The last academic year was probably one that some students would hope to forget, not just for the disruption the pandemic has caused to social lives but also for the lack of engaging education received. Despite Covid19 restrictions in UK universities being lifted, academic institutions are being forced to make decisions about the restrictions they feel they will need to impose for the next academic year. Students might see this as an all clear to return to in-person learning but some may be reluctant to return to the classroom.
Many universities are still working on developing a virtual experience that emulates the traditional classroom to create a seamless, unified experience for all students. All-virtual and hybrid programs have continued to grow in popularity as institutions have improved their education provisions and learned from what has and what has not worked over the past eighteen months. Having the choice to attend the classroom virtually or in-person is becoming increasingly appealing to pupils. For academic institutions looking to either continue some aspect of digital learning or opting to start providing it, there are a few things they need to consider first to make it worthwhile for pupils and teachers alike.
Creating a genuine connection
How are educators supposed to ensure that their class is engaged and learning when they are unable to see them? It appears at first glance a simple question and should be a core aspect to whichever tool universities use to support digital learning. Unfortunately, some software simply does not support this. The key to any successful platform for digital education is making sure the user experience is comparable to the one offered in-person. To achieve this, the platform must do two core things, make the educator visible to the class and ensure the feedback from the pupils can be read by the teacher.
The educator must be seen by both in-person and digital participants as if they were standing in front of the class while also ensuring the teacher can see the facial expressions and body language of those being educated. Whether in the classroom or participating online, the need for direct feedback is critical to understanding how well the lesson is going and whether a student may be struggling or excelling. Eye contact is a primordial concept and is also fundamental to engagement. If students listen or simply watch a piece of content without this fundamental connection, their attention will swiftly turn elsewhere. The educator is competing against a mountain of distractions from Facebook to Twitter and the student’s phone. Having that feedback even through a digital platform is an essential aspect that builds connections. Many educators have lost faith in digital and hybrid learning but by building some form of emotional feedback could see teachers grow excited about the prospect.
Enhance lesson engagement
Thinking back to our time in education, the lessons that stood out the most were often the ones that challenged and allowed us to contribute, debate. While no lessons are exactly the same, they all share one thing in common, participation. The need for some element of participation is almost more critical due to the lack of physical connection as we’ve just discussed. Listening to an hour-long lecture even when physically in the room can lead to feelings such as being disconnected and uninspiring. This is only exacerbated when attempting to listen from a laptop or tablet as the distractions of home are ever-present.
Obviously, the style of teaching is ultimately down to the educator but, there are aspects that we can include into platforms that can enhance engagement. Chat capabilities, silent questions, whiteboarding, quizzes and content-sharing can all be in-built into a platform to allow the teacher to quickly heighten engagement if they suddenly feel attentions may be elsewhere. Breakout rooms are of course now common across many platforms but, video conferencing alone offers little to no additional tools to engage pupils. Using breakout rooms which allow students to write, pose questions and collaborate together on screen while the educator can seamlessly move from one group to another instantly turns a lecture into a much more engaging seminar format. It’s something that was top of our priorities when designing weConnect as there is real value in utilising breakout rooms not just as a way to break-up the one-track format of a lecture, but letting learners freely collaborate and access shared breakout content during and after the session is another way to enhance learning experience for both in-person and remote participants. When talking about hybrid learning, we don’t just mean the way in which students attend their lessons. We are also thinking bigger about what they do when in that classroom environment be it digital or physical.
Diving into pupil analytics
Thanks to hybrid learning platforms, tracking pupil progress and gaining feedback have been made easier. With just a few clicks away, teachers can now analyse and identify swiftly when and where a student may be falling behind. This is something video conferencing setups such as Teams or Zoom can’t deliver. Once a live session has finished, teachers will be able to review the engagement data from the class by asking questions such as: How many questions did the student answer correctly? How many questions did they ask themselves? How often did they contribute in group sessions? These are all useful data that can help the educator plan and develop more engaging lessons in the future.
Despite the change of attitudes towards hybrid learning, some of us are still using outdated platforms that are not fit for purpose. When looking at what will be best for an educational environment, institutions must think about taking an instructor first approach which empowers them to design the most engaging lessons. Educators have adapted at tremendous speed to teaching methods and situations which were completely alien to them. It is commendable that teachers have coped with and adapted to this change but with necessity for hybrid learning morphing into choice. Now is the time to hand educators the best tools and platforms to enable them to succeed in the new way of learning.