2021featured All Stories

Is Hybrid the Future?

Tools are just enablers – it's all about the people behind them

By Reem Abouemera

Will the future of education be online, hybrid or completely face to face? What will happen in the post-COVID-19 classroom? Even before the pandemic, Research and Markets had forecasted that the online education market would surge to at least $350 billion by 2025. What happens now, with the impact of COVID-19 becoming centric in education? 

Hoda Mostafa, professor of practice and director of the Center for Learning and Teaching, and Maha Bali ’01, associate professor of practice at CLT, believe it’s all about the individuals using the tools rather than the tools themselves. 

“The digital education space is rich with both pedagogical and technological innovations, and the decisions we take now can possibly open up new opportunities,” said Mostafa. “I am personally a pedagogy-first proponent and see technology as the enabler.”

“Nothing is ever really about the ‘digital tools,’ or at least, it shouldn’t be,” Bali affirmed.

“Sometimes, a tool can replace something you’re doing in-person to allow you to do it the same way, supplement it or enhance it. Occasionally, a digital tool can help you do something you could not do before, but it’s always about what it is you’re trying to do and whether a tool exists that can be used — or repurposed — to fit your goals,” Bali added.

For Bali, it’s always about humans and social connections — not tools, since there are almost no “new” tools that appeared during COVID-19. It’s just that suddenly more people had to learn to use them and choose the ones that fit their needs.

“People are innovative, not tools,” Bali emphasized. “You can use simple and straightforward tools every day, like Google Slides, in innovative ways. Digital literacy is more important than digital tools.”

For instance, using Twitter isn’t about learning how to tweet but about learning how to use it to create a campaign. Similarly, many people around the world use a tool like Zoom, but how many are using it to create engaging classes and meetings? 

So is hybrid the future of education? 

Mostafa perceives that in some contexts, traditional classrooms and even workplaces will no longer “work” after everyone has been exposed to studying and working in vastly different approaches than the usual, which is why hybrid models are here to stay.

Bali agrees that hybrid teaching will likely continue beyond the pandemic because it was already happening before it. “I’m sure that although many people were introduced to online learning at a time of trauma, some will realize the benefits of sometimes using non-traditional ways of teaching in the future,” she stressed. “Whether it’s for logistical reasons or because some tools enable equitable learning, each teacher will discover what works for them.”

Despite that, Bali still believes that university education is much more than the cognitive learning component that happens in classrooms.

“Students gain so much from the social interaction, extracurricular activities, and other informal and less-structured learning that happens on campus. Universities will likely continue to offer and value such experiences,” she affirmed.

For Mostafa, there seem to be more questions than answers at this point. “What will our learning spaces look like in the near and far future? Will we ever return to the face-to-face teaching we are accustomed to, or will we craft a new set of delivery methods, pedagogies and technologies that allow for fluid teaching and learning? What kind of support environment can centers for learning and teaching provide instructors as they drive this change and help navigate the array of digital tools that best support learning?” These are all questions yet to be answered, and the discussions continue. 

“Many communities within institutions across the globe are responding to the pandemic by engaging in conversations around the future of higher education using an innovative mindset to challenge the status quo,” she added. 

As for Bali, while she’s certain that hybrid learning isn’t just a buzzword and is here for the long haul, she deems it vital to keep the issue of privilege front and center: Who has privileged access to technology, and who doesn’t? What about access to high-quality devices? The internet? “Even some privileged neighborhoods don’t have great internet access, and that is an issue that needs to be solved at the infrastructure level,” she said.  

But all in all, opportunities are evidently present, with digital tools paving the way for them.

“With this complexity comes opportunity when communities of practice look to others for guidance, draw from past experiences and, most importantly, listen with empathy and care to our learners,” said Mostafa. “I hope that the higher education communities will embrace this crisis with innovation, accompanied by an openness to experimentation and learning — one challenge at a time.”

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