March 29, 2021

Can Virtual Reality Address The Challenges With Hybrid Language Learning?

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Hybrid Learning has become a popular teaching model–including at language schools–as a response to the COVID-19 restrictions in education. In this article, I will look at what it is and what the challenges are. Then I will suggest a new three-stage hybrid language class model, flipping part of the lesson and adding an immersive virtual reality element that would help resolve some of the challenges, and make it worth using long-term.

The term 'Hybrid Learning' means different things to different people. It’s often used interchangeably for different types of blended learning. What we’re discussing here is a model in which a teacher and part of the class are in the physical classroom, and some students attend the same class remotely at the same time. 

It’s not a new type of learning, but it has been adopted widely as an emergency solution and for commercial reasons, since schools and universities were closed in 2020.



Challenges with the Hybrid Learning model

I don’t have any experience teaching with this model, so I was curious about this report on Hybrid Learning from December 2020, commissioned by Nile ELT. It looks at the attitudes towards hybrid models by language institutions, teachers and indirectly also learners.

The report indicates a multitude of issues for the institutions and teachers to consider, such as the technology set up, classroom and technology management and how to engage both local and remote students. 93% of the survey respondents in the Nile ELT report said they weren’t able to find good models of practice to follow.

The hybrid learning model is overly complicated. It puts a burden on teachers in terms of lesson planning, materials distribution, managing the class and the technology. 

The tools and platforms might vary, but there is always a need for external microphones and cameras (pointing to the teacher/board and the class), a visualizer and/or whiteboard/smart board, at least one laptop, a video conferencing tool, and perhaps a back-channeling tool as well. 

Teachers need to simultaneously teach two different cohorts (online and in-class). There’s a lot involved; they need to monitor both cohorts, remember to have eye contact with the local students, and look into the camera so that remote students don’t feel excluded. 

At the same time, they need to prepare handouts and share them with both groups, prepare activities that work in both modalities at the same time, manage the audio, etc., so it isn’t a stressful experience for the learners and doesn’t impact their learning negatively

This is why many teachers resort to a more teacher-centered, lecture-style lesson mode. To help both groups bond and see each other, a camera is often directed towards the local students. However, this also presents privacy issues, especially if you are teaching young learners. Even after a period of getting used to the technology and developing a routine, this is a challenging situation.

Hybrid learning, in this situation, seems to combine the worst of online and classroom-based practices rather than the best.- It over-taxes instructors and often leaves students with a subpar experience. 

The original idea of using technology in the classroom was and is to enhance learning, not to hamper it. According to the NILE-ELT report, some students and teachers seem to accept this type of hybrid learning, but perhaps many only because they see it as inevitable in the current situation.

Some schools that took the time to plan the move to hybrid invested heavily in the technology. They have been providing ongoing technical and pedagogical support and teacher training and seem to have successfully implemented the model. Still, the question remains whether it is really the best possible learning experience for both local and remote student cohorts. 

To ask the question in a different way, if potential students were given the option to attend a hybrid class or a regular online or face-to-face class without a price difference, would they opt for hybrid? Are there any benefits of Hybrid Learning for the learner other than simply providing a solution in an emergency situation?

Exploring solutions to improve the hybrid experience

Despite the difficulties, there’s willingness amongst many to make Hybrid Learning work. As Sophia Mavridi says in the panel discussion* on the Nile report, Hybrid Learning is here to stay, as it addresses universities and language schools’ commercial and academic needs. 

Some language schools desperately need a solution to continue to meet their students’ learning needs, but also to stay in business. This means we have to explore how to make it work in a long-term, effective, and efficient way.

Re-Imagining Hybrid Learning

If it is not possible to form separate classes that consist of only remote or face-to-face students, I propose a simpler and more manageable version of the Hybrid Learning model. The outcome of this model is to help the whole class participate, build rapport and feel connected, and allow the teacher to step back and teach in a more student-centered way. 

It is based on three elements: 

Stage one: a flipped course design 

Stage two: a synchronous in-class session with both local and remote cohorts 

Stage three: a synchronous whole-class virtual reality session. 

This is not a technology-light solution, but it addresses some of the issues described above. Here’s how each stage would work:

Stage 1:

Students work through the lesson material and activities on their own, either from home or in a self-study area at school. There are a number of benefits:

  • This flipped approach means teachers can avoid having to teach a new concept in a difficult mixed-modality, high-tech, high-stress situation, and stop themselves falling into lecturing. It also allows the learners to familiarize themselves with the topic and concepts in their own time. 
  • Moreover, remote students don’t have to worry whether they can hear the teacher or see the other students, and don’t have to be present at difficult hours if they are in different time zones. 
  • The local students don’t lose time and focus because the teacher has to repeat explanations due to bad audio. The focus is on the topic alone, and they can take as much or as little time as they need. 
  • Assigned ‘study buddy' groups can support each other or even work through some tasks together. An additional benefit of this approach is that the learners are getting used to taking on responsibility for their learning and become more autonomous.

Of course, the flipped material needs to be prepared or curated first, but this only happens once and then the material is ready for future courses.

Stage 2:

In this stage, the learners will show what they have learned at Stage 1. One way of simplifying classroom procedures and management and allowing the teacher to step back, is by focusing attention on one cohort at a time. For example, the remote students lead a presentation for the in-class students of their understanding of the material, and questions they still have. Then the in-class cohort takes a turn with this also. Both sides take notes while listening to answer the other group’s questions. This would allow the teacher to stand back and observe, take notes and only step in and explain concepts or language if and when necessary. 

Managing the technology will be easier as well. First, not all the technology needs to be used and managed at the same time and second, the teacher is not as involved and has more time to check on the technology.

Stage 3:

Finally, in the same or a separate session, all learners come together in an immersive virtual reality learning environment. Here they collaborate on tasks, do role-plays, practice presentation or discussion skills, or go on field trips – depending on what the language learning aim is and what type of VR app is used.

Immersive virtual reality is a technology that allows the remote and in-class students and the teacher to feel as if in the same space. This is immensely important to make the two geographically distant cohorts feel as a whole. And this is where most of the bonding, rapport building and collaboration happens.

If available, students can use VR headsets. If not, some apps have desktop VR versions allowing access from computers or tablets.

Benefits of this version of hybrid learning

This version of hybrid teaching is more learner-centered. Firstly, it frees up teacher time to allow for more observation. Secondly, both the teacher and students can focus on the class content, rather than how it is being delivered. Thirdly, the teacher can use the technology and methodology that suits each group (remote or in class) the best. This creates a seamless, friction-free teaching and learning environment. As a result, students will have a more enjoyable and effective learning experience. Furthermore, learners benefit from the affordances of virtual reality that can enhance language learning.

There is still technology involved in this version, which needs to be carefully integrated, so this is not a quick fix. However, I feel this could be a sustainable solution. It both addresses the current problem of restricted school access for some students and offers an innovative, long-term solution that meets the institutions’ commercial and academic needs, potentially giving them a competitive edge.  

Virtual reality: Now a more accessible teaching solution

Virtual reality has become more accessible, less expensive, and easier to use and implement in the past year. Moreover, a virtual reality blended teaching model is already being used successfully by schools around the world, so there are precedents and models to follow.

For example, the Immerse Virtual Language Experience Platform (VLEP) provides a desktop app for instructional designers and teachers and a virtual reality app for students.

The VLEP desktop app comes with ready-made, but also customizable, CEFR and GSE-aligned learning experiences that can be integrated into an existing curriculum. This can be adapted to a Hybrid Learning model with local and remote cohorts.

The discussion about Hybrid Learning is ongoing and this is my contribution to it. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about the suggested improvements. Would this work in your institution? Can you imagine teaching such a class? And do you have suggestions on how to further improve it?

I would like to thank Sophia Mavridi and Sara Davila for their feedback on this blog.

*The recording of the panel discussion – NILE Insights into Hybrid Learning January 2021– is available in the Nile ELT membership area (membership is for free).

References

Clark, P. (2020). Overcoming the challenges of hybrid learning. Educational Technology. Retrieved from https://edtechnology.co.uk/comments/overcoming-the-challenges-of-hybrid-learning/

Kiddle, T., Farrell, C., Glew-O’Leary, J. and Mavridi, S. (2020). A survey of instances of, and attitudes to, Hybrid Learning in Language Teaching Organisations around the world as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic [Research Report]. Retrieved from Nile ELT.

Nergiz Kern
Nergiz Kern is the Fractional Research Manager at Immerse. She also is an EAP (English for Academic Purposes) teacher, blended and online learning professional and editor with a special interest in ESP (English for Specific Purposes) and EdTech, particularly virtual reality.

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