Innovating Hybrid Learning: Using the best of online & offline learning to provide a flexible learning experience for students
Returning to in-person classes can be a relief for some and a challenge for others. Regardless, online learning did bring unexpected benefits to teaching and learning, so educators might wonder whether to make their lessons fully online or not.
So the question is:
How to make the most of online learning (such as the lack of student engagement) or offline learning (such as low attendance) without having to deal with their corresponding problems?
What if we could take the best of both worlds to provide a flexible learning experience to students?
This is the challenge we decided to tackle in co-creation with Ana Uribe Sandoval (Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication), for an 8-week course on Media Campaigns. Throughout this course, 48 students that were enrolled in the International Bachelor in Communication and Media interacted in online and in-person classes to learn about different theories of persuasion in advertisement. The online classes took place in a customized digital classroom that we co-designed in Gather Town.
Focusing only on one instructional format (such as online or physical) may not be the most effective and engaging way to teach, due to the various (and sometimes contradictory) needs and preferences of both teachers and students. That is why we decided to create a combination of in-person and online sessions throughout the course. This allowed for hybrid lessons where the instructor and some students were attending the classroom in person, while also joining their peers online. This way, and with a specific schedule known in advance, students could engage meaningfully without barriers to access. They could therefore anticipate whether they would join in person or connect to the digital classroom from a distance and have a choice to experience different ways of learning.
“It was a more fun and innovative way of doing a class. Although it’s an online method using Gather Town helped to enhance the whole online experience by sprinkling a touch of offline feel to it.” — Student quote
“Changing environment from the classroom to Gather Town every two weeks makes everything fresh again, so I don’t get bored taking classes in these 8 weeks.” — Student quote
Following our vision on post-covid education, teachers are faced with the dilemma of either returning to the comfort and convenience of pre-pandemic in-person lessons, or to embrace the challenge of new innovations by mixing both in-person and online delivery modes. Innovating education isn’t about substituting a face-to-face lecture for an online one, but radically reimagining how we engage students as active participants and agents of their learning journey. For that, we cannot adopt a one-size-fits-all approach but rather consider flexibility as a way to ensure that all students have multiple ways of engagement as well as access to high-quality learning.
In using Gather Town as our online virtual classroom, we could be creative and develop a virtual environment for the students to learn online, make use of the affordances that the space offers to add value to the course experience, and allow innovation to happen between teachers and their students. Thus, our challenge was to use technology to enhance the educational experience of students, driven by the specific learning objectives of the course and unleashing the power of collaboration, creativity and play in a blended context.
During the Media Campaign course, most students shared that they enjoyed this flexible online/offline approach. Several also mentioned they like using Gather Town for their online immersive learning experience as it was more engaging than a traditional online lesson using a video-conferencing tool like Teams or Zoom. However, other students mentioned that they preferred to meet on campus only; although they recognized that Gather Town was a great way to do online learning. So, considering that the course used a blended model, we were able to provide a multi-modal approach that could serve the preferences of both student groups.
Intentionally designed online space
Integrating an online platform (such as Gather Town) to create a virtual classroom for a course can help remove the limitations of the physical space and provide a few extra features. By using the physical and virtual classrooms interchangeably in the same course, we can thoughtfully integrate technology in ways that add value to the learning experience.
At ErasmusX, we think critically about using educational technologies and we don’t support the shallow integration of technology to ‘edutain’ students. We believe that technology must enhance the learning experience of students and the teaching experience of educators alike. To follow this vision and apply it to this project, we built a customized Gather Town space that reflected the course’s pedagogical outcomes and aligned processes of this hybrid experience.
As we reflected upon the experience, some guiding principles emerged. Through our educational innovation, we wanted students to:
- Feel welcome and accepted, and develop a sense of belonging to their class community
- Engage in various activities including peer-learning, group work and individual work
- Develop their competencies in terms of knowledge, skills and understandings
- Experience a sense of autonomy and freedom in driving their own learning through relevant choices
To avoid the pitfalls of tech-driven projects, we paid close attention to the communication with the instructor to ensure constructive alignment (Biggs and Tang, 2011) between the learning objectives, the assessments, and the learning activities. This pause allowed us to then move into prototyping a coherent and educationally sound space.
A detail-oriented approach allowed us to then refine our space and launch it in time for the start of the course.
“I just think it is such an innovative concept for teaching and especially with the theory rooms it was nice to have all the theories and resources in one place, so we did not have to constantly check every section on Canvas (like discussions, files, etc.). It is also fun to have a virtual classroom that you can enter anytime you want!” — Student quote
The virtual space itself is not what makes the experience engaging. Without the deliberate actions of the teacher, especially in the onboarding phase, it can quickly become obsolete and irrelevant to engage online. To be successful with such a project, we had to be aware that facilitation was key to this course’s success. Therefore, we spent time exploring, experimenting, playing and testing the space with the instructor. It was important that the teacher could easily adjust to the perspective of the students and feel comfortable with the different tools to deliver the lessons smoothly. It is not easy to remember everything and requires practice.
“I liked that in Gather Town we had all theories comprehensively gathered and our work building up to that. The Miro board was a perfect overview and it’s nice that we as a class created its content. I would say having this comprehensive and clear overview of everything (especially the theories) helped me most to accomplish my learning objectives.” — Student quote
Some of the facilitations elements we used
With a purposeful space design and skillful facilitation, we can truly unleash the potential of this educational technology for students to engage in high-quality learning but also for them to socialize with one another and build a sense of community and togetherness.
Creating and taking ownership of the digital classroom
In most traditional higher education classes, students sit in rows and passively listen to the lecturer, experiencing little control over their learning and being detached from their instructors and peers. As a result, students do not necessarily feel that their voice matters and that they can contribute and co-own the educational space. To challenge this model and not re-create it online, we optimized the educational and technological design of the course to release student autonomy and enhance opportunities for dialogues (with peers, and teacher). Some illustrations of creating these conditions can be found in the way we: (1) onboarded the students, (2) gave them time to explore the affordances of the space, and (3) integrated opportunities for collaborative work.
1. Onboarding students
We anticipated the need for students to easily access and feel comfortable in the space. By adding a tutorial in Canvas and ensuring there was time in the first session to onboard students with an ice-breaker. In this case, the instructor asked students to go on a digital treasure hunt around the Gather Town space where we hid digital assets with a photo of an Oreo cookie secretly attached to them. The first ones to find the digital Oreo would get a package of Oreo cookies the next time they would join the offline classroom.
Through this simple activity, the students became acquainted with the space in a low-stake environment and enjoyed seeing each other’s personalized avatars, making the online experience immersive and playful.
“I (also) liked designing my own character :)) and the confetti option.” — Student quote
2. Exploring the affordances of the space
Affordances are the relationships between the people and the (digital) objects that are often intuitive. When we can unleash the potential of the affordances, we make effective use of the space as we rely less on explanation and more on experimentation and discovery. In a way, the space speaks for itself.
- An example of affordance in Gather Town is the proximity in space, where users can speak and see each other’s video when they come closer to one another. To further amplify the use of proximity, it is possible to create spaces that are private and other more open spaces that depend on the proximity between the user avatars.
- A second example of affordance is the interaction with objects. When these are interactive, the object lights up when the avatar gets closer and nudges the user to press ‘X’ to have access to a text, link or image providing some customized information.
- Another level of communication and affordances has to do with visual conventions. There are some objects that feel more familiar for the user to consider them as more interactive than others. For example, in a space that looks like an office, it is more intuitive for a user to try to interact with a computer asset with the hopes to access a workspace, than trying to interact with a plan on the same office space expecting to access a workspace.
An online space like a simple video-conferencing tool can be quite teacher-led, limiting the realization of student agency. For example, students do not always feel comfortable unmuting themselves or even switching on their cameras. They might not speak up as much or take initiative, they may not easily form groups or speak to peers, as they rely on the chat only and on the breakouts created by the teacher. In a space like Gather Town, we can create the conditions for a more organic and democratic space where students can bring their personality through their avatar, approach a peer or the teacher to have a private or group conversation, make use of private rooms, etc.
The space offers more opportunities to be shared and co-owned but it’s also much easier to work together, thanks to the group rooms that can be created for collaborative work. The gamified elements do add value to the experience and sense of immersion of the students. The digital workspaces acted as hubs for all the relevant starting material for the students to access and we embedded links for students to access their own team Miro boards where they created content.
It’s important to ensure that the digital classroom is not just fun and engaging but also conducive to student learning, with a clear structure. These intentional design elements integrated into the space allowed students to take responsibility and be accountable for their learning.
“It was an interesting change to what I was accustomed to. What I liked about it was that I could go see the other group’s theory rooms whenever I needed to.” — Student quote
“It was totally new experience and I think it was a* very efficient way to proceed with* group working.” — Student quote
The issues we encountered
When we embark on an educational innovation project, we also need to consider the problems we might run into. In our case, the project didn’t go without any hiccups and we made some learnings in the process of experimenting, such as:
- Ensuring a smooth onboarding experience for everyone: We need to put ourselves into the shoes of the students who would need extra help to get acquainted with the space and the ways of working in a blended manner. While the affordances of the Gather Town space help students to navigate, orient themselves and be self-organized, some students didn’t find it easy to find information so there has to be some consideration that some students may need more scaffolding for example.
- Anticipating technical problems: It’s always good to anticipate problems (such as access to high-speed internet) and mitigations, such as suggesting students to connect from the campus if their internet isn’t good enough. A short summary of the possible tech issues can be summarized in Gather and the teacher can go through these with students before the first online class as well.
- Paying attention to cognitive load: It can be too much for students to process the various elements and tools. While we were very aware of this for the design of the Gather Town platform itself, we still could be even more intentional in the use of other platforms alongside Gather Town (such as Canvas, Miro and Padlet).
Student experience of the process
Based on observing students, gaining regular feedback from the instructor and asking students for their feedback, we found that this project impacted students positively in terms of their engagement & motivation, sense of belonging & feeling of ownership over their learning and, autonomy & agency.
- Engagement & Motivation: The attractive and immersive affordances of the space stimulated students’ motivation and engagement for learning. Students enjoyed the ludic aspect of Gather Town and the flexibility in formats and the balance of both online (or hybrid) and in-person classes. They felt more actively engaged, could take initiative, interact with various peers and interact with the instructor in a more horizontal manner than other traditional alternatives for online interactions via Zoom or Teams.
- Sense of belonging & Ownership over learning: The very fact that Gather Town provides students with a digital avatar allows them to develop their digital self in ways that may be reflective of who they see themselves or in ways that are more imaginative, promoting creative self-expression. The digital classroom was also very inviting through its attractive design, making students feel welcome. The various interactive elements allowed the integration of multi-modal resources, therefore providing students with a greater sense of ownership over their learning. Rather than being asked to submit traditional assignments individually, they accessed materials and together with their peers, worked towards collaborative projects that were integrated into the digital classroom (in their Miro board for example).
- Autonomy & Agency: All of us have ‘agency’ as this is not something we give or take from students but based on the structure and conditions we create; we may optimize or limit the opportunities for student agency to be realized. Through the design of the space, we strived to bring in the ingredients for students to feel free to move around, interact with different people regardless of them joining online or offline, plan study sessions in a small group or even isolate themselves in a private space if needed. This helped them to actively drive their learning as well as allow them to regulate themselves to address their own needs.
“[Gather] is just like a video game with cute characters, furnished rooms and tasks. I don’t get tired of exploring in Gather Town. I like to look up information from Gather Town than from canvas because it is more fun! It kind of motivate me to look at all the theories after the class.” — Student quote
With this case, we illustrated some ways that the affordances of a tool like Gather Town can be unleashed to serve a pedagogical goal and a healthy learning experience. We zoomed out by sharing some guiding principles and key concepts and we also zoomed in by demonstrating some concrete use cases of elements in relation to the context of the course. Gather Town is just one of the tools that one might use, and many of these innovative ideas are transferable to other platforms. One can go scale this up or down, based on the situation, time and expectations but the ‘what’ doesn’t change is the attention towards building a solution that is human-centered and consider students as people, beyond the academic borders.