ISLA – Inclusive Synchronous Learning Activities

Hybrid teaching is a relatively new pedagogic and technical methodology for live teaching simultaneously to students on campus and online. Although it has been in practice for some time within higher education in the USA, notably with the Hyflex model originating in 2006. There has been a significant uptake in this hybrid approach since the Coronavirus pandemic, with a number of terms being applied in the higher education sector.

Terms such as multimodal, dual delivery, blended synchronous, Hyflex and here at City, we call it Inclusive Synchronous Learning Activities, or ISLA.

male student looking at laptop

Essentially the academic would present to their class face to face and online simultaneously, using virtual tools such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom, with classroom cameras displaying them to their students online, along with microphones picking up all speech in the room for the benefit of those who are remote. Similarly, those online can communicate with the class on campus by using the chat facility or using their own webcams and microphones. These interactions would be relayed in class via the audio visual technology specifically considered for this purpose.

The key here is inclusivity and equity in the learning experience, through smart design and integration of technology and importantly, by informed educational practice. Largely through a reaction to the pandemic, approaches to the hybrid practice by institutions was seen as part of the fight against the impact of coronavirus, albeit rushed through. Hastily completed for tactical reasons, these hybrid spaces were often technically complicated for teaching staff and developed without adequate time for pedagogic planning.

There are significant implications for the student experience, especially in compromising an inclusive learning experience. Just focussing on the technology whilst attempting a dual delivery lesson can exacerbate issues around equity, digital poverty, varying levels of accessibility and concerns over the home environments, such as privacy and bandwidth capacity. Equally a hybrid style of teaching has substantial ramifications for the academic’s experience. There are genuine anxieties about the cognitive load, ramifications for course delivery and timetabling, as well as issues with classroom attendance and complexities with methods of assessment.

There is evidence that large cohort sizes and the original format of lecture-based teaching should be avoided in the hybrid approach, with the complexities of managing a lecture to two audiences. By the same token, large group teaching would be negatively affected by a purely live streamed version of a lecture with low levels of interaction and student engagement. At City, University of London, the view is that a hybrid methodology would be best suited to seminar-based classes, with more manageable cohort sizes of up to 40 students, both online and in class. Although we are planning to upgrade a small number of existing lecture theatres with additional microphones to enhance our lecture capture system of live streaming to students who are on-line.

The hybrid approach to synchronous teaching requires the intensive use and ownership of appropriate technology. Although not widely viewed as a panacea for our displaced times, the coronavirus pandemic has forced a shift to online learning that represents a once-in-a-century opportunity to re-design the curriculum and consider wider audiences, looking ahead with new technology that can open up opportunities for greater inclusivity.

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