Aug 31 2022

How to Create a Sense of Community in Hybrid Learning

A feeling of belonging on campus and with classmates can boost enrollment and improve retention, and technology is helping drive these connections.

This fall, thousands of college students will return to campus for the most “normal” semester in years, as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes and many higher education institutions offer full slates of in-person classes and services.

But it’s become clear in survey after survey over the past two years that students don’t want a return to the old ways of doing things. A report on one such survey, College 2030, published in June by Barnes & Noble College, notes that nearly half of students prefer hybrid learning as their ideal course modality.

If hybrid learning is what students want, it means flexibility is at the core of what they’re after. They want access to in-person lessons and interactions with their instructors, but when they want or need to be at home, they want those interactions to be just as effective and available.

Click the banner below to learn more about incorporating hybrid learning this semester.

To satisfy that desire, colleges and universities have turned their attention to building the most robust hybrid environments possible. Incorporating asynchronous and synchronous tools offers students the flexibility they want, while replicating the intangible benefits of face-to-face instruction that online learning tools have sometimes struggled to mimic.

If they can do that successfully and create a sense of community and connection to campus, regardless of modality, it could be the key to turning around flagging retention rates for online students. Feeling a connection to a physical campus, to classmates and to instructors can make students feel like a valued part of their communities.

At CDW, our higher education team has been focused on working with colleges and universities around the country to make sure they get the most out of hybrid learning, and we’ve helped our partners identify the best ways to create a sense of community in those environments.

Here’s some of what we’ve learned.

LEARN MORE: Why Portland State University is committed to hybrid learning.

Device Programs and AR Can Build Community Connections

Perhaps the most straightforward way to ensure connection for students is to put the right technology in their hands. Device programs are now commonplace across the higher education landscape, and for good reason: These programs ensure all students equitable access. Loading devices like tablets or laptops with the same collaboration software and other learning tools can further guarantee that students can participate fully in hybrid courses.

Once students are at the same technological starting point, it’s worth exploring the burgeoning world of augmented and virtual reality. Tools like Microsoft Mesh, which brings augmented reality to classrooms through Microsoft Teams, allow students to converse in the metaverse (or, as it’s known in higher ed, the metaversity). Mesh, which is a cloud-based platform built through Microsoft Azure, is just one of several AR options that can be incorporated.

AR and VR are designed to re-create the kind of human connections that students are missing when learning outside the classroom. AR, VR and extended reality (XR) have the power to be transformational technologies in higher education. One of their biggest selling points is the human-to-human connection they allow that goes far beyond the video or chat experience found in standard collaboration tools.

At the same time, AR, VR and XR remain new and evolving technologies, and universities incorporating those tools can expect a steep learning curve for instructors and students alike as they work through the best use cases.

Get the checklist and see what questions you need to answer about your hybrid learning program.

Create the Same Student Experience at Home and in the Classroom

If students and instructors aren’t all going to be meeting in a metaversity this fall, it’s still possible, and a best practice, to design a similar experience for students regardless of where they’ll be engaging with courses.

In a pinch in 2020, many colleges and universities made sizable investments to outfit their teaching environments with audiovisual equipment, such as cameras and microphones, to create a reasonable simulation of the in-classroom experience within an online setting. But with two years to look back on, some leaders in higher education are now thinking about the situation a bit differently and considering how they can make the classroom experience feel closer to the remote experience.

One university taking this approach is the University of Illinois, where they have outfitted classrooms with upgraded monitors and digital displays so that hybrid students, no matter where they are, feel like part of one unified classroom.

By eliminating as many differences as possible, these solutions can create a sense of continuity, and therefore comfort, for hybrid learners regardless of location. Offering similar technology in and out of the classroom also makes it easier for students to collaborate with each other and not be segmented into onsite and remote groups.

Choosing the right technology, including digital displays, audiovisual equipment and collaboration tools, can go a long way toward creating the community connection higher education institutions are after this fall. A CDW Education specialist is ready to help you determine what solutions might be best for you.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

Illustration by Maria Kovalchuk

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