Teachers who switched to distance learning due to COVID-19 have learnt by experience that your teaching style has to change depending on whether your students are sitting in front of you or participating in a video conference.
But now that reopening plans are being made and blended learning seems to be the prevalent solution going forward, how can educators find a style that combines the best of both?
At first glance, such a setting presents twice the difficulties: the sources of distraction one has to deal with in a classroom combine with the ones that are unique to learning from home, and teachers with little training are usually more reluctant than their own students to explore the possibilities of blended learning.
But each teaching style comes with its own set of advantages as well as disadvantages, so how can teachers find the right balance between the two and maximise engagement in a blended learning setting?
Instant two-way feedback
From a student’s point of view, instant feedback is one of the greatest perks of online learning. Whether it comes in the form of immediately knowing the result of a quiz instead of having to wait for laborious manual correction and grading by the teacher or knowing that a channel of communication with the instructor is always open outside of pre-determined office hours, instant feedback cuts back on waiting times, boredom, and even anxiety.
But what is truly important is that instant feedback can go both ways. Students are not the only ones to receive it: one major way to increase engagement and retention in an online setting is for teachers to monitor student activity and use the resulting data to identify their struggles and correct their methods accordingly.
Which online learning materials have students used the most? Are parts of it being skipped or, on the contrary, reviewed multiple times? These trends in student activity can all be helpful in determining what they perceive as most relevant and which aspects are too easy or too hard, resulting in useful tips for the teacher to decide what concepts need repeating and what learning objectives have been mastered, what is being well received and what needs a little extra help in stimulating curiosity.
Monitoring single students can also raise red flags and prompt a teacher to take individual action: if a student’s participation tends to drop over time, a personal email or the offer of some one-on-one time can go a long way in getting them back on track.
Learn actively, not passively
Blended learning promotes independence and personalisation of each student’s learning path, which in itself can increase engagement by encouraging learners to take responsibility for their own progress. This aspect, of course, is largely dependent on the students’ level of maturity: one cannot expect a primary school pupil to be in charge of their own education to the same degree as a university student. Students of different ages will inevitably need different kinds of guidance, but guidance, whether it means overseeing a mostly independent process or metaphorically holding the students’ hands every step of the way, remains the greatest keyword.
Having to do online research to fill one’s gaps in knowledge, for instance, promotes a more active form of learning in which students not only retain facts and figures, but learn how to select appropriate sources and think critically about the information they find, rather than passively absorbing lectures and textbooks; participating in discussion forums with classmates exposes students to different points of view, teaches them how to structure and defend an argument logically, and allows all personality types to shine, which is something that rarely happens during in-class debate, where students who need more time to process information and put together a thoughtful answer or have trouble speaking up are often drowned out by louder peers who put in their opinion faster and more confidently.
What matters is that the teacher must remain a helpful guiding presence: their role as a lecturer may grow smaller, but that void is filled by new duties as a facilitator of self-learning, moderator of discussion, and watchful monitor and corrector of any negative trends that may occur, so that nobody falls by the wayside.