The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

The Rapid Growth of Hybrid Learning Fueled by the Pandemic

Hybrid Learning
The effectiveness and potential of hybrid learning is still being explored, as it differs from both blended and online learning. This method of ‘simultaneous learning delivery to offline and online audiences’ came to prominence during the pandemic. A recent 3-year study in China, focusing on the perceptions of teachers, looked at its potential benefits, especially flexibility and expanding access to education, and its challenges, such as effective online engagement of those studying in differing physical and social settings. The authors argue that hybrid learning is not just a technology add-on, an explicit hybrid pedagogy and institutional support are required to realise its full potential.

Hybrid learning is increasingly utilised worldwide to enhance learning and provide students with new educational experiences and opportunities. Although not new, it expanded rapidly as a response to the challenges of maintaining educational provision during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hybrid learning is now evolving into a mainstream approach within higher education, especially when learners want flexibility in where and how to learn. Rather than seeing hybrid learning as a second-best or emergency option, it is a strategic option for business schools about which relatively little is understood from both theoretical and practical standpoints.

The initial disruptive effect of COVID-19 was to force educational institutions to go 100% online to ensure the continuity of learning. Then, hybrid learning rapidly formed part of subsequent strategies, as educational institutions sought to provide learning simultaneously to both those who were able to return to campus (or other face-to-face learning locations) and those who were unable or unwilling to return due to travel restrictions and/ or personal safety concerns. This dramatically accelerated the adoption of hybrid education, which is now recognised as a sustainable mode of delivery that can enhance the resilience and flexibility of business education.

Learning models

Hybrid learning can be defined as ‘simultaneous learning delivery to offline and online audiences’, which is distinct from blended learning, in which a planned combination of online and offline learning is delivered to a single audience. Online and blended learning have been extensively studied over the past decade. However, while growing rapidly in importance, there has been little research into hybrid learning. Our research and practical experience covers hybrid teaching and learning over a three-year period, based in China. In many ways, China is a ‘leading’ country in implementing hybrid learning, given that there have been periodic lockdowns in some parts of the country but not others. Also, due to government travel restrictions, international students were unable to travel or return to China for almost three years even when domestic students were almost all on campus.

Our analysis is based on both research and practice. A first qualitative research study was conducted with over 20 teachers engaged in hybrid learning. The purpose was to understand the hybrid learning approach in practice and provide new insights into its benefits and challenges, what influenced its effectiveness and its future potential. A second study, again involving over 20 teachers and leaders, focused on course learning design and institutional support for hybrid learning in a wider range of institutions. The overall approach focused on teachers’ perceptions. In-depth interviews were conducted with respondents’ perceptions of hybrid learning strategies. In parallel, the authors were all personally engaged in hybrid teaching and one in overall leadership of the school’s work. Based on this, the opportunities and challenges of hybrid learning were identified, as well as its potential relevance to future business education.

Benefits of Hybrid Learning

There was a general view that teachers could not just replicate what they had done previously either face-to-face or virtually. Hybrid learning was seen as a new and different mode of delivery. With a few vocal exceptions, teachers identified a range of potential benefits:

Resilience:

During periods of disruption, a hybrid approach catered best to the needs of most students who were expecting face-to-face education, as well as to staff unable to be on campus.

Flexibility:

Especially for students not on campus full-time, hybrid learning gives greater accessibility to education and increases the potential reach of education programmes. For example, one teacher saw that, “Institutionally, from a marketing perspective, it allows the university to enrol international students who can’t come to the campus.”

Pedagogical diversity:

The technology-enhanced environment of hybrid learning stimulated a shift in teaching style and pedagogy, bringing virtual technology into education and ‘forcing’ staff to review their previous pedagogical assumptions and techniques.

Educational equity:

Although still different in terms of methods and complexity, it enabled fair treatment of diverse students in the same class at the same time. Moreover, a potential social benefit was that it makes education more accessible to those who cannot afford to attend a fixed study location.

A further benefit during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020 that resulted from the rapid implementation of virtual learning followed by hybrid learning was a dramatic acceleration of faculty members’ digital capability. Our school’s three-year faculty development plan was achieved in under three months!

Challenges of Hybrid Learning

Compared with other modes of learning in which students’ environments are similar, teachers need to consider the very different environments in which students are located and the need to simultaneously balance both online and offline students. Interaction becomes harder for students, especially those online, and they need to be more motivated. Moreover, the simultaneous implementation of online and offline student interaction becomes more difficult.

The challenges of hybrid learning as implemented in practice are substantial and can be categorised into five dimensions:

Learner dimension:

Over two-thirds of respondents perceived that online students were mostly silent and were less motivated. Student engagement and offline students recognising the ‘presence’ of online students were examples of learner challenges. Students had different needs and abilities as well as different physical and social settings.

Instructor dimension:

Hybrid learning placed major demands on teachers. 86% saw a lack of management/institutional recognition of the extra work involved, such as the demands in the classroom of managing the different learning experiences of online and offline students as well as dealing with somewhat unreliable technology.

Curriculum dimension:

Nearly three-quarters of teachers found that even basic forms of interactivity were difficult to maintain when attempting to engage both online and in-person students in a similar way. The lack of an explicit hybrid pedagogy was also a concern. In our university, the focus of staff training was almost exclusively on technology mechanics rather than pedagogy.

Technology dimension (controllable):

As most classroom types of equipment were not designed for hybrid learning, 77% of respondents said that there was a lack of fit between classroom technology and hybrid learning. Two-thirds of respondents mentioned that even when familiar with the technology used, they still had technical problems during its operation.

Environment dimension (unpreventable or unpredictable):

It was hard to guarantee that the internet environment was always ‘up’. When international students were in countries where the network was unstable, issues could not be controlled or resolved by the university. More than half of teachers saw that such technical failures could happen for apparently ‘no reason’.

For institutions, management systems developed for traditional education may not be effective for hybrid learning. Expecting teachers to set up a hybrid learning environment in a 10-minute break between scheduled sessions was often insufficient and meant that teachers focused on technical issues rather than on the content of the class. Comparable assessments of the learning outcomes of both online and offline students can be problematic unless well thought-out for fairness and effectiveness, for example shifting presentations to video.

Overall, without new approaches and support, the demands on teachers are significantly increased in both learning design and educational delivery in ways that can lead to a worse experience for both online and offline students compared with distance learning and traditional learning.

Strategic options for business schools

Our research and experience shows the potential of hybrid learning to drive forward both access and flexibility for learners, as well as resilience to disruption. Given the lack of conceptual clarity around the difference between blended and hybrid learning, confused policies and practices may be adopted that make incorrect assumptions about the nature of hybrid learning. It also shows the danger of managing hybrid learning as a technology add-on to existing learning approaches. Institutions, therefore, need to make strategic choices about whether hybrid learning is: (1) a stop-gap measure to maintain access in a pandemic in which case quality is a secondary issue, or (2) a new form of learning delivery distinct from distance and blended learning that requires rethinking of pedagogy and the learning environment to be successful.

In our view, hybrid models become most valuable when they are used to create access to new groups of students who cannot always attend in person and want flexibility to arrange their time. Examples are part-time students with variable working patterns, students on internships and those who do not want or cannot afford full-time on-campus study. Whether or not to offer hybrid options and for which courses is an important strategic decision.

Making hybrid learning a success will require resources and management time as well as teaching delivery models with improved staff support and sufficient resources. It will require development of a pedagogy of hybrid learning based on the experiences of teachers and students. Design of physical and virtual environments for the different needs of hybrid learning will also be challenging as it is not an ‘add-on’ to either face-to-face or online learning. But despite these challenges, hybrid learning can offer new opportunities to enhance business school education and be a positive side-effect of the COVID-19 pandemic!

EFMD Global Focus 1801_rapid-growth-hybrid-learning-pandemic

Lili Gu is a doctoral student researching hybrid learning at Nottingham University Business School China.

Martin Lockett is Professor in Strategic Management and former Dean of Nottingham University Business School China.

Yangyang Jiang is Associate Professor in Marketing at Nottingham University Business School China.

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