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Hybrid learning: How simple technology could change education

Hybrid Education

Blended education. Hybrid learning. Flipping the classroom. Whatever one chooses to call it, this method of learning--which combines classroom and online education--is going places and making headlines along the way. While education experts continue to debate the efficacy of hybrid learning, its very existence has challenged them to re-evaluate not just technology's place in (and out of) the classroom, but also how to reach and teach students more effectively. That alone is one of the major benefits of hybrid learning.

What is (and isn't) blended education?

Defining hybrid or blended education is a trickier task than one might think--opinions vary wildly on the matter. In a report on the merits and potential of blended education, the Sloan Consortium defined hybrid courses as those that "integrate online with traditional face-to-face class activities in a planned, pedagogically valuable manner." Educators probably disagree on what qualifies as "pedagogically valuable," but the essence is clear: Hybrid education uses online technology to not just supplement, but transform and improve the learning process.

That does not mean a professor can simply start a chat room or upload lecture videos and say he is leading a hybrid classroom. According to Education Elements, which develops hybrid learning technologies, successful blended learning occurs when technology and teaching inform each other: material becomes dynamic when it reaches students of varying learning styles. In other words, hybrid classrooms on the Internet can reach and engage students in a truly customizable way. In this scenario, online education is a game changer, not just a supplement for status quo. But what does this theoretical model actually look like in practice?

Hybrid learning in action

In the course of higher education, hybrid or blended learning is a snazzy, yet relatively new tool, and not all professors use it the same way. Trends have emerged, however. For instance, most professors in blended classrooms use some version of a course management system application to connect with students online. Blackboard and Moodle are perhaps two of the best known CMS applications used today. Through platforms like these, students can access video of lectures, track assignments and progress, interact with professors and peers, and review other supporting materials, like PowerPoint presentations or scholarly articles. Some Georgia online schools, such as Atlanta Technical College, offer hybrid courses.

Even if all professors used the same platform, however, they could each integrate them into their classrooms differently. According to a report on the subject by the Innosight Institute, professors could supplement traditional coursework with online media in the classroom, or simply alternate between online and classroom instruction. Perhaps one of the most recent--or at least most widely covered--hybrid teaching models is what Innosight calls the "online driver" method, or, as it has come to be known, "flipping."

Flipping out: How hybrid classrooms are redefining education

This year, NPR and other media outlets caught wind of a relatively new education model called "flipping," which is really just an adaptation of hybrid learning. In a traditional classroom, instructors use class time to lecture and disseminate support materials. Students then review these materials and complete any assignments at home, on their own time. With some luck, teachers will review those assignments in class the following day, or at least host office hours so that they can field questions and offer support.

"Flipping" defies these conventions. In this method, teachers and professors use online media to deliver notes, lectures and related course materials. Students review these materials at home and at their own pace. Classroom periods are then transformed into hands-on work periods where the teacher--who will have already delivered his or her lecture digitally--is free to field questions, engage class-wide discussions or offer other means of support. According to Mary Beth Hertz of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, "flipping" reinforces student-centered learning, allowing students to master content in an individual way. But is it effective? Can hybrid learning--whatever the application--truly transform education as we know it?

Does hybrid learning work? What the experts say

Not all students learn the same way. This is not a particularly novel concept, but it is an important one. The tech publication PFSK notes that even early childhood education programing, like Sesame Street, recognizes this, and therefore design programming in a way that reaches auditory, visual and kinetic learners alike. Students never outgrow their learning styles, so why do traditional college classrooms fail to engage all of them?

This is blended learning's real strength: it transforms a largely transmissive method of teaching--say, a professor lecturing for what feels like an eternity--into a truly interactive one. It sounds ideal on paper, but does it work? A 2010 meta-analysis published by the U.S. Department of Education suggests it does. According to the report, students exposed to both face-to-face and online education were more successful than students entirely in one camp or the other.

But wait! There's a catch…

Of course, no educational model is one-size-fits-all, and some hybrid classrooms are probably more effective than others. According to a scientific literature review published by the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, a number of factors impact the success of hybrid learning. Teachers must be committed to and well trained in hybrid education and its technologies, and students must have a clear understanding of what is expected of them in this new environment. As hybrid learning becomes more common, schools and professors will likely understand and implement it better. Yet even now, early in the game, blended education shows promise, making this an exciting time to be a student.

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