What Hybrid Learning Means: to Me, to my Students, and to McLean School
In 2016, I enrolled in a continuing education course through Harvard University. In what seemed pioneering at the time, the class was available to take in person or online. Since I lived out of state (and favored Florida sunshine to New England cold) I opted for the latter. I remember I felt more or less a part of things–at a distance, but not a disadvantage. And although it didn’t have a name back then, this was hybrid learning: combining face-to-face and online teaching into one cohesive experience.
Hybrid learning has evolved so much since then, and even more so since spring 2020, when a global pandemic up-ended education as we know it. Recognizing that new protocols around reduced density and physical distancing would demand hybrid learning this fall, McLean worked to reimagine what this would look like knowing that our goal is always to create as many opportunities as possible for school-based learning for as many students as possible. Our plan meets the CDC criteria while also taking into account developmentally-appropriate factors and the needs of our community.
Over the summer, McLean invested in sophisticated Polycom Studio technology that integrates a tracking webcam with advanced speakerphone capabilities allowing students to hear, see, and interact with one another whether from home or on campus. It’s an amazing advancement that allows us to provide a successful synchronous learning experience. Not only is this critical now, but also into the future, enabling us to support students that need to be out of the building for extended periods of time.
Polycom capabilities also allowed me to move quickly from “how am I going to do this?!” to “I got this!” Currently, I teach Algebra 1 and Algebra 2/Trig Honors. My largest class is 10 students, which means that when in hybrid learning I have no more than five students in the classroom at one time, with the others joining from home. Here are just a few of the many considerations that combine to help make sure all of my students receive the best educational experience possible, from wherever they are learning.
As a math teacher, there are tons of online tools that I love to use, and when everyone is in the classroom it’s very easy to monitor and support how students use them. With hybrid instruction, I have tried to simplify the process, knowing that I’m not as available for tech support as we go along. Programs like Nearpod allow me to create PowerPoints, embed games, and post them on a website that’s easily accessed by my students, cutting down the number of steps I’m asking them to take. Internet fatigue is real, and by doing my part to identify and utilize appropriate technology that makes my students’ experience easier, we can all focus on the learning.
This applies to me as a teacher with my students, and also for students connecting with each other. Early on, I often ended up just showing my profile to my students who were learning from home, as the computer monitor with Zoom was to the side of me in the classroom. To facilitate a more cohesive, connected classroom I brought a coffee table into my room and put my monitor in front, which changed everything! Now, everyone is in front of me, which mimics a more conventional class experience. In addition, I project Zoom onto my Brightlink board and turn my Polycom towards the class so the kids can see one another at times, as well, for example when taking tests, to underscore our togetherness.
And repeat again. Class participation is a key factor in a successful education experience, and I don’t want hybrid instruction to hinder that. As good as Polycom technology is, it’s easy for things to get missed and so I make every effort to repeat what students say – whether they are chiming in from home or from school – to ensure that everyone has a chance to hear.
I have a class I’ve taught for two years now, so they are my go-to for questions like, “is this working?” and “what do you think of that?” For example, I discovered that I can do a black (versus white) screen on my Brightlink, and so I asked them what looks better for you at home? Lights in the classroom on or off? And because McLean students are good self-advocates, my students will also proactively offer feedback, such as when the internet in my room was abnormally slow one day and a student brought it to my attention sooner than later, which allowed me to troubleshoot and change gears.
Don’t make assumptions
These days it’s easy to assume that all students have a certain degree of comfort with technology, but that is not always the case. I had a student who was struggling to follow along in class. One day he asked a question, and as I began to answer he said “wait! I can’t see you!” and so I said, “no big deal, pin me.” That’s when we discovered he was using Zoom in browser mode, not the Zoom app, which limited his functionality. Now that he has the software, he’s able to participate more fully – and I know to check in with my students to make sure they are aware of the most appropriate and updated systems.
Maintain class norms
Whether you’re learning from home or school, you’re expected to raise your hand, wait to be called on, and behave appropriately and attentively. It’s not uncommon for a student at home to start talking, not realizing that their peer at school is already talking – so hand-raising is more important than ever. I do ask that all of my students have their cameras on during instructional time – seeing their faces helps me read whether they are engaged and understanding the material. Certainly, students can chat me or tell me in advance if there’s some reason they need their camera off…an extension of the same courtesies we show each other in person.
Adapt and appreciate the hybrid model
While this “new normal” has created new challenges, in many ways it is still what it’s always been. I’m still meeting my students where they are – now that includes location! – and having my classroom resources at the ready creates a more authentic experience. I have found ways to incorporate the many visuals I use in math support, and to use the classroom as a frame of reference for students learning from home on a given day (“you know on that wall we have…that’s what you need to reference”).
Hybrid learning has taken a lot of getting used to, and every day is a new adventure but, as a teacher, I’m challenged and inspired to keep perfecting the process and to persevere through the challenges as they arise. It’s a work in progress – but aren’t we all?