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Education's Hybrid Future: What We Know from Research

While hybrid learning environments show great potential in higher education, there are still pedagogical and technical challenges to overcome. Here are key guidelines for moving forward, based on research in the field.

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One of the most anticipated concepts associated with the post-pandemic future is hybridization: hybrid working, hybrid offices, hybrid classrooms. Although these buzzwords are now on the covers of all magazines, research in the field of hybrid learning is just beginning. This article overviews several published studies in this area, major challenges and recommendations for overcoming or mitigating them.

Students' Preferences

Various surveys asking students about their preferences and suggestions for the post-pandemic future of higher education demonstrate their clear expectation to continue to use the aspects of remote learning that they found useful (one of the most popular examples is access to recorded video lectures and other digital materials). According to the Digital Learning Pulse survey, published by Bay View Analytics, most students want to keep the option of studying online to some extent, which confirms a need for hybrid solutions in higher education.

Unsurprisingly the first-year students lean toward a full return to on-campus learning. For many of them, this is a beginning of a new, independent adult life, away from parents, where academic, personal and social lives have many crossovers. For them, socialization — making new friends, participating in student clubs and sporting events — is an integral part of this new life, and almost irreplicable by virtual alternatives. On the other hand, when students progress toward their final year, they have more reasons to find flexible hybrid models helpful. By that time, many students have started internships or jobs, so a hybrid model allows them to combine study and work more efficiently. As preparation for future employment is one of the important tasks of higher education, ensuring that students understand and are ready for the new work environment shaped by the global pandemic becomes increasingly significant. One of the major traits of the "new normal" working environment is the wider adoption of remote working and the concept of a hybrid office. Almost all of the UK's 50 biggest employers questioned by the BBC have said they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time. Some 43 of the firms said they would embrace a mix of home and office working, with staff encouraged to work from home two to three days a week. This means that instead of returning to the office, employers are embracing hybrid working and blending on-site and off-site approaches. This clear direction toward a hybrid future raises questions about its impact on higher education and potential changes, which are almost inevitably coming.

What Research Tells Us

A systematic literature review on synchronous hybrid learning conducted by Annelies Raes, Loulou Detienne, Ine Windey and Fien Depaepe concluded that existing research shows the potential of synchronous hybrid or blended learning environments in which both on-site and remote students can simultaneously attend learning activities. One of the main findings is that existing research suggests cautious optimism about synchronous hybrid learning, which creates a more flexible, engaging learning environment compared to fully online or fully on-site instruction (Raes et al. 2020).

Among the pedagogical and technological challenges from a teacher's perspective are the need to adapt their teaching approach while maintaining comparable learning standards (Grant and Cheon 2007; Lightner and Lightner-Laws 2016); continuing learning on how to work with new technologies and learning platforms; understanding and evaluating their opportunities and constraints; and higher requirements to coordination from the teacher to pay attention and accommodate the needs of both cohosts on-campus and remote. All this was found to significantly increase the teacher's mental load, which is referred to as "hyper-zoom" or "hyper-focus" (Bower et al. 2015; Ørngreen et al. 2015; Zydney et al. 2019) and leads to stress and fatigue after teaching in this learning setting (Weitze et al. 2013).

Some studies also identified that from the student perspective remote and on-campus groups experience hybrid synchronous lessons differently (Beatty 2007a, b; Szeto 2014; Zydney et al. 2019). The research by Olt (2018) investigated the experience of synchronous hybrid learning from a perspective of the remote participant using the term "ambiguity" regarding group membership, the functionality of technology, and place. This study interviewed distant students who described feeling like an outsider at times, the term referred by sociologists as being "othered," and they more than anything expressed they just wanted to be treated the same as if they were physically present in the lecture room. Technology is another aspect for both inclusion and exclusion of distance students. When the technology functioned normally, distance students could engage with professors and students on the campus in a way that would otherwise not have been possible. But when remote students are having technical or connectivity issues, or audio and video quality are poor (for instance, due to positioning of a camera or mic in the classroom) or they have to sign in few times during the class, they don't feel welcomed and part of a group; rather, they feel isolated, stressed and embarrassed. Another challenge identified by existing studies is the level of engagement of remote students compared with their in-class peers. The study of Weitze (2015) showed that remote students were more passive and often behaved as if they were watching TV and not attending a lesson. One of the reasons for this was the monologue-based teaching style and difficulties to make the teacher aware that remote students want to answer a question, which made them frustrated and uninvolved. 

Guidelines and Recommendations

To overcome challenges appearing in hybrid educational environments, some studies suggest recommendations and guidelines related to several aspects.

  • Training and support to teaching staff — both pedagogical and technological — as well as suggesting use of sessions support, coordinator or navigator for students to raise any issues during the session, or even encouraging students to take a role of a "chat tracker" and "technology trouble-shooter" (Zydney et al. 2019) to relieve some of the tutor's pressure and enable more student ownership of the learning environment. Training, instructions and support for students should familiarize them with used platforms as well as guidelines on how to communicate with a tutor and peers during the sessions.
  • Recommendations for student engagement provide suggestions for cognitively activating students through different activities, tutors interacting with both in-class and remote cohorts, and discussions where all students feel included and have equal opportunities to participate. For instance, a tutor should often ask questions during the session and be attentive to students from both cohorts.
  • Curriculum and course design alignment recommendations suggest a wider set of measures for transitioning from instructor-centred pedagogies (e.g., lecture) to student-centred pedagogies (e.g., active learning), where the focus is less on instructor delivery of content and more on student application of content (e.g., problem-solving) (Saichaie, 2020). For instance, Zydney et al. (2019) suggest that hybrid synchronous sessions should build upon asynchronous activities from a flipped-classroom approach.

Therefore, the task of designing and implementing hybrid or blended learning experiences most likely includes different areas to work on: pedagogical approaches, technological solutions, ethical issues, digital well-being, inclusion, and reorganization of physical spaces and curriculum changes. The solution for building highly effective hybrid educational ecosystems, where all feel welcomed and supported and remote students are not spectators but protagonists, will be the convergence of technology, pedagogy and an inclusive environment.


  1. Beatty, B. J. (2007). Transitioning to an Online World: Using HyFlex Courses to Bridge the Gap. In C. Montgomerie & J. Seale (Eds.), Proceedings of ED-MEDIA 2007--World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications (pp. 2701-2706). Vancouver, Canada: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).
  2. Bower, M., Dalgarno, B., Kennedy, G. E., Lee, M. J. W., & Kenney, J. (2015). Design and implementation factors in blended synchronous learning environments: Outcomes from a cross-case analysis. Computers & Education, 86, 1–17.
  3. Grant, M. M., & Cheon, J. (2007). The value of using synchronous conferencing for instruction and students. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6(3), 211–226.
  4. Lightner, C. A., & Lightner-Laws, C. A. (2016). A blended model: Simultaneously teaching a quantitative course traditionally, online, and remotely. Interactive Learning Environments, 24, 224–238.
  5. Olt, P. A. (2018). Virtually there: Distant freshmen blended in classes through synchronous online education. Innovative Higher Education, 43(5), 381–395.
  6. Ørngreen, R., Levinsen, K., Jelsbak, V., Moller, K. L., & Bendsen, T. (2015). Simultaneous class-based and live video streamed teaching: Experiences and derived principles from the bachelor programme in biomedical laboratory analysis. In A. Jeferies & M. Cubric (Eds.), Proceedings of the 14th European conference on E-learning (ECEL 2015) (pp. 451–459). Reading, UK: Academic Conferences and Publishing International Limited.
  7. Raes, A., Detienne, L., Windey, I. et al. A systematic literature review on synchronous hybrid learning: gaps identified. Learning Environ Res 23, 269–290 (2020).
  8. Saichaie, K. (2020), Blended, Flipped, and Hybrid Learning: Definitions, Developments, and Directions. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2020: 95-104.
  9. Szeto, E. (2014). A Comparison of online/face-to-face students' and instructor's experiences: Examining blended synchronous learning effects. Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences, 116, 4250–4254.
  10. Weitze, C. L., Ørngreen, R., & Levinsen, K. (2013). The global classroom video conferencing model and first evaluations. In Ciussi, I. M. & Augier, M. (Eds.) Proceedings of the 12th European conference on E-Learning: SKEMA Business School, Sophia Antipolis France, 30–31 October 2013 (Bind 2, s. 503–510). Reading, UK: Academic Conferences and Publishing International.
  11. Zydney, J. M., McKimm, P., Lindberg, R., & Schmidt, M. (2019). Here or there instruction: Lessons learned in implementing innovative approaches to blended synchronous learning. TechTrends.
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