Reimagining Education

Creating Connections in the Hybrid Classroom

Alexa Joyce, Director Education & Skills, EMEARedmond, WA (USA), May 2021 - (by Alexa Joyce, Director Education & Skills, EMEA) Education systems around the world have been going through an extended period of change for a few decades now, with technology playing a more important role with every passing year. Perhaps this has never been truer than this year, with educational institutions of all sizes and levels turning to technology and online tools to rapidly respond to the need to move to remote learning.

As Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, said earlier this year, "We've seen two years worth of transformation in two months" - and this has absolutely been true for the education sector. Over the last few months, system leaders, educators, students, and families across the globe have demonstrated incredible energy, commitment, and flexibility as they moved out of the traditional classroom environment and into the world of remote learning.

As we set off down the path of a new school year, it is important to realize that whenever the often-mentioned 'new normal' arrives, now is the time to think about exactly what we want it to look like. Just as with the world of remote work, the genie of remote learning is out of the bottle; the future of education can and must be a blend of traditional teaching and the innovations of online instruction that we have seen in recent months. This hybrid model provides a chance to combine the best of in-school and remote learning, with digital engagement.

So, what are the areas in which we should be thinking about making systemic changes when creating a new model? Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of them continue to be the areas that have always needed attention - though the last six months have brought them to the forefront again and shone a light on where technology could be better or differently applied to address them.

  • Pedagogical innovation

One of the areas in which we've seen real innovation during the pandemic is how teachers have set up their online classrooms, workspaces, and lesson plans for remote learning. In my conversations with partners and customers, I've seen and heard many examples of where teachers around the world are continuing the learning journey for their classes by integrating video, game-based learning, and powerful collaboration tools into their virtual lessons.

For example, in the country of Georgia, the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport in collaboration with the government's Education Management Information System (EMIS), ran a pilot in Minecraft Education that let students build virtual museums, castles, or historical monuments, sparking their interest in their own culture as well as others around the world.

Similarly, in an online environment - or a bricks-and-mortar one for that matter, encouraging discussion and collaborative exercises tends to be more effective than only having a teacher lecture students for the length of the lesson. "Re-centering" pedagogy on the student encourages them to interact more with the content of the lesson and develops transversal skills like collaboration as well as content knowledge.

  • Creating and maintaining interpersonal connections

Going to school or university is about so much more than just academics. Educational institutions are where students develop valuable life skills such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, citizenship, and creativity - most of which come as much through their personal interactions as through the curriculum.

While a hybrid model will allow for some amount of in-person interaction again, it's important to consider how teachers and students will stay connected in a digital environment as well. I've seen several examples of where technology has been used to build these connections and allow for those valuable non-academic interactions.

An obvious place to start is in using video for lessons for face-to-face contact; another is in creating separate "playground" channels on Teams or Minecraft Education, where students can meet informally, without an academic agenda. Similarly, by setting group-based tasks that use shared documents to submit answers and assignments, teachers can enable and encourage collaboration in the online environment. And alongside academics, there's also immense value in preserving social traditions by bringing students and teachers together for virtual ceremonies and celebrations.

  • Access still matters

While there has been a temptation in recent years, particularly in developed economies, to consider the issue of access to education technology - and the infrastructure needed to make it work - as solved. However, the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief how this really is not the case - and access is rising up the agenda once more. Coming from someone who works for one of the largest technology companies in the world it might sound counterintuitive, but I strongly believe that simply buying more devices is not the answer to solving the problem of access. While cost is, of course, always a factor, the more important consideration is that school systems provide the right devices for the applications and bandwidth availability their students will encounter - otherwise we risk widening the education experience divide rather than closing it.

  • Evaluation and evolution through data and analytics

Every education system is now more online than it has ever been before. For educators, the move to the increased use of digital tools more widely across the pedagogical spectrum presents an opportunity to more easily discover trends; identify opportunities for improvement; and adapt and personalize their teaching and learning strategies.

To this end, Microsoft recently announced expanded capabilities of the Education Insights app in Microsoft Teams, with new features that are designed to help education leaders

  • ensure equity and continuity of teaching in remote settings
  • identify students at risk by tracking their engagement over time
  • identify trends in engagement and interaction across schools and grade levels
  • discover and celebrate best practices in remote instruction
  • comply with regulations for digital engagement reporting.

Leveraging data through tools like the Education Insights app is not about exercising control, but about helping teachers and leaders better identify those issues and students who need the most help and attention.

  • Training the trainers

Ensuring teachers have continuous learning opportunities as curriculums and pedagogies evolve has always been a significant requirement - and the move to remote and hybrid learning models has only exacerbated this need. The positive news is that we have seen from the last six months that it is possible and effective to train teachers online on a large scale.

Nonetheless, we cannot ignore that there is still a significant learning curve for many teachers, to adapt to new technologies and tools, while still maintaining the quality of the learning they in turn provide. For this reason, Microsoft provides a number of resources that support teachers on their own learning journey. When we think about what the future of education might look like, we have to consider the coaching, mentoring, and learning opportunities that we provide to teachers, as well as how we think about what we provide to students.

Technology has always played a critical role in enabling students to stay connected, engaged, and motivated. But it cannot succeed in isolation. The way in which we apply technology to a need determines the outcome we can expect - so to ensure a sustainable long-term evolution of the education system, it's important we apply rigor, energy, and creativity to the non-academic and non-technological elements that also make up the experience.