As we move into an uncertain fall semester, a central question needs to be how we maintain a student centered approach to teaching and learning in the face of social distancing, whatever form that might take. In a recent survey 75% of students expressed dissatisfaction with the experiments undertaken in Spring 2020 collectively and aptly entitled “remote learning.” The students in this survey found “remote learning” unsurprisingly found the experience isolating and unsatisfying. The learning outcomes of the experience are also likely to be problematic as early indicators seem to be showing. For many, instructors and students alike, the experience was a frustrating one for entirely predictable reasons. We did the best we could. However, any good designer will tell you to learn from the flaws of your experience and iterate moving forward.

I have developed a strategy called Hybrid Plus to try to recapture some of what was lost in the transition. Hybrid Plus starts from a fundamentally student-centric position but recognizes the administrative challenges in what my friend Bryan Alexander calls the “toggle term.” The assumption under this scenario is an academic term characterized by unpredictability where institutions may be forced to shut down physical facilities unexpectedly due to localized outbreaks of the virus and/or a more nationalized shutdown. The Hybrid Plus strategy also assumes that no magical solutions such as an early or widely-distributed vaccine will emerge (a Dragon King event). It hopes for the best under such circumstances but plans for the worst.

Hybrid Plus is a holistic approach to teaching and learning that is designed specifically to address the problems of student connectedness coupled with the uncertainties of an environment characterized by the pandemic. At the same time, it recognizes that there are real administrative challenges in facing a “toggle term” effectively. The strategy has three elements:

  1. Create Student-Centered Instruction: First, faculty must thoroughly self-assess their classes and ask themselves the following questions. I discuss these in detail here.
    1. Which parts of instruction are best achieved asynchronously?
    2. How can I maximize the impact of limited synchronous interactions with my students?
    3. How can I structure assessments to be more authentic and meaningful and away from turning assessment into a game?
  2. Tailor toolsets around maximizing the impact of connectivity to our students. We need to assess the tools available to faculty and students with an eye toward facilitating teaching and learning. The goal here is to identify and rectify deficiencies before the semester starts. I have developed a rubric and survey to assist faculty and institutions identify and apply optimized toolsets for the types of teaching and learning they are trying to achieve. I will be holding an interactive session on this topic on June 11 as part of Arizona State University’s ShapingEDU initiative. Some key commonalities that should always be observed in this environment are:
    1. Technical barriers of all types must be minimized to the greatest extent possible. For instance, videoconferencing systems should be lightweight, system agnostic, have a dial-in option, and work robustly on mobile devices. Access to technology should not limit access to learning to the greatest extent possible.
    2. Whenever possible technology should prioritize student-driven functionality over other concerns. For instance, one of the issues that many students face is how to engage in informal learning with other students. Informal learning is critical to student success. Students should be encouraged to use, and be provided with, synchronous platforms for meeting with other students. One of the biggest victims of isolation from campuses is isolation from other students outside of class. A student-driven video conferencing solution coupled with an asynchronous, student-driven, chat and meetup functionality is key to developing communities of practice among students.
  3. Create flexible scheduling systems around physical environments to provide as much in-person, human interaction as circumstances permit. We should discard, for the most part, the synchronous in-person model for instruction and instead create flexible scheduling arrangements that allow teachers and students to come together on an ad hoc basis that complements their online experiences. These groups should be anticipated to be small in accordance with CDC and other health officials’ guidelines. However, the importance of this kind of human contact should not be underestimated. The challenge for administrators is to create the kind of flexible scheduling system and to communicate the availability of different kinds of facilities to faculty on an as-needed basis. This is a particularly important element to those courses requiring hands-on instruction such as many workforce programs as well as many academic courses requiring labs for experimentation. However, this kind of interaction is important to all kinds of classes. Attention to support services that would benefit from a physical presence should also be given.

Planning around these three elements will give institutions the most flexibility in meeting unexpected circumstances, while preserving the integrity of the teaching and learning process and, most importantly, engaging students to the greatest extent possible. If this crisis has taught us anything, it is that we can no longer afford to treat students like widgets being processed through the systems of learning. Covid-19 has blown apart the factory walls and the parts have been scattered to the wind.

Technology can provide a key linkage to building a new kind of learning environment. However, learning for many students will be crippled if those technological solutions are not paired with systemic adaptations. Teachers must adapt their systems of engagement with the communities of learning that they are responsible for. Students must be encouraged to adapt their systems of interaction with each other as well as their learning (learning to learn is part of any learning process). Institutions must facilitate constructive engagement at all levels and must therefore adapt institutional practices around maximizing systems of interaction in an environment without walls. We may have to let go of some already outdated systems to achieve that. However, the pandemic may provide a catalyst for an overdue reimagining of our learning ecosystems. There is great opportunity for innovation here.