Jun 29 2021

ISTELive 21: Don’t Give Up on Hybrid or Fully Remote Learning, Advocates Plead

Experienced online teachers say remote learning during the pandemic did not provide an accurate picture of its positives.

The daily car ride to her brick-and-mortar school used to fill Chloe with so much anxiety that it made her physically sick and caused her to miss a ton of classroom time. Soon she was falling behind on her schoolwork, but then she discovered Poudre Global Academy, a hybrid school in Fort Collins, Colo. Now that she can choose to go into a physical classroom only two days each week, her teachers say she is thriving.

Emma Pass, a hybrid English teacher at PGA, shared Chloe’s story during a Sunday night presentation called “The Future of Education is Hybrid” at ISTELive 21, the virtual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education.

As K–12 district leaders plan a full-time return to physical classrooms this fall, some 39 percent of schools say they will offer no remote instruction, according to a recent Education Week survey. This would leave students who thrived under this model without a public school option.

However, Pass, who wrote a book titled The Hybrid Teacher to help fellow educators struggling with remote and hybrid teaching during the pandemic, says excluding hybrid learning is a mistake.

She said she has seen too many benefits of an experienced hybrid model to ignore, and that what most educators faced during the pandemic was not ideal. “Most schools were doing emergency or triaged teaching online,” Pass said, and those practices were not in line with a truly intentional hybrid model.

Under such circumstances, she said, it only makes sense that hybrid learning would be challenging. She said Poudre Global Academy began 12 years ago as an online-only school, and families loved it. But over the past 10 years, those families wanted their children to have more in-person interaction with other students, so the school transitioned to a hybrid model, where students spend half their time learning in person and the other half online.

RELATED: Learn what some K–12 districts have done to provide effective hybrid learning.

Hybrid Learning Catches Students Who Fall Through the Cracks

Pass said this model fosters independence and works best for students who have executive functioning skills for self-paced work. Pass uses tools such as screencasting to prerecord instruction, enabling students to work through the materials independently, one-on-one or in small groups. She also uses Google Classroom to store lesson plans.

When students log in for remote synchronous instruction, Pass makes sure they are engaged. She puts them into breakout rooms and has them explore their homes or even the world using Google Earth when lessons call for it.

Pass admitted this model doesn’t work well for all learners, but it meets the needs of her diverse students, some of whom live in rural areas and have long commutes, are teen mothers, have medical issues or struggle with severe social anxiety.

“I feel like we’re catching some of those students who fall through the cracks of traditional brick-and-mortar education,” she said. “And we are preparing students for the future workforce, where more and more jobs will be remote or hybrid.”

Emma Pass
We are preparing students for the future workforce, where more and more jobs will be remote or hybrid.”

Emma Pass Hybrid English Teacher, Poudre Global Academy

And despite several researchers finding less-than-positive academic outcomes for some virtual learners, Pass said PGA students are “consistently testing at or above our district average on standardized tests.”

Has Pandemic Learning Caused Damage to Online Learning?

In another Sunday evening session, “A Pandemic’s Impact on Online Learning,” a panel of digital learning advocates agreed that the hurried transition to remote instruction during the pandemic may have sullied online learning’s reputation, but that is no reason to write it off wholesale.

“The difference between emergency remote learning compared to pre-pandemic, well-thought-out digital learning that had existed for 20-plus years is really night and day,” said John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group, a consulting and advisory firm serving school districts, state agencies, foundations and companies in the K–12 digital learning field.

With the world going digital so quickly during the pandemic and many people facing access and connectivity challenges, these advocates admitted it was inevitable that there would be missteps that run counter to established digital learning norms.

“Teaching online and learning online is different from teaching in person, but the thing that most of us knew when we went online overnight was in-person instruction,” said Michele Eaton, director of virtual and blended learning for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis. “If all we’re ever going to do is try to replicate the in-person experience as best as we can, then online learning will always just be a cheap imitation of what teaching and learning can be.”

She added that using “classes in a box” with no human teacher or having synchronous learning via Zoom for six or seven hours a day are not online learning best practices, and schools that want to succeed with digital learning must rethink those approaches.

WATCH NOW: ISTE panelists share lessons for educators following pandemic learning models.

Closing the Professional Learning Divide Is Key

Marcus Vu, principal of the Fulton Academy of Virtual Excellence in Atlanta, and Claudio Zavala Jr., a digital designer for the Burleson Independent School District in Texas, spoke of their districts’ efforts to offer teachers professional development around technology, using instructional coaches and other materials.

Yet they agreed there was a “professional learning divide” to overcome. Vu and Zavala recommended that just as some students will take classes this summer to accelerate their learning, teachers can similarly shore up their technology skills.

Vu noted that despite the rushed transition during the pandemic, “I’m always in awe of how we responded and how we were able to move very quickly. We were flying the plane as we were building it and used resources and innovation to provide services to students everywhere.”

The Gifts of Pandemic Online Learning

The panel shared that many positives have come out of the pandemic. One of those, according to Watson of Evergreen Education Group, is that parents have seen what is possible and that it is now impossible to put the genie back in the bottle and revert to in-person-only learning.

“I’m fairly optimistic that [online learning] may be a long-term change,” he said, adding that if districts are worried about budget limitations, they can look to online schools. He said that online schools in the past had to figure out how to get devices and internet access to families that had neither, but with the number of families now exposed to online learning, access is now expected.

DISCOVER: Is virtual learning here to stay?

“I hesitate to say there was a silver lining in a pandemic, but I think a fair amount of that digital access was addressed because it became so front and center in the early days of physical schools being closed,” Watson said.

Vu agreed: “Getting students access to connectivity is being solved every year. We knew we had to get access to students who might come from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background. [Because of the pandemic], this was no longer a pie-in-the-sky kind of aspirational idea. It was something we could actually take action on.”

Reducing Student Absences and Boosting Academic Success Online

When asked to address the thousands of online students who didn’t log on for school over the past year, the group shared solutions such as removing the onus from teachers to track down students and instead enlisting staff to visit homes to ensure that students have everything they need to learn and using online success coaches to help students stay on top of schoolwork.

They also addressed claims that students learn better in brick-and-mortar environments.

“There’s a lot of research that goes to counteract that,” Vu said. “We can respond to those sorts of comments with other data to show that while there are some online schools that do perform poorly, there are also amazing exemplars of online schools and online programs that are performing just as well as face-to-face counterparts.”

Eaton, of Wayne Township, added that just as educators have students with varied learning success when teaching in person, so will online teachers. “When students are not showing up or completing work online, there are lots of reasons that could be happening, but the most common reason is just a lack of self-efficacy,” she said.

She continued, “It’s not defiance. It’s not laziness. When you don’t believe you’re going to be successful in any area of your life, you’re not likely to show up for it. As teachers, we can address that in how we design lessons online by creating opportunities for students to experience success early and often … and not be satisfied with them hiding or disappearing.”

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