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The unexpected benefits of hybrid learning

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The transition to hybrid teaching at the beginning of the academic year was incredibly challenging for students and teaching staff, but a year after the first national lockdown, we’ve seen countless examples of commitment and excellence across our community.

Susan Kemp and Jane Sillars, Programme Directors of our postgraduate taught degree, Film, Exhibition & Curation, in the University’s School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures, had never considered online platforms for their teaching before March last year. Although the prospect of undertaking this shift was daunting, they found that the process led to unexpected benefits.Jane reflects on what it was like last March: “We came into this at a time of crisis, at a time when the world had changed around us and we were all having to try to think about how we might change and adapt in ways that could make this work for a student body.”

Susan agrees the idea of embarking on this transition was incredibly daunting: “I had absolutely no knowledge of online teaching when we were faced with this. Already for our course, our numbers had increased enormously, so we’d just finished a redesign to try and cope with the increase. In terms of how we would change our new delivery to hybrid, it was terrifying really.”

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Teacher turned learner

The Edinburgh Model for Online Teaching course was key to influencing and supporting how they took their teaching online. Michael Gallagher, Lecturer in Digital Education at the University’s Moray House School of Education & Sport, is one of the leaders and co-creators of the online teaching course. Originally developed in 2019, in response to the growth of online learning, Michael worked with a team from the University’s Information Services Group to adapt it to support staff in their transition to hybrid teaching.

For Susan and Jane, the course allowed them to successfully adapt their programme and connect with their students in new and enriching ways.

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A foundation of communication

One of the most important things Jane and Susan took from The Edinburgh Model for Online Teaching course was that building a strong foundation of regular communication is key to creating a successful programme and building a sense of community among its participants.

Susan explains more: “The first thing that immediately struck me, was that Michael completely understood the importance of communication, particularly through the University’s virtual learning environment (Learn), and he carefully constructed patterns which were immediately visible and immediately comforting in their visibility.”

Michael shares why these patterns are so important online: “The idea of time immediately becomes stretched online, and ideas of contact and care have a different time dimension to them, and so the structure that you build the content around becomes a consistent communication.”

The online teaching course really emphasises what it feels like to be a learner in this new online environment. Jane explains how this particularly struck her when she started: “There were two dimensions to understanding this new experience for me; one was learning to navigate these new environments and tools, and learning about how to pattern them, but the other was just being reminded of what it is to be a learner, and to feel uncertain, anxious and disorientated and to have the possibility of failure.”

Michael shares how that was an intentional aspect of his teaching: “The course was designed specifically as an experience. I wanted teaching staff to experience what it would be like as a student and how easy it would be, to be cast adrift in the nebulous and ambiguous spaces between the technology and the tools.”

While creating the course, Michael found that a lot of people found certain parts of it overwhelming and that participants would often retreat into the course’s blog site.

“This led us to have a one-to-one connection on the blog,” Michael explains. “This allows for students who chose not to participate in the discussion boards. These are all perfectly legitimate forms of communication; wherever students found the safety or the space, it’s important to go to them.”

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Putting it into practice

When it came to using what they’d learned, for Susan and Jane the most important thing was to define their understanding of hybrid.

Susan shares what they discussed: “I think this misnomer of hybrid only relating to that distinction between online and in person is something I want to argue against, as the course taught us that hybridity covers lots of different ways of delivering, not just whether it’s in person or digital. I see hybrid as being that mixture, of live video connections, text, discussion boards – lots of different tools as well as a range of ideas, structures and patterns that we’re able to cherry pick that work for us.”

Implementing the lessons learned from the course has had striking results.

“We talked a lot about how economic the spoken word is, to convey lots of information,” explains Jane. “However, we’re not always sure how it’s landing with our students. Whereas, this year, we had to pick absolutely every element apart. By being much, much more explicit about expectations, what we’ve found is, rather than being completely engulfed with student queries and student confusion, we’ve had far less than usual.”

The importance of choosing your communications carefully, and not overloading students is vital. Michael explains more: “Something that came up again and again, is the idea of sparseness; that teaching participants felt they needed to include more and more activities –such as weekly group exercises and deadlines –in their teaching. It was a lot for learners to take in – and the idea of restraint is so important.”

Susan shares how they used this advice: “One of the first things we did was to get the students to post a picture of where they were, because this recognition of the new environment we’re in, is like film exhibition itself. We wanted to bring in that whole presence of them as people and where they are.”

Michael completely agrees: “The simplest things, when seen all together, as one montage of existence, is radically intimate and can build that community.”

Student at computer outdoors with cute dog

Unexpected benefits

Using a variety of online tools and working to build an online community has had unexpected benefits. In place of lecture recordings, Susan and Jane decided to run weekly live discussions which included a range of media to engage their students.

For Susan, combining these discussions with the online tool Padlet has been a game changer: “The Padlets really enhanced the learning of the students, but it was also community building in ways that we hadn’t anticipated. The way it can combine images, text, footage, allows students to both demonstrate and build competencies in a democratic space of exchange.

“Our students have inhabited that Padlet site as a space of pleasure and fun and joy. The environment we’re teaching in is so peculiar this year and people are facing so many challenges outside their learning spaces, so having a space where you feel the enthusiasm has really supported us,” she adds.

Michael explains further: “It allows for joy, which should never be overlooked in online education because it can be reduced very quickly to a very programmatic structure, very linear and predictable, and ultimately unenthusiastic.”

Susan continues: “We’ve got a diverse population of students from different cultural backgrounds and we realised Padlet was resolving an issue that we’d encountered many times before – the different cultural backgrounds and linguistic capabilities in our cohorts – what you realise across the space of Padlets is the quality of engagement with the ideas, and that the level of sophistication and critical thinking is high.”

Looking ahead

Although not without its challenges, Susan has found the whole experience has taught them so much. She concludes: “Jane and I have been on a voyage of discovery.”

They’re excited to take forward everything they’ve learned to future iterations of the course, even when teaching returns to in person.

Implementing hybrid teaching across the University is an ongoing journey. But even looking to a future where regular in-person teaching returns, there’s no doubt that lessons learned during this difficult time will continue to influence and shape, not only learning and teaching colleagues but the University community as a whole.