Uncertainty surrounds the start of the 2020-21 school year. Districts around the country must prepare for three types of learning environments: the in-person style they’ve known for decades, the distance learning most were tossed into during the pandemic, and the most likely of scenarios — a hybrid environment, mixing both remote and in-classroom education. This is the style districts are least familiar with.
“I am hearing a recognition of blended hybrid learning will become the new normal for schools,” says Anthony Salcito, vice president of Microsoft Education. “I do think the future is going to require us to rethink what the role of the classroom will be,” — so the solution needs to use the best digital tools to enhance in-classroom opportunities.
In a Microsoft survey of about 500 K-12 schools across the United States, 61 percent expect to start in a hybrid environment, and 87 percent anticipate using more technology in the classroom than ever before, even when in-person learning fully returns. The company is adding features to its popular Teams platform, including an expanded audience view of up to 49 participants, data on student usage, and virtual breakout rooms — some in response to educators’ requests since the pandemic struck.
The hybrid model involves taking the best of distance learning and merging it with meaningful in-person interaction between students and their teacher and with their peers, Salcito says, as he warns that students must not feel they are missing out, whether in the classroom or at home. Where schools struggle, he says, is when they try to simply shift the schedule and teaching style of the school building online.
Blending the power of technology — recorded lessons full of links, surveys, and interactive elements that require students to respond and interact with one another through their videos and comments — with useful meeting time that allows for student dialogue and presentations to offer best-case uses for distance learning, Salcito says. That should remain the model in a hybrid format. “The blended model is going to be important,” he says. “You want to use that life time in a way that is meaningful and where students can be part of something together. That can happen when schools return. How can I use the power of storytelling and the power of collaboration of students and class time thoughtfully?”
Hector Lopez, head of the math department at El Camino Real Charter High School in Los Angeles, says improving teachers’ technology skills goes right along with improving instructional practices. “Having this opportunity has taught me to create new schedules and new modalities of teaching,” Lopez says. “I’m very happy to see the results.”
Salcito offered the example of a California special education teacher who created PowerPoint lessons for her students, full of surveys, forms, and links. The students could progress through the lesson in the Microsoft Teams platform, and she could follow their work as it was happening, interjecting comments and assessing feedback. Group video conversations also helped students prep for future projects and discuss what they had learned. “She was having amazing success,” Salcito says.
Done right, technology expands the boundaries of the classroom, so students learn and connect no matter where they are physical.
“What we’re driving for is future-readiness and also high-quality instruction,” says Ryan Coe, director of secondary curriculum instruction at the Fresno Unified School District in California. “And so a key understanding, when it comes to blended learning, is when to use technology and also when not to use it.”