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.
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.