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How to Plan for Hybrid Teaching and Learning

Learn 6 key considerations for a blended model of in-person and remote instruction.

Paul Barnwell | August 7, 2020

As school districts continue to make and revise plans to open the 2020–2021 school year, many are considering adopting blended or hybrid learning-based schedules. There is widespread hope that some form of face-to-face interaction can be safely combined with remote learning. And just like during the abrupt transition to remote instruction, we teachers will have to adapt quickly to new instructional challenges. Add the immense challenge of pandemic-related safety protocols, and we're bound to have plenty of ups and downs this year.

I've also been coming to terms with this fact: Leading a successful hybrid learning experience requires a different set of strategies than working strictly remotely or strictly face-to-face.

So after doing some research and speaking with several experts, I've done my best to distill some concrete strategies and mindsets that we should consider to make a hybrid learning environment as productive as possible. It's a tall order, but we teachers have proven to be resilient and adaptive during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Focus on well-being and relationships.

Researcher Jon Eckert and his colleagues at Baylor University convened school leaders from across the world in virtual discussions throughout the spring and into the summer. They found three focus themes for school systems to consider in the upended COVID-19 environment: well-being, engagement, and feedback.

Before any meaningful learning takes place, Eckert writes, Maslow's hierarchy -- the idea that physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being must be taken care of before meaningful learning can occur -- is paramount. During the pandemic, the upheaval in families' and students' lives affects all of these basic needs, and school leaders and teachers must do their best to focus on well-being and positive relationships -- even more than usual.

Ruben Montoya, director of edtech systems at the Alhambra Elementary School District in Phoenix, Arizona, agrees. "It's important [to keep a focus] on relationships, and it's going to be a little more challenging with the shifting learning environments," he says.

Even if teachers have to start the year remotely, they can transfer some of the community building that traditionally takes place in a brick-and-mortar classroom to the virtual one. "I know that many teachers are worried [about this challenge] because trust and relationships need to be built -- they're asking how do you do those kinds of things without seeing students?" says Leticia Citizen, i4Coach at the Hawthorne School in Beverly Hills Unified School District.

She suggests trying tools like Nearpod or Pear Deck, which allow for building in student engagement and interaction to presentations. I, for one, can imagine using Pear Deck to try out digital versions of opening classroom icebreakers and discussions if I need to meet my students first in an online setting.

Different modes, different strategies.

As teachers, we must consider which types of activities are best suited for online vs. in-person learning in a hybrid environment. "Content delivery can be done online, but you need to focus on their skills while [students] are in class because it's difficult to focus on individual skills during a synchronous lesson with, say, 15 or more kids during an online session," says Wendy Loewenstein, director of the Virtual School in Omaha, Nebraska.

For instance, a high school geography teacher might require students to take notes and watch a series of videos on human migration and immigration patterns at home. The teacher could then use in-person class time to discuss the ideas or facilitate critical-thinking activities that are better supported when the teacher can more easily facilitate.

According to reporting by Education Week, the following strategies are best suited to each learning mode:

Activities for the Classroom

  • Interactive discussions and hands-on lessons
  • Lab or science work that needs supervision
  • One-on-one instruction time for vulnerable students
  • Well-being check-ins

Activities for Remote Learning

  • Viewing lecture materials in presentation or video format where students can learn at their own pace
  • Independent work like worksheets, reading, and writing
  • Elective, remediation, or advanced work 

Citizen wonders how face-to-face time can be maximized with likely physical distancing requirements, but she thinks teachers should focus on checking in with students individually or in small groups however possible. "For the in-person learning to really count, students [should be given opportunities] to ask questions and receive personalized feedback," she says.

"Just having students turn in assignments on Google Classroom isn't going to cut it."
-- Ruben Montoya, Alhambra Elementary School District, Phoenix, AZ

And Montoya adds that after the experimentation and triage-like teaching in the spring, we need to refine our methods. "Just having students turn in assignments on Google Classroom isn't going to cut it [this year]," he says.

The bottom line: It'll be essential for us to make our limited face-to-face instruction and interaction as meaningful as possible, even with health and safety protocols making that a challenge.

Aim for consistent communication.

There's no doubt that the barrage of school-related digital communications ushered in by COVID-19 has been tricky for all to navigate. After all, I know I'm not alone in having many students required to use and check email for the first time consistently in their lives! University of Cincinnati educators Katie Hicks and Sarah Schroeder provide the following ideas to ensure that we aren't scrambling to stay in touch with students and families:

  • Reflect and write out a communication plan.
  • Keep communication consistent and follow through!
  • Try texting services like Remind or Group.Me, and keep messages short and sweet. Many students and families will receive smartphone communication more consistently and quickly than email.

Loewenstein seconds the idea that routines for communication will increase engagement. "In order to have parents and students engaged, they need to know what to expect. So a teacher could say, I'm going to be sending a message out every Monday morning that will spell out your schedule for the week or your assignments for the week. We'll do this, this, and this by the end of the week, you'll have to do this. Having a strong structure, communicating the structure and the expectations of your course early on and often [is the way to go]." Check out these customizable templates to facilitate communication with students and their families.

Don't overwhelm with tech tools.

Loewenstein also says that teachers need to be mindful about not overwhelming students with technology tools during hybrid instruction. Millions of students by now, of course, are at least somewhat familiar with the basics like Google Classroom, Zoom, or Seesaw. But with so many other technology options to supplement learning, teachers need to be careful. I know that over the course of my career, I've been tempted countless times to try shiny new apps and websites in the classroom -- to little advantage if I overload the kids.

"Pick your top three to five and slowly introduce those [tools] to your students. Like one at a time using gradual release," Loewenstein says, adding that if students have teachers who all experiment with different tools, "it could be a little overwhelming, especially [for] those middle and high school students who have possibly seven different teachers doing the exact same thing."

Emphasize digital citizenship.

As learning worldwide has shifted online, digital citizenship lessons should be embedded into all students' learning experience, says Citizen. Within a hybrid learning environment, the reliance on screen time and digital tools will still be heavy. Consider establishing a culture of digital citizenship from the start with lessons on topics like finding credible news, responding to online hate speech, and dealing productively with digital drama.

Citizen is in charge of facilitating Common Sense lessons for her school community using an approach that is applicable in both hybrid and remote environments. "I divide lessons in half," she says. "The first half of the lesson I do live with the students and then the second half I create a student-paced lesson on Nearpod," which they'll have a week to complete on their own time.

In addition to the complete Common Sense Education K–12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum, the new Digital Citizenship Quick Activities (included within many of the lessons) are a good option for distance and hybrid learning situations. Check out the Quick Activities for elementary schoolers and for middle and high schoolers.

Let's take care of ourselves, too.

With few exceptions, the pandemic is affecting us all in adverse ways -- from families trying to juggle remote learning at home, perhaps coupled with economic hardship, to businesses being shuttered, to the millions of people infected with COVID-19. This is a trying time.

As teachers, we'll be useless in our attempts to bring normalcy to the school year if we don't value self-care. Let's extend grace in all directions -- including to ourselves, as even the most effective teachers will feel incompetent at times during the coming year.