In almost every part of our lives – from learning, to working, to socialising – the opportunities and limitations of purely digital live experiences have become much clearer to everyone over the last 12 months. We are now about to enter a period of time in which we need to work out the opportunities and limitations of hybrid collaboration. Whether for educational purposes, work, art, culture or social life, a period of experimentation approaches. Oriel Square director Sam Derby looks at some of the emerging research and highlights some trends to keep an eye on over the next few months.
What next for the workplace and classroom?
About 70% of businesses expect some form of hybrid working to become the ‘new normal’ according to recent research. What hybrid might actually mean for the workplace is not well understood yet – though there’s a great summary here of some recent examples and some new research and analysis about the economics of this likely new state of affairs.
Educationalists, too, are expecting that some of the experiments in hybrid education will stick, and the educational research community is working to match up findings and perceptions from the last year with longer-term research into effective online learning. The crossover between the two is also fascinating: what teachers think about the potential for hybrid working themselves.
Schools are finding that online learning is at least a partially effective replacement for classroom learning, or that it’s better in some circumstances (as Alix Robertson of The Centre for Education and Youth discusses in our recent interview), but that other benefits of classroom learning are entirely or mostly removed by a switch to online. After all, “remote Emergency Teaching is not the same as online learning”, as the authors of the Cambridge/EDUCATE report Shock to the System put it (p14).
Shock to the System’s Diversify Support Recommendation 5 articulates the need to get beyond the misidentification of remote learning as being disengaged: “Reduce the reliance on attendance as a proxy for education and learning, and move towards recognising the benefits of viewing engagement in learning as the real signifier of educational progress.”
What might the hybrid classroom look like in practice?
Harvard Business School’s hybrid case study teaching environment combines a physical auditorium with a Zoom room; the story of their iterative design is outlined here and it will be fascinating to see how it develops and whether there are applications for other forms of formal education. What would a hybrid primary/elementary school look like, for example?
MakeSchool explicitly designs its courses to work identically for physical and virtual students; those for whom the benefits of virtual outweigh the drawbacks are then progressing through the same content as those attending face to face. Their experiences are very different, but the curriculum they are following, and the qualification they are attaining, is identical.
This systematic literature review of EdTech and SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) published during the pandemic identifies some emerging innovations. Its main finding, though, is that more research needs to be done in more detail before conclusions can be reached.
EdTech Hub looked at 10 lessons for global learning using EdTech with a particular focus on use cases for harder-to-reach learners; some of those ten lessons hint at practical ways that a hybrid system might work effectively by prioritising the use of technology for communication between parents, teachers and learners (a ‘learning team’ around the learner) rather than for trying to replicate the in-class experience.
The four most popular activities for schools reported by the Cambridge/EDUCATE report (See Shock to the System, p24), hinting at where teachers might be heading in terms of their preferences, were:
- live (synchronous) lessons
- digitally marked assignments
- shared lesson recordings
- the provision of downloadable activities.
Again, this strongly suggests that live lesson provision is only one part of the hybrid mix. The report indicates that among learners there is “a fundamental need to belong, learn and share”. Education needs meaningful communities – because they are force multipliers of learning. They make learning fun and create a peer-to-peer accountability mechanism that shapes a culture of learning (STTS, p27).
Hybrid collaboration at work
For work, the main challenge is going to be integrating the roughly equal proportions of workers who favour home working, and those who favour a return to the office. The first step that employers are taking – providing more flexibility as to how often and when (if ever) workers attend a physical office – is relatively easy. The second step – ensuring that the whole workforce collaborates effectively both on projects and on medium-long term collaborations (process improvement, social engagement, professional development, mentoring, coaching and peer-mentoring…) – is much harder.
Large-scale events will presumably continue in hybrid form for the foreseeable future – it is hard to imagine there won’t be a market for delegates unwilling or unable to pay to travel abroad or even around the country for a 4-day conference. Innovation continues in this space, an example being this global hybrid event in Singapore that ran in October 2020. It has long been established that the potential audiences for live and hybrid events do not cannibalise each other: the pandemic has simply accelerated a trend that was already in existence.
But what about the more frequent, small-scale interactions that happen in offices, which don’t involve networking or exhibitions or multiple presentations, but instead require high-quality communication? Most of us are already familiar with collaboration tools that work fast enough online to be practical for an online brainstorm or collaborative workshop (my list includes Trello, Miro, Mural, Jamboard, and many others), but how well can those tools work in a hybrid environment? Post-It’s mobile app is one I have used successfully to transfer data collected face-to-face into digital records of work, and it should work well in a hybrid environment, for example.
The Zoom work party will not be mourned by those who can socialise in person, though many who rarely see their colleagues face-to-face will want to continue to socialise online. There will no doubt be worse things to come with attempts at hybrid socialising – unless you keep your ambitions at the level of Netflix watch parties.
Trends to watch
Someone (Elon Musk?) is no doubt working on a Star Trek style holodeck but my guess is that it is near-future rather than imminent. An influential EdTech investor did a snap poll on Twitter recently to gauge expectations around the use of VR or AR based collaborative working with very mixed results. But what innovations in hybrid collaboration are likely to mature this year, rather than in the next five? Will enhanced Zoom rooms be the answer? Higher education providers seem to think so and Zoom itself is betting on Zoom rooms plus integrations via a new apps marketplace.
There are specialist companies in this area leading the way – and more will be formed no doubt through organic development or through acquisition.
- Idibri is an acoustic design company and their report provides simple and practical advice on how to set up and manage a hybrid environment.
- Stop Meeting Like This comes at the problem from a consultancy angle, and their advice on hybrid meetings hits similar themes.
- Charcoalblue is a theatre industry specialist (though it also operates in education and workplace design) and describes itself as an integrated acoustic and digital consultancy.
I would love to know of other organisations who specialise in this area, or research that’s underway. At Oriel Square we have been pushed to review and improve our working practices by the pandemic even though 12 months ago we were already largely operating multiple virtual teams on behalf of our clients, and we will continue to contribute to discussion and understanding of how best to operate as the environment continues to change.
Do get in touch if you know of a stand-out example of hybrid collaboration, whether that’s in an educational or workplace setting. Or even better, if you have a great idea for our next hybrid work outing…