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Lockdown lessons: Maintain your hybrid teaching skills - Rachel Whitton

1st June 2023

By Rachel Whitton, curriculum manager: professional studies and education at Warrington & Vale Royal College and Research Further scholar

Isn't hindsight such a wonderful thing? How little did we know about online and remote and blended learning back in March 2020, or am I making assumptions on behalf of my learned colleagues in further education who were already proficient hyflex teachers? I, personally, really had no idea.

The anticipation of the lockdown did not feel real. I was at the time teaching in a modern new-build business school, which meant we had all the technology required at the touch of a button.

Reflecting on the moment when the team trialled the use of Google meets, from different rooms, to see if it worked, and laughing when we realised it did. We could see each other staring at cameras shouting “hello are you there?” or “I think you are on mute?”. “It’ll be fun”, we thought - how naive we were about what was heading our way. The March 2020 lockdown saw lecturers in FE working harder than ever to keep their current students online and engaged and working towards completion of their qualifications.

We began to meet colleagues and students online and realised how easy the technology and various platforms were to navigate. At this point though, reality still had not kicked in, and it still felt almost like a game. I felt like I had been running at full speed for so long, I had no idea how to get off the merry-go-round. A regular, daily drive between two or more campuses was normal, but to suggest an online meeting would have seemed questionable and a potential barrier to learning, assessment and progression at that time. I look back on that time spent in the car, burning fuel unnecessarily, racing around wasting travel time. It was not a sustainable approach, or meeting our own organisational green agenda. Were other FE providers practising in the same way?

Personally, in the Covid-19 March 2020 lockdown, I was truly exhausted and I initially welcomed the hiatus, as it offered a temporary opportunity to “stop the merry-go round” even for a short time, so I could catch my breath. I revelled in the novelty of teaching online and hoped we would continue to utilise our time more effectively once Covid-19 was “over”.

While enjoying the innovative and different way of delivering education online, my concerns were for our undergraduate students, who in the main had been furloughed with immediate effect and housebound during the initial lockdown. Young, intelligent bright stars, all previously doing well on their programme, were suddenly thrust into the world of working and learning online in their bedrooms. It was a huge concern. Apart from the initial mental health concerns, this also brought about minor technology issues, such as availability of laptops, access to the resources online, wifi at home, and a safe and appropriate space to learn. It became apparent that we would need to design an online etiquette code for learners to follow, as the ground rules for teaching and learning had clearly changed overnight, causing much unease.

I experienced a range of emotions during this time. Isolation from the daily chit chat in the staff rooms with colleagues over operational issues, to the satisfaction gained in secretly wearing pyjama bottoms and slippers to meetings with management, maintaining that professional upper image. The main agenda, amongst colleagues, purely focused on learner welfare. Everything we did was aimed at making the learner journey easier and fully accessible. Pastoral care was exceptionally high on the agenda; however the overriding concern was retention and achievement on programmes during these unusual and difficult times. My old identity as a face-to-face traditional teacher was rapidly evolving into something hitherto unrecognisable.

As we came out of the lockdowns, the landscape of education in FE appears to have been transformed. I am confident it would be a mistake to go back to the way things were before; travelling for meetings, losing valuable work time, and students missing sessions because of inaccessibility. Significant online delivery skills have been developed during those lock down months and forgetting them all would be such a waste. Instead, utilising a combination of both old and new skills should surely be the way forward, but navigating how, will be the challenge. College management and awarding organisations need to play a part in emergent new practices of hyflex teaching. With sustainability high on everyone’s agenda, how can we ignore the positive impact of lockdown on our carbon footprint or our contribution to the UK’s overarching digital strategy?

So, what is hyflex teaching? Beatty (2019) explains the origins of hybrid delivery, which began as far back as 2005, defined as blending online and classroom participation modes which provide flexibility for learners to choose the best path for them, hybrid and flexible = hyflex. Offering the opportunity to choose session by session on whether they attend in person or jump online, offers increased flexibility and more equity to our learners. Many of us can return to the workplace having upskilled our pedagogical and technological skills. Giving our students greater choices so far seems to have led to increased attendance for adult professional learners.

Did we really need a pandemic to change the landscape of teaching? The technology was already there, and only when faced with no alternative, did we begin to embrace it. FE offers opportunities in post compulsory education and training for a wide range of occupational sectors, and in the commercial sector many of our learners are committing to professional programmes to further develop their career path. They are either self-funded or employer sponsored. In order to support these individuals, flexibility and choice over how, where and when they study must surely be more important than previous constraints over pre-Covid traditional classroom teaching? Embracing the positive impact of online learning and the results seen must be a key factor for adult education moving forwards, rather than a return to the conventional, outdated practices we knew. It should be noted here that hyflex delivery of course will not be suitable for every vocation and careful consideration should be given during curriculum planning due to the practical nature of some subjects.

But a fully integrated blended learning approach with employer and learner needs being considered should surely be the way forward. We must continue to build and expand on the unmistakable benefits of hyflex delivery. Without a doubt, it has been an exceptionally challenging time for the FE sector, but as part of our post-Covid recovery, we must embrace change. There will always be some who feel more comfortable going back to the pre Covid conventional ways, but hyflex teaching and learning is non-discriminatory as it allows access to learning for all, and with suitable technology we can accommodate everyone. Zhao and Watterson (2021, p.5) suggest we should “rethink the education we actually need as opposed to the inflexible and outdated model that we are likely to feverishly cling to”. I agree and believe there is a significant gap in research for the FE sector on hyflex delivery models, and look forward to engaging with and reviewing the emerging literature and to be part of that journey. Let's hope that innovation, sustainability and flexibility win the day!

References

Beatty, B. J. (2019). Hybrid-Flexible Course Design (1st ed.). EdTech Books. https://edtechbooks.org/hyfle

Feltag. (2014). Paths forward to a digital future for Further Education and Skills.

http://feltag.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/FELTAG-REPORT-FINAL.pdf

Welsh Government. (2019). Digital 2030; A strategic framework post 16 digital learning in Wales.

https://www.gov.wales/sites/default/files/publications/2019-06/digital-2030-a-strategic-framework-for-post-16-digital-learning-in-wales.pdf

Zhao, Y. & Watterston, J. (2021). The changes we need: Education post COVID‑19. Journal of Educational Change. 22 p.3–12.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.