Designing Hybrid Learning

Schools are trying to figure out what fall looks like. Are we going to be back in the classroom like we were last fall? That seems very unlikely. Will we still be completely online like we’ve been for the last two months? That’s possible, but it’s more likely that we’re going to try to get teachers and students back in our buildings this fall.

Most schools seem to be looking at a hybrid model, where students come to school 2-3 days per week, and spend the other days learning online from home. That reduces the number of students in each classroom to levels that can reasonably accommodate social distancing guidelines.

Add to that these likely realities:

  • Some parents may choose to not send their kids to school and want an online-only option for them.
  • Absence rates will be higher, because people are going to get sick. When students are absent, they’re likely to be out for a couple weeks at a time instead of a couple days.
  • Teachers are going to get sick too, or have sick family members.  They’ll be out for weeks at a time as well. Substitute teachers are completely unprepared for teaching in online or hybrid environments.
  • At any point, our schools could close for 2+ weeks, perhaps with no advance notice. Instruction at that point will transition to entirely online.

How do we prepare for this?

First, we have to recognize that online learning is different from classroom learning. Way back in January, Alice Keeler put it this way:


If we take the classroom instruction that we used to do, and just put it online, then AT BEST we’ll get the same results we had before. If we want to leverage the advantages of hybrid, we have to think about this differently.

Let’s take a look at scarcity versus abundance. In a classroom, what are the abundant resources, and what are the scarce ones? This is a little easier to identify now that we’ve been out of the classrooms for two months. Wow. It was so easy to just pull a student aside and see how they’re doing, on both personal and academic levels. We could divide students up into groups and send them off into different parts of the room to do different things, and yet keep an eye on them all at the same time. We could keep tabs on them in very informal, and often nonverbal ways. It was easy to feel like we were on top of what was happening in our classrooms.

What was scarce in the physical classroom? Information was scarce. This is mostly due to cultural tradition. Our grandparents went to school because that’s where the information was. The teacher was the expert, and imparted knowledge to the students. We still do that. “Everyone put your cell phone in a pouch by the door when you come in. Put your books under your chairs. It’s time for me to disseminate some extremely important knowledge to you.”

What else was scarce? Flexible time. Each class is 42 minutes long. It doesn’t matter if I only need 30 minutes on Tuesday or it would be really helpful to have 65 minutes on Friday. It doesn’t matter that Matthew and Nicholas really need an extra 15 minutes, but Olivia and Ben could have moved on half an hour ago. The schedule is the schedule, and we have to make it work.

online tension diagram 2

What about the online environment? When we moved everyone into the stay-at-home model, what was abundant? In most cases, the students now had access to the information. While that requires some curation, the teacher really doesn’t need to spend a lot of time creating and delivering instruction. In most cases, they can point to resources that are already created and available.

On the other hand, the scarce resources in an online environment are the personal and synchronous connections. It’s hard to get to know your students, and to keep a finger on the pulse of their well-being, both personal and academic. When we do have time with them in a Zoom conference or other interactive tool, we have to best take advantage of that limited resource.

So what’s the best approach to designing instruction for a hybrid model? Focus on the strengths of the modalities. That instruction piece, where you impart knowledge unto your learners? That has to be online. It should be asynchronous. Put the resources out there and let the students interact with it at their own pace, but on your schedule. “Between now and next Tuesday, I need you to watch this video, or read this article, or listen to this podcast.” Then, ideally, they’re going to DO something with that information. But what they’re not doing is connecting to a video conference at 11:00 on Wednesday to listen to you talk for 45 minutes.

That video conference is synchronous time. It’s the time for interaction. In a hybrid model, hopefully, this is when the students are in school. But they may not be in school very often. So you may have to do this online. Those sessions should be participatory. Use breakout rooms. Hold discussions. Ask them to analyze, critique, compare, construct, reflect. Make it about the students, not about the content.

The other thing you’re doing with synchronous time is checking in with the students. Maybe this is an informal “office hours” arrangement when you’re in a video conference a few times a week and students can check in. Maybe it’s a text chat. If necessary, maybe it’s just an email or a Google form response. Sometimes you don’t have enough synchronous time to get it all done. But that kind of connection is important.

We need to design instruction for online, because that’s the most complicated modality. Then, we can take pieces of those plans and do them face-to-face as the situation permits. That’s how we get to the hybrid model. It’s easy to have a class discussion rather than using an online forum. It’s great to provide small group help to students in the classroom instead of in a video conference. As we add classroom time, focus on the things that are abundant in the classroom and scarce online.

We know a lot about classroom instruction, and we’ve learned a lot this spring about what works and what doesn’t in an online environment. As we’re working on plans for the fall, it’s time to maximize the benefits of both modalities to create a hybrid plan that leverages the advantages of both approaches. The resulting instruction will be better than anything we’ve done before.



How to Teach Online, Part 2

As I was writing the first part of this, I got to the section on keeping instruction brief and realized I wasn’t doing a very good job of that. So we took a little break.

14264443808_8e851ed817_wWe were talking about how all schools are probably going to be blended to some extent. We need to easily be able to move back and forth between online learning and face to face learning. I shared some ideas about emphasizing a caring relationship with the students, establishing norms for your class, using asynchronous modes when possible, leveraging the content that’s already out there, and keeping instruction short and varied. Now, let’s get to the rest of the list.

In an information-abundant society, education is about more than just imparting knowledge. Our students already have access to all of the knowledge. The important part is how they can analyze, synthesize, and apply that knowledge to solve new problems. Chances are, you use some sort of taxonomy to describe this. Bloom’s Taxonomy is pretty common. So is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. And there are a half dozen alternatives if neither of those works for you. The point is that we want to aim at higher-order thinking skills when designing learning experiences. We differentiate to meet students’ needs by adjusting the rigor. That is, if we aim for the strategic thinking (Webb) / Analyze (Bloom) level, we can adjust downward for students who are struggling (skill/concept or understand/apply). For students who need extension, we can elevate to extended thinking or evaluate/create. All students are learning the same content, but they’re interacting with it and applying it at different levels.

This approach also side-steps one of the huge problems with online learning: you can’t measure recall. In a face-to-face classroom, you can set up an artificial environment of information scarcity. Put your phones away. Put your books on the floor under your desks. We’re going to take a quiz, so I can measure the content you remember. In an online environment, you can’t keep students from cheating on assessments like this. Even if you put a bunch of tech controls in place to lock them into a testing app, they have another device at their fingertips and can just Google the answers. At best, you can use these kinds of quizzes as formative assessments, but if there are any consequences to performing poorly, the students will quickly figure out how to game the system.

PBL has been around in a number of incarnations for a long time. I’m going to over-simplify it by saying this: the student creates something that demonstrates learning. Maybe it’s a presentation or a video or a web site. Maybe it’s just an essay or report or poem. It might be collaborative. It doesn’t have to be. It might be public, or not. It might not be digital at all. But it is something that shows that the student has developed an understanding of the concepts of the unit, and that they’ve been able to compare, assess, analyze, apply, organize, investigate, or critique it. Some of the best projects use an iterative process, where other students (or the teacher) provide feedback on the projects and the students go back and revise them. The point is that the project itself demonstrates the learning; the deliverable IS the assessment. No end-of-unit test is needed. It’s much harder for the student to cheat. And hopefully, it’s a project they’re interested in and motivated to work on.

On the computer I’m using right now, there are three different ways to create a spreadsheet. There are three different tools for starting a video conference. I have access to four different personal calendars. There are lots of ways to do everything.

You need to pick one. Hopefully, you’ve already talked with your colleagues, and you’ve settled on some standards for your school. If you haven’t, you need to do that. Can we all agree that we’re going to use Zoom? It’s not the perfect tool for everything, but it works reasonably well and in the name of consistency, that’s what we’re going to use. Let’s all agree that we’re going to put our assignments in Google Classroom. I know you like Schoology. I know you still have all of your content in Moodle. But Google Classroom is the platform we’re using, and we need everyone to get on board. The actual tool doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re all using the same one in our school.

Our students are overwhelmed. Our parents are overwhelmed. They need a common ecosystem. They need predictable places where they can find things. They need a finite set of tools to navigate. As teachers, we need to bear the burden of discomfort, so our families don’t have to.

This also helps tremendously from a professional development standpoint. This is how you do a screen capture. Watch this video. Install this add-on. That’s it. We don’t have time to debate the relative merits of half a dozen different products. We have more important things to do. Use the one we’ve all agreed on, and move on.

Back in the olden days, when 2020 was a fresh new year and COVID-19 was a global news footnote from halfway around the world, we were talking about limiting screen time. It’s not good to have students on their devices for hours at a time at school, and then send them home to do more online work in the evenings. We need some balance. They need to get outside. They need to be more active.

That’s all still true. In the moment of crisis, we stopped worrying so much about screen time. But it’s okay to have students actually do non-digital work. They can read real books. They can draw. They can do things outside. They might be able to bake or paint or sew or dig. Offline can be more difficult. Students may not have access to the same resources. They definitely don’t have a consistent level of parent involvement, support, and supervision. But if we can think of relevant ways they can learn new things without their screens, we should take advantage of that.

Assume for a minute that your classes next year are going to be entirely online. You’re never going to see your students face to face. Remote learning is the new normal. How do you react? Other than looking for a new job, what is your approach? You organize your class in the learning management system. You put together instructional resources and activities that students can complete online or at home. You structure the class to check in with students on a regular basis. Maybe you do some of the things I’ve described above.

Now, you find out that you’re actually going to be in school sometimes, and you’ll have some kids in your class some of the time. Great. You just got some valuable face to face time with your students. How do you make the best use of that time? It’s probably not providing direct instruction. All of that is already set up. It’s probably not having students working independently at their desks. They can do that when they’re not in your room. It might be differentiating, meeting with small groups or individual students. It might be facilitating a class discussion instead of an online forum. Maybe you’re asking students to do presentations to demonstrate what they’ve been working on. Maybe they’re working collaboratively with a rare opportunity to interact in a face to face environment. Class time is different when it’s rare. You’re going to focus on doing the things in class that are hard to do online.

It’s a lot easier to go in this direction than it is to go the other way. March was REALLY HARD because we were trying to take face to face classes and move them online. If we START with online classes, moving pieces to a face to face model is much easier.

Now think of all of those in-between cases. What if 15% of your students are absent? If everything is already organized online, it’s much easier for absent students to keep up, and it’s not a burden for the teacher. What if the teacher is absent? If everything is already set up in an online environment, the sub just has to make sure the students are safe. The learning continues. What if we find out our school is a hotspot, and we’ve had an increase in infections, so we’re going to close for two weeks, starting tomorrow? If we change our default approach from “face to face” to “online” it puts us in a much better position to adapt to whatever circumstance comes along.

This isn’t easy. Nobody has all of the answers. We all want to create valuable educational experiences for our students. We all want to support our teachers and our parents as we navigate these uncharted waters. And none of us signed up for this.

But we’ve been working on this for a long time now. We’ve been slowly putting the tools in place. We’ve had the conversations about authentic assessment. We’ve talked about using grades to measure what students have learned rather than what they have completed. We looked at the 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity until we were embarrassed to call them “21st century”. We slowly put powerful digital tools into the hands of every teacher and every learner. We spent years teaching both tools and how teaching and learning can take advantage of those tools. We have all the pieces.

The only thing that’s different now is the urgency. We HAVE to adapt. We can’t choose to ignore this stuff and go on doing the same things we’ve always done. The world is different now. We learned a lot this spring. We tried new things. We experimented. We failed spectacularly. We found some successes. Now it’s time to reflect on that experience. Figure out what worked. Put together a game plan for fall.

Let’s take the best of what worked for us this spring, combine it with what we know about valuable learning experiences, and create fantastic experiences for next year’s students.


Photo credit: Bluefield Photos on Flickr.


How to Teach Online, Part 1

Years ago, I asked one of my high school teachers if he would consider teaching a course online. “Why would I want to do that?” he asked. “I come to work because I love being around kids. Online classes would keep all of the annoying parts of the job and get rid of the fun part.”

Point taken. Educators are not really drawn to the profession because they have a deep desire to impart wisdom to future generations. They’re there because they love kids. That’s part of what makes this COVID-19 crisis so devastating. Our students miss school. They miss their friends. They miss the routine. But our teachers really do miss the students. We’ve lost the rest of this school year. And next year seems very uncertain at this point. That’s hard on everyone.

It’s possible that we’ll all be back in school in the fall and everything will be back to “normal.” Nobody is counting on that. It’s more likely that we’ll be practicing social distancing guidelines. We have to maintain six feet between people. We have to wear masks. We can’t get higher than 50% of the fire code capacity for spaces. So maybe half of the kids come to school on any given day. On the other days, they’re home doing remote learning. And that’s the optimistic plan. It’s entirely possible that we won’t go back to school in the fall, and we’ll be doing remote learning indefinitely. We don’t really want to talk about that. But we should be talking about that.

We’re going to need to come to terms with the fact that our teachers will be seeing our students a lot less. How much less is a variable, and it may change quickly and often. We need to be prepared to move back and forth between online and face to face instruction seamlessly. And that means getting a lot better at the online part.

I’ve been reading a lot and discussing a lot and listening to podcasts and participating in Zoom conferences and watching smart people’s videos. There are a lot of good ideas out there. There are a lot of people who know a lot about this stuff. And it’s not new. They’ve been working on it for a long time. We should listen to them. Here are some of the things they’re saying.

I used to have a coworker who had a sign in her office that said “Be kinder than necessary.” In times of disruption, our students need to know that we care about them. We have to make an extra effort to connect with them. Their world has changed dramatically in a short time, and they’re understandably nervous about it. It helps for them to see you on video, or hear an audio recording you’ve made. Even reaching out to individual students to see how they’re doing can have a tremendous benefit. We get to carry each other. Be that person who makes a difference in a student’s world. Starting with that mindset makes everything else so much easier.

That also means giving them the benefit of the doubt sometimes. They’re going to miss some deadlines as they struggle to stay organized and manage their time. They’re going to have challenges that are out of their control. They have little brothers and annoying moms and just as many disruptions as you have. Cut them some slack.

In the classroom, you set up routines. At the primary level, those are things like lunch counts and calendar and weather. The students count on those as “the things we do to start the day.” They find comfort in routine. As the students get older, maybe there’s an entrance ticket, or they have to copy homework assignments or turn in work they’ve completed. Maybe the teacher stands at the door and gives a high-five or a fist bump to students as they come in. After the first couple days of school, students know what to expect when they walk into your classroom.

We need the same kind of predictability in online spaces. Because we’re not physically in the same place, it’s even harder to keep everyone on the same page. You can do that by setting a routine. On Tuesdays, you’re going to get new assignments that are due the following Monday. We’re going to use Google Classroom. Our schedule is there, so you can see what’s coming up, and you’ll turn in your assignments there. Video conferences will be in Zoom. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I’ll be available for virtual office hours during these times. Ideally, you can coordinate this as a team or a school so you’re not overwhelming the students. Try not to have every assignment in every class due on Friday afternoon. Maybe Language arts assignments can be due on Tuesdays and Science can be on Thursdays. If you can set up expectations ahead of time, it helps the students better plan their time, and it helps them get over the anxiety that they’re missing something.

Synchronous means “at the same time.” Asynchronous means “not at the same time.” A phone call is synchronous. Both people have to be available at the same time to have the conversation. An email is asynchronous. You send an email, and the recipient reads it and responds at their convenience. As the person in a position of power, you control the time for synchronous meetings. We’re going to have a Zoom video conference at 10:00 AM on Wednesday. You’ve just told your students to arrange their schedules in such a way that they’re able to get on that conference at that time. Most of the time, that’s not a problem. But in some houses, there are multiple students, maybe sharing devices. Parents are working, either at home or at their jobs. Connectivity may be spotty. Quiet is at a premium. Your conference might be inconveniencing a whole household.

So if that Zoom call exists so you can explain the importance of the Battle of Lexington in the American Revolution, maybe you don’t need all of your students to rearrange their schedules to do it. Maybe you could send them a 7 minute video — created by you or someone else — and then ask them some questions in a discussion forum that encourage them to analyze the events of that day and form hypotheses about how the loyalists and the patriots would react to the events on Lexington Green that morning. Give them a few days to watch the video and participate in the discussion. Then the students get the same content, interact with and respond to it, and they do so at a time when it’s convenient for them within the time frame you set.

Save the interactive video conferences for times when you actually need students to interact with you, or with each other. There may be cases where they’re setting up their own conferences because they’re working collaboratively. Let them set those times and conduct those meetings. There may also be times when you want to be available to students, but not require them all to show up at the same time. I’m a big believer in office hours. Maybe you set 2-3 times each week when you’re available to answer questions and discuss topics the students may be struggling with. Let them drop in if they need your help. Follow up with the ones you never hear from.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ever have a whole class Zoom call. But think carefully about why you’re doing it, make sure you actually need everyone there at the same time, and give them plenty of notice.

Teaching online is overwhelming. The good news is you’re not alone. There are hundreds of people doing the same thing you’re doing. They’re not doing it the same way. They don’t have the same priorities, or the same rapport with the students, or the same approach to teaching and learning. But when it comes to content, we’re mostly doing the same stuff. Ninth grade English only comes in so many flavors.

So you can record videos and share them with your students. That’s a good idea. It helps you connect with them. It allows you highlight the most important things and put the emphasis where you want it. But you can’t do that with every topic in every class every day. So use some of the stuff that’s already out there.

If you’re using a textbook, or a digital resource that used to be called a textbook, there are lots of resources available to you. Use them. There are also open educational resources (OER). These are things that other people have assembled and shared openly and freely to help teach all kinds of things. Do a Google search for “open educational resources.” While they haven’t caught on so much in K-12, there are lots of colleges who are moving toward OER as a way to cut down on textbook costs. There are also educational resources curated by government agencies. In Ohio, we have the INFOhio resources that are ready to use. You probably have similar resources where you live. Your media specialist knows about these things and can help you and your students get access to them. Then, there’s always YouTube. There’s all kinds of stuff on YouTube. Some of it is garbage. But some of it is pretty good. You don’t have to use it all. Pick up little pieces of things and point your students to them. Wrap a little introduction around them if you need to. “Just watch the first four minutes of this video, and then come back here and do this activity.”

And, when you DO create your own stuff, put it out there in a way that other teachers can use it, too. If every 9th grade English teacher created one high-quality resource and shared it with everyone, we’d have plenty of materials to teach everything in that course.

You talk too much. Take a page from the first grade classrooms. First grade teachers change activities every few minutes. You should do that too. If you’re using a piece of instruction — video, text, whatever — try to keep it to five minutes. Sometimes, you’ll go over. Maybe give yourself another five minutes of grace time. Aim for five minutes. Settle for 10 minutes. Then, ask the learner to DO something with that new instruction.

We can get away with a 40 minute lecture in school because we have a captive audience. We made them put their phones away. They have to sit there and listen to us until the bell rings. That doesn’t work online. Get to the point.

As I write this, I’m realizing I’m 1700 words into this blog post. That means you’ve probably been reading for about 7 minutes. See how you’re already losing interest? That means we need a part 2. Go do something else for a while. Maybe think about or explore or apply some of the things I’ve already talked about. Come back in a couple days. There’ll be more for you then.


Image Credit: Matteo Corner/EPA, from The Guardian