The pandemic might have accelerated its adoption, but hybrid learning has been emerging as a viable distance education option for years.
But for educators, the rush to embrace a hybrid learning model at such a vast scale came with significant technical challenges, especially for schools that had not developed digital curriculums. In some cases, such as elementary distance learning, systems and plans had to be improvised.
The world is slowly reopening, and the transition to a new normal continues. But distance learning is here to stay—and the future of distance learning will be a hybrid of the traditional and the cutting-edge.
What is Hybrid Learning?
A hybrid learning system combines in-person classroom instruction with online learning activities. It reduces seat time in a traditional classroom, but it uses online collaboration tools to emulate the experience.
At the onset of the pandemic, elementary distance learning went online. Students learned from their homes, and teachers taught from theirs. Gradually, the model shifted from homebound back to the classroom—first with students at home and teachers leading lessons from the classroom, then, in some cases, to a hybrid model with some students in the classroom and some online.
In the future, hybrid distance learning could mean a blend of at-home and at-school learning, or it could mean younger students learning in person while higher grades learn from home.
Elementary hybrid learning and other challenges
The future of distance learning depends on its technological elements working in harmony. Tech solutions that facilitate new learning methods are just one small piece of an enormous puzzle. Hybrid learning models won't be effective until students have consistent access to the internet and computers, the Economic Policy Institute says. But more than 9 million children in the United States do not have access to the internet, and 4.4 million households with school-age children do not have a computer at home.
Educators will need specialized training to meet online learning goals. Instructors often cannot quickly adapt to new, tech-dependent models. Teachers will need to know how to navigate new software and develop learning plans that leverage it, what to do when the software doesn't work correctly and how they can help students struggling with its learning curve.
Elementary distance learning has been especially challenging for younger students, as it does not provide the consistent instruction and social interaction they need to develop. And reduced instructional and learning time, the Economic Policy Institute reports, impede student performance. Attending school in the early elementary years is about much more than learning—it's about developing social skills. If children are not engaged with distance learning programs, absenteeism will become a factor.
Children and teachers are not the only ones who face challenges in elementary distance learning. Parents of homebound learners often assume the dual role of parent and teacher—and often face the same challenges educators do. Long days, complicated schedules and stringent attendance and participation policies place significant pressure on parents of remote students.
Building a hybrid distance learning model
When people talk about the future of distance learning and the hybrid model, the first technology that often comes to mind is online video—whether web conferencing or video streaming. Schools quickly embraced platforms like Microsoft Teams and Cisco WebEx — and they have been valuable distance education solutions.
But real-time video conferencing requires a network with high bandwidth and low latency—criteria that aren't always guaranteed, even if a student has Wi-Fi at home. 5G will be a game-changer for education, as it will help fill the access gaps that plague families and schools in underserved communities and remote areas.
The final key to an effective hybrid learning model is the learning management system. A robust learning management system works in person and in virtual environments, and it is the hub that every student and instructor connects to. It handles all essential functions, including documentation, administration, reporting, tracking and course automation and delivery.
Distance learning in action
In November 2020, Education Week explored several case studies of how hybrid distance learning was—or was not—working for school districts and the challenges they had to overcome.
In Texas' large Victoria Independent School District, students chose one of two options: attend school in person five days a week, or attend school virtually five days a week. Teachers struggled to adapt to evolving class compositions with new faces and learning styles. Students were not required to keep their cameras on during videoconferences, so teachers could not ensure that students were actually paying attention. Grading took longer, too. But some teachers found small victories in learning how to leverage technology tools to rethink teaching methods and keep better track of student progress.
The biggest hurdle for the 13,000-student Santa Fe Public Schools district in New Mexico was an emerging need for devices to meet the technical demands of online learning. Ideally, teachers needed several devices—one for course delivery, one to see students' faces, one to monitor their activity on school-issued devices and one with a camera that followed the instructor as they moved. The digital divide, too, was a significant barrier. Some facilities did not have adequate internet connections to support video conferencing, and school-issued hotspots sagged under the strain of remote learning. But for many teachers, the opportunity to work from home promoted goodwill. The shift also forced the district to address its technological deficiencies.
Managed services and the future of distance learning
Even before the pandemic, school leaders were juggling competing priorities. The added rush to adopt distance learning tools only escalated the severity of reactive tasks like IT troubleshooting. When schools cannot meet technical requirements, students suffer.
District leaders and IT directors need to stay ahead of the curve of fast-moving advancements in education technology. A third-party organization with education industry expertise can help solve several problems at once. A managed service provider can upgrade communication infrastructure, manage school technology, deliver software solutions and act as a strategic partner to navigate an evolving technology landscape.
The future of distance learning will continue to play a central role in education after the pandemic. There will always be a need for students to connect from home when in-person instruction is impossible. By partnering with a managed services provider, school districts can ensure that their students get the education they deserve—wherever they are.
Discover how Verizon is helping to eliminate technology barriers to forge the future of distance learning.