The COVID-19 pandemic has hastened the adoption of online learning throughout the world. Despite online learning becoming the new normal for many learners, the future of education does not necessarily revolve solely around it. Rather, the answer may lie in that of a hybrid learning model. This is a sentiment echoed by Associate Professor Gabriel Gervais, Director, Online Learning, SUSS.
He states his firm belief that a hybrid learning format, which includes both online learning as well as face-to-face classes, will be a mainstay in years to come. And according to him, the COVID-19 pandemic has actually legitimised online learning, awakening institutions and educators to the need of including online learning elements into their training and education programmes.
The Challenges of Online Learning
The adoption of online learning has been far from smooth for both learners and educators, with a variety of issues surfacing. One example would be participant concentration, with many students drifting off or surfing the web during online lessons, all without the knowledge of the educator. Breakout rooms, which are supposed to facilitate discussion between groups of students, are often turning into casual chit chat sessions instead.
There are also problems such as the inaccessibility of online learning for people with low income or adults with disabilities, as well as security issues. In an April 2020 incident, an online class on Zoom was hijacked mid-stream by hackers sharing inappropriate graphic images.
However, the benefits of including online learning, such as facilitating better time management for both learners and educators to name one, make a strong case for its inclusion into part of the course delivery. Crucially, when we look at the bigger picture, it is evident that a hybrid, or blended learning approach, helps build a more resilient education system.
According to Dr Uma Natarajan, a researcher and educator in the field of K-12 education, and Dr N. Varaprasad, former CEO of the National Library Board and currently a partner with the Singapore Education Consulting Group, a blended learning approach provides students, parents and educators with the experience to navigate situations, where they are required to seamlessly transition to a different mode of learning as a result of disruptions.
Adapting to the Hybrid Learning Environment
As one of the early adopters of blended learning, SUSS actively supports educators and learners in adapting to the hybrid learning environment. Prof Gervais cites an example of this by mentioning the efforts of the SUSS online learning unit, which readied online university courses in business, logistics, supply chain management and analytics for full online delivery if required. This online learning unit employs the help of learning development specialists as well, who assist in designing and converting face-to-face courses and their material for an online data resource.
Learner-support at SUSS is implemented primarily by academic units interacting with the learners. This data-driven support, which creates effective teaching experiences in the process as well, is facilitated by the institution’s Business Intelligence & Analytics and Teaching & Learning Centre. Additionally, SUSS deploys success coaches who give students personal support to adjust to online learning.
On a more general note, Prof Gervais points at how more institutions are accepting online learning as a component of the same course delivery. Prior to COVID-19, the online portion of a course usually functioned as a supplement to the actual content and delivery of the course. Nowadays, online learning serves to complement the face-to-face delivery of a course instead.
As a result of COVID-19, MOE realised the urgent need to make swift adjustments to the delivery of education at secondary and pre-university levels. Students now learn through a mix of home-based and in-school activities, and can leverage both online and offline approaches. This provides them with more opportunities to study at their own pace and empowers them to take charge of their learning. There will also be an emphasis on student-initiated learning, whereby students may pursue their own interests and learn outside of the curriculum.
How Can We Do Better At Hybrid Learning
A key objective of a hybrid learning approach is to develop students into self-directed learners. But learners also need to adapt to the virtual classes and make the most out of the online learning experience. One way to achieve this is for learners to take greater ownership of online learning. Self-directed learners usually go beyond the call, or the set materials provided to them. With such initiative, these learners excel because they also look out for additional educational materials to supplement the course materials.
Another way to become better learners is to acquire basic skills in adapting to the hybrid learning environment. Students may have different levels of proficiency, but they all can gain the basic knowledge of how to succeed in a hybrid learning environment. They can start learning these basic skills on their own simply by looking into online resources from credible sources like global institutions.
For educators, they need to develop their digital skills and pedagogical effectiveness that are relevant to the hybrid learning approach. Depending on the context of the course or curriculum, the educators need to have the ability to identify the suitability of different forms of hybrid learning. This requires effective professional development of educators and supporting coaches or instructors.
However, one of the main challenges for educators is the assessment of learning outcomes. Prof Gervais adds that teachers constantly need to evaluate student engagement. “Am I being understood? Are the students engaged? Are they interested? These questions cannot be answered without visual cues. So you have to find different techniques to assess whether or not they are learning.”
One such potential assessment strategy is the use of entrance and exit tickets. Using digital quizzes or talks, educators can test the students' background knowledge on the day’s lesson, and their understanding of the topic at the end of the lesson.
As for online platforms like Zoom, where the hacking incidents occurred, security measures have been enhanced to prevent such incidents during online lessons. Zoom has changed default settings for education users, and added passwords for its free basic users, while regularly updating its systems to provide better experiences. But to ensure optimum safety, users should also familiarise themselves with the platform’s security features, update the app and set up the security protection settings.
Keeping Up With the Times
The COVID-19 pandemic has showcased the value of hybrid learning, and essentially resulted in the largest hybrid learning experiment in history, with everyone scrambling to react to school closures and their gradual partial reopening. But Singapore is perhaps better prepared than others, having previously learned from previous challenges to the education ecosystem. This is evident in the growth of the e-learning market in Singapore even before the pandemic, which was initially estimated to be worth around US$106 million in 2005. Since then, it has been valued at US$792.97 million in 2019 and is forecasted to grow to over US$2 billion by 2027. However, considering the uncertainty of the pandemic, there may well be further challenges down the road for learners and educators, but there is no doubt that hybrid learning is the way to keep up.
Its impact can transcend beyond the education sector as well. With a recent McKinsey survey revealing that 90% of organisations will move towards establishing hybrid workspaces, hybrid learning not only prepares students to enter the workforce of tomorrow by helping them better acclimate to such working arrangements. Its flexibility empowers them to thrive in these environments as well, providing them with opportunities to better pursue on-the-move upgrading and build career resilience.This article is an adaptation of the podcast Make Online Learning Work For You. The podcast features Associate Professor Gabriel Gervais (Head of Programme, Online Learning Unit at SUSS), who discusses the benefits of a hybrid learning model, and how to make it work better for everyone. Listen to the podcast here.