakout rooms, I'd sit outside the actual meeting room and monitor from there.


No. 4 Materials and activities

After we have eliminated all the previous issues, let's now turn to the material itself! Depending on your teaching style, you'll find hybrid more or less suitable to your needs. Imagine a lecture-style lesson - you wouldn't really have any issues there because it's mostly you who does the talking, and you can insert some interactive polls or brainstorming bits quite easily in order to involve everyone. Students won't really feel a difference whether they're physically there or not.


But if you wish to teach a language lesson with lots of different activities, you'll immediately notice that setting activities up takes more planning and more time to execute. You're better off if you think in terms of an online lesson when designing activities because it takes less effort and time to make everyone look at and use the same online resources rather than having the f2f ones use their books and the online ones some digital version. Plus, you can then have the hybrid groups work together more easily if they annotate the same digital material or work on cloud-based documents.


But no matter how and who you teach, having a VLE (virtual learning environment) is an absolute must in order to have successful communication among group members. It also works as the main space where you store all materials, activities and assignments. Without such a common space, you'll lose your students right away.


No. 5 Engagement and motivation

This final point on my list of challenges was mentioned by almost all teachers at the workshop: How can you possibly keep your students' attention when dealing with the other group is always so painstakingly slow and cumbersome?


This is an absolutely relevant question, and I won't really be able to give you a straightforward answer. As I wrote in the previous points, the success of hybrid lessons greatly depends on who you teach (age group, class size, and online - f2f ratio) and how well trained they are. The more learner training you give your students, the quicker they can be on task. Still, they need to be reminded (or at least this is how I see the whole situation as it stands at the moment) that this is a temporary arrangement, and they should be a little more patient with each other.


Verdict


If you still remember after this long post what I asked you to keep thinking through as you were reading the post - well done! But don't worry if you have already forgotten it. My task for you was to decide whether hybrid is something that's feasible for you or not.


Many teachers I have spoken to think that hybrid is a "better than nothing" makeshift solution to catastrophic times, such as this current pandemic, and it is definitely not the future of teaching. Personally, I kind of think the same even though I'm truly excited to see it grow and evolve.


Some teachers, however, actually got really interested in the 360 mic and camera solution, and they are considering hybrid as a viable option for some classes several times a week - but not as the ultimate solution.


What's your take on hybrid teaching?

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