Note: A German version of this article was first published on the ZESS Mediendidaktik blog at the University of Göttingen, Germany in November 2021.
The pandemic and digitalization of classes changed the way we learn, and a new form of teaching, hybrid teaching has emerged. In this complex learning modality, some of the students are in the physical classroom while the others join the lesson virtually via video conferencing. Since teachers must work with on-site learners and virtual learners simultaneously, they have to balance the needs of each group and this is not easy.
Hybrid teaching is considered a particularly barrier-free learning modality because it gives more people access, including those unable to attend a traditional on-site course. But hybrid teaching was stamped out of the ground overnight and initially many problems arose: how having face-to-face and remote students talk to each other over video barrier can lead to an audio-hell; how the distant learners feel even more isolated by being regulated to just watch the face-to-face class proceed: and how teachers might forget to turn on the video conference app until well into the class.
Well-being is a critical component of hybrid teaching—especially for the virtual students. So, it’s important for teachers to help virtual learners participate fully during the lesson and feel comfortable. Let us look at some strategies.
 This incident also is something that happened to Curtis Kelly. He was so focused on getting his 70-student Business English class underway, that he kept forgetting to turn on Zoom for that one student who was isolated in China, once for the entire 90-mimiute class!
Checking in and managing class
Five minutes before class begins, the teacher should conduct a short check-in with the virtual students. This serves a dual purpose. First, the sound and video check ensures that the tech works, and second, it motivates the virtual students to be active participants in the lesson. Why? This simple check-in signals to the virtual learners that they belong to the class despite their physical distance from the classroom and the other participants.
In general, activities take longer in a hybrid class than they do in a course where the teacher and all students are at the same location. Ideally, the teacher should remember to ask the virtual participants from time to time if they’ve understood everything. It’s also important to verbalize what’s happening in the classroom for the virtual learners, even if it is obvious to the on-site learners. Clearly articulate what virtual learners need to focus on, using sentences like, “we’re turning our attention to the presentation now,” and “we’re writing our ideas on the board now.” Guiding all learners through the lesson transparently is essential in hybrid classes.
Raising one’s hand and technical equipment
It can be difficult for virtual students to be equal participants in class activities. They tend to be at a disadvantage as they don’t pick up on everything that’s going on in the physical classroom. And worse, it’s far easier for the teacher to overlook a hand raised virtually than a hand raised physically.
Therefore, it’s important to decide how you’re going to call on students. You also need to communicate to students from the get-go how they should raise their hands. Using a second Internet-connected device gives the teacher a better overview of hands raised virtually and physically. Teachers often have the problem of not seeing the virtual students. As a rule, the virtual students are displayed on a smartboard for the on-site learners. However, teachers usually have their back to this smartboard and cannot see them. With a tablet in hand, the teacher can see the virtual students and keep track of them.
Another option is to ask your virtual students to unmute themselves and say “raised hand” when they want to say something. A third option is to change the audio notification settings on your video conference tool so that you hear a chime when a participant raises their hand virtually. By having some kind of acoustic signal, no student is disadvantaged, and everyone can contribute to the discussion.
Unfortunately, the challenges don’t end there. It’s tricky to keep track of who raises their hand first, second, third, . . . when you have on-site and virtual students. Plus, the virtual students have to pluck up their courage to interrupt an ongoing discussion with an acoustic signal. It’s certainly easier for on-site students to raise their hands silently in the physical classroom. One solution is to give the virtual students an opportunity to speak first and then call on the on-site students. This might make the discussion seem somewhat one-sided at first, but it integrates the virtual students into the conversation. Another solution is to have someone in the classroom responsible for keeping track of the order in which hands are raised. The teacher can pass this responsibility to one of the on-site students. Whatever you end up doing, it’s important to have clear rules on dealing with raised hands; otherwise, the virtual students will quickly be relegated to the role of listeners.
What teachers often forget—but shouldn’t!—when planning hybrid lessons is that some students will be using video conference tools. Most of us have experienced the joy (or torture, depending on your point of view) of video conferences during the pandemic, so we are well aware just how exhausting they can be. Your virtual students need breaks, more so than your on-site students do. So, if you’re planning long phases without interactive tasks, be sure to plan some breaks. On-site students can make good use of the breaks by opening the windows and airing out the classroom.
Some activities simply don’t work very well in hybrid lessons. A heated discussion in which on-site and virtual students participate equally is pretty much inconceivable. Although full-class discussions are awkward, group work is doable. However, you need to think through carefully how you’re going to organize group work. For one thing, it’s impractical to have groups consisting of both on-site members and virtual members. Instead, send your virtual students to breakout rooms, and have your on-site students form groups in the physical classroom.
Next, consider how students can share their work with one another. In general, it’s important to have groups save their work digitally so that all students can access each group’s work. Students can add their ideas to external tools like Padlet or TaskCards. This means on-site students also need access to Internet-connected devices. Finally, when it’s time for groups to present their work to one another, make sure that the virtual students understand the on-site students and vice versa.
At first glance, the long list of challenges for integrating virtual students into hybrid classes seems daunting. At the same time, it’s essential we create enticing hybrid courses and ensure everyone’s well-being. No one knows what teaching modality will prevail. Advances in digital technologies and other developments may very well make hybrid teaching necessary. Done correctly, hybrid teaching is inclusive. Therefore: have your finger on the hybrid pulse and immerse yourself in the challenges of hybrid teaching.
Anna Ansari is studying German for a master’s degree and works in the field of media didactics at the University of Göttingen, Germany. The highest accolade she ever received was “Chatterbox of the Year” in high school.