As vaccination rates continue to rise across the world, many universities and colleges are planning to return to in-person learning in September. While initial predictions suggested that the fall semester would assume a hybrid form, with a mix of online and face-to-face instruction, the circumstances changed this spring as acceptance letters went out and prospective students weighed their options. In the interim, many institutions have since fully embraced a comprehensive return to physical campuses.
Public health considerations and science are the driving factors behind the decisions to welcome students back on campus, but there are of course, many other reasons: financial, pedagogical, and a general longing to return to “normal.” David Hawkins, Chief Education and Policy Officer for the National Association for College Admission Counseling told Inside Higher Ed, “After being in quarantine for the better part of a year, if not a year, many people — and that includes students — are anxious to get back to some semblance of normal. A big part of the residential college experience is arriving on campus and living in a dorm and doing the things that we all associate with college.”
The Post-Pandemic Classroom
Despite the desire to return to “normal”, students and educators should expect some changes to the higher education experience. Virtual learning has unleashed tremendous amounts of technological innovation and ingenuity, and it would be counterproductive to erase that progress.
Many students, particularly those with disabilities, are hoping that when schools fully open, they will not simply rewind to the way things were before. In an article in The Chronicle, Serena Puang writes, “The pandemic has accelerated the conversation about disability accommodations on college campuses, as requests long-labeled impossible, such as remote learning and recorded lectures, were universally adopted overnight. Now, as many colleges roll out plans for a return to ‘normal’ this fall, students, professors, and disability activists are questioning the way people conceive of normalcy — and whether or not it’s a state that’s even desirable to return to.”
Many of the accommodations on which students with disabilities rely, like recorded lectures, have universal benefits for all students. Emily Masuda, who currently attends Dartmouth College, told her school newspaper that she found it “really helpful” to go back to recorded videos on Panopto when she studied for tests and she hopes this element of online learning will continue post-pandemic. “I liked to search certain phrases in the transcript and rewatch sections of the lectures,” Masuda explained. “This feature was helpful because sometimes I didn’t catch everything that was said during class.”
So what will students encounter when they finally make their much-anticipated return to quads all around the world in September?
The post-pandemic classroom will likely have the following attributes:
- Prioritizes in-person and on-campus learning with support for online learning
- Uses precious in-person time for more discussion and less lecturing
- Preserves some of the flexibility that students and teachers loved during remote learning
- Makes learning accessible to all students with all kinds of disabilities and learning challenges
- Supports the needs of all students, including those whose native language is not the dominant language of the institution
Hybrid Learning vs. Blended Learning
While hybrid learning has a role to play, it may not be the dominant model moving forward. Bold predictions like: “The future of work is hybrid,” may be true for workplaces, but in higher ed, where so much of the learning occurs on-campus and outside of the classroom, the primacy of in-person interactions in classes and on campus will continue.
Blended learning, on the other hand, will likely proliferate. Even though “blended learning” and “hybrid learning” are often used interchangeably, there are small but significant differences between the two. In hybrid learning, a significant portion of the course takes place online. A hybrid learning scenario replaces much of the student-teacher face-to-face time in a brick-and-mortar location with online interaction.
Blended learning, which often includes the addition of multimedia resources like asynchronous video, enhances traditional in-person learning and coursework. These additions encourage self-directed learning and allow students to time and location-shift their access to information on-demand.
Three Challenges with Hybrid Learning
Based on our conversations with customers, ed tech leaders, and our own research, we have discovered three main challenges with the hybrid teaching modality.
High Cognitive Load: Teaching to a group of students in person in a classroom and a virtual group at the same time is extremely difficult and can create a very heavy cognitive load for the instructor. While watching and interacting with students in the class, the instructor has to imagine and keep top of mind the students — represented by small squares on a screen — who are joining remotely. Most teachers did not envision this kind of teaching when they chose their profession, and many teachers have said this type of teaching is exhausting and leads to burnout.
Adverse Impact on Pedagogy: This bifurcated attention between in-class students and remote students negatively impacts the pedagogy for everyone. Best practices for teaching online are very different from the ones used for teaching in person. When an instructor teaches two different groups — in class and online — simultaneously, compromises are made to accommodate both groups, and the quality of the teaching suffers. Both the students in the class and the students joining online receive suboptimal teaching experiences.
Student Preference for Asynchronous or In-Person: Over time, students who have a choice between attending a synchronous class (via videoconferencing) or an asynchronous class choose to watch the on-demand video. This preference was very clear in the Math 51 class at Stanford University during the Fall 2020 semester. Benjamin Gao, the author of a study that looked at synchronous and asynchronous attendance in his math class wrote in the Stanford Daily: “Our results suggest that in just a few weeks, a majority of Math 51 students preferred the asynchronous Panopto recordings to the synchronous Zoom classes and that students will continue to stay with Panopto in the future.” Moreover, even if information can be taught live via web conferencing, students miss the in-person interactions they have in a physical classroom. A recent Deloitte report, for instance, states that nearly 80 percent of undergraduate students said their online courses lacked the engagement of in-person classes.
A Tour of the Post-Pandemic Classroom
Ultimately, pedagogical choices need to address the needs of students and professors, and each institution has different and unique circumstances. But the post-pandemic classroom should be more student-centric, more accessible, more interactive, and more flexible than prior to the pandemic.
Here’s what it could look like:
Professors walk into their lecture halls and a web camera automatically begins recording the live lecture. The professor knows students have watched a flipped video that was assigned ahead of class, enabling the class to be an interactive discussion. Students can take notes or not, since the transcripts from the recorded lecture will be available immediately after class. Long gone are the days of carbon copy paper for note-taking!
When students get back to their dorms or the library, they can immediately access the full recording, the transcript, and slides from the lecture. They can search for specific words, rewind, fast-forward, slow down and speed up the recording, read the closed-captioning, and even bookmark the most salient moments of the lecture. If a student misses a class, they can go back and watch it on-demand when they have the time. Students can submit video assignments where they showcase their know-how in languages, science, drama, and many other hands-on disciplines.
Teachers can create in-depth flipped videos on core concepts that are central to their class; they can easily reuse these assets the following year or share them with other faculty teaching the same course. If a professor needs to travel for work or needs to miss a class, they can record the lecture ahead of time, so that class doesn’t need to be rescheduled.
What about Zoom? Is it going away? No. Zoom, Teams, Webex and other video conferencing tools are excellent when you need immediate, real-time communication. But when schools open their campuses to students, the real-time communication happens in the classroom. Zoom, however, becomes a useful tool for when a professor wants to invite a guest lecturer to join from a different city, or in cases where students can’t come to class due to bad weather or other disruptions.
The Power of Asynchronous Video in Higher Education
Students have now come to rely on recordings of live lectures and the benefits that come with being able to view them on-demand as study aids or to help increase the accessibility of the teaching materials. And teachers have become comfortable making videos, sharing them, and seeing the benefits of augmenting their class materials with video.
Asynchronous video is the perfect complement to in-person teaching. Professors can focus on the class in front of them and teach directly to the students they can see while knowing their lectures are captured.
With videos available on-demand, students can access them when and if needed, and in the case of flipped materials, they can interact with them however they prefer — fast, slow, with captions, etc. Precious class time is spent in active conversations with teachers and students, not passively watching a lecture.
There are many pandemic-era practices and protocols that we are ready to leave behind: social distancing, maintaining a 6-feet bubble, bathing in hand-sanitizer, the masks, the air hugs (the list goes on and on), but asynchronous video — either in the form of flipped classroom materials or lecture capture — has withstood the test of time and is truly here to stay.