Hybrid Learning

Reimagining Learning Environments Through Technology Design in a Hybrid World

By Jerry Manning and Robert Griffin

For the past two years, kitchens, dining rooms and living rooms have all transformed into modern-day classroom as students rapidly adjusted to virtual learning environments during the height of the pandemic. Students quickly associated new meanings with words like “Teams” and “Zoom” as they began interacting with classmates and teachers in a virtual world.

Research has shown that online learning has its advantages, as objectives can be completed in shorter amounts of time and learning could be customized to match a student’s needs. Learning environments are more multi-functional than ever, thanks to the implementation of innovative technology designs in a classroom environment.

As life makes its recovery in a “post-COVID” era, it has inevitably become a hybrid of in-person and virtual interactivity. When budgeting allows, it is critical that learning spaces are designed to become more flexible as technology is now integrated in our lives more than ever.

Investing in New Technologies for Changing Interactions

As the needs for students and teachers evolved, physical learning environments initially featured in-room cameras, microphones, audio-enhancement and virtual meetings, all of which helped in broadcasting the standard in-room teaching style previously centered on whiteboard instruction.

Now, students are presented with laptops, portals and other platforms that support a more content-oriented presentation. With this, teachers are able to facilitate a productive discussion or lecture via screen sharing and content pushes in both remote learning and in-room teaching applications. Now, students are able to interact directly with the content and have 24/7 access to it.

As these solutions are applicable for in-room and remote use, they can be deployed whenever students have access to PCs, which minimizes the need for other in-room media. There are multiple platforms/widgets/applications based around the teacher/student presentation where the teacher can monitor/control the content of each student’s screen, and thanks to a classroom's ability to adapt to new technology, most written instruction is now inherent to the application rather than a whiteboard.

Projectors and displays (TVs) can still be utilized in this environment, but today, they are more often acting as a mirror to what is already provided at individual devices that are customized to fit the needs of each student.

Designing Spaces that Cater to Your Students and Teachers

Some schools still have distancing requirements, and density or furnishing designs need to be updated. If students are unable to join in person, remote options in the classroom are a viable solution, and rooms such as labs can be situated in order to have technology sharing purposes.

Classrooms are also being redesigned as shared spaces that serve multiple purposes for efficiency. For example, an innovation lab can also become a classroom with a few minor adjustments. A standard teaching environment can also be updated to accommodate students with different learning styles that traditionally were not able to be served equitably.

For years, online learning has been adapted to the college level, as summer classes and remote programs have been offered virtually. The technologies and protocols used for college campuses have been adapted over time and have now been further developed for e-learning across all grade levels.

However, with e-learning becoming more common in younger grade levels, there is a need to make the virtual components age-appropriate and make technology and classrooms user-friendly, so even the youngest learners can access materials and learn effectively. 

With many technological advancements and renovations that can be made to schools, students can utilize both e-learning and in-person interaction in a way that will maximize their success.

The Importance of Aligning School Renovations with Teaching Methods

When renovating schools to fit current needs, it’s critical to first define the teaching method: virtual, hybrid or in-person?

Regardless, as content and communication needs increase in all settings, WiFi capabilities must continue to increase to accommodate the changing environments. While not typically deployed, the next wave of wireless technology is in the WiFi 6 protocol. Existing wireless access point (WAP) devices will be replaced by devices with the newer standard functionality; in some cases, this will require an upgrade to the cabling infrastructure and/or a change in the quantity of WAPs deployed.

As a give and take, with the next push being the increase in wireless functionality, wired connections in a classroom could diminish. Many classrooms in current and past would receive 2-3 outlets throughout the room, each with 2-3 ports; this doesn’t even include cables for paging systems, audio-visual systems, cameras or WAPs. The overall count could quickly grow to each classroom requiring 10-15 wired network connections. Going forward, there may only be one standard network outlet in a room at a teacher station for a phone and PC however, the number of IP-enabled devices (such as a room controller, display, projector, WAP, IP speakers, intercom, etc.) throughout the room is continually increasing. Some of these items may transition to wireless connectivity, which would help reduce the wired footprint, but the total bandwidth needed is continually increasing. With wireless technology trending to increase its speed and capacities, there may be fewer wired ports and outlets being needed per classroom. This could lead to more freedom in device and furniture locations, lending itself to more modular designs.

Defining the optimal teaching method and educational process is a “per campus” decision.  Designers and stakeholders will need to work together on how to best fit schools with more virtual and hybrid learning capabilities while factoring in each school’s current physical capabilities, architecture, wired/wireless infrastructure and budget.

A Glimpse Ahead to a Post-COVID Learning Ecosystem

As we look ahead, between public, private, charter and university-level classrooms, the hybrid model will continue to be developed and reinforced.

While many schools are going back to in-person learning and teaching, virtual solutions are here to stay. This new aspect of life will require designers and schools to identify hyper-creative design methods, incorporating the latest technology and figuring out the ways to best utilize it.

Designers will be called upon to converse with stakeholders about the type of instruction that will be deployed at a new and advanced level. The design industry will need to create teaching environments that not only integrate the latest technologies, but incorporate these environments with systems that provide optimal communication methods and content absorption for external interaction.

Jerry Manning, RCDD, is the senior technology systems designer with AE Design. Robert Griffin is the senior audio/video systems designer at AE Design.