The Future is Hybrid, Part II

But not everywhere, or all the time.

I have not been doing this very long, but my most popular newsletter, by far, is the one I wrote a few weeks ago about our hybrid future in education. It is gratifying to me that we are starting to see the wisdom in this approach, but it is also easy to misunderstand what I mean by it.

Throughout the history of technology, we have tended to react to the hot new thing in fearful, binary terms. All or nothing, on or off, massive change is coming tomorrow. While there are some examples where massive change has happened - the automobile displaced the horse, computers displaced the typewriter - those levels of displacement are fairly rare, particularly in areas dependent on human to human interaction. Indeed, the history and development of technologies over the last century teaches us very different lessons.

First, it rarely involves abrupt change. Second, the good things about the “former” state of affairs are often preserved, in one form or another - so nothing is really “gone.” And third, when new technologies are introduced, they follow a predictable trajectory of resistance by many, acceptance by the early adopters, and then gradual overall acceptance, with a few holdouts.

Did you know it took 40 years for the zipper to be widely adopted? And while buttons are now much less used than they were before the zipper, they are still used widely. LPs are coming back, and fountain pens and typewriters too.

When I say the future of education is hybrid, I do not mean that it will be all hybrid all the time in every context. It will be a continuum, a spectrum of hybrid instruction and modality, that varies by student age, type of degree, program, curriculum, or even course subject matter. But hybrid will be involved to some degree, in everything we do.

The picture above is of the late Rudy Van Gelder, an audio engineer who worked with the Jazz greats Miles Davis and John Coltrane on their era-defining records. Do you see the slider bars on the mixing board he is sitting next to? That’s a metaphor I would like to offer to you for our future hybrid education. The place we want to get to is more like a mixing board with slider bars that change for every genre of music - or in education, for every program of instruction - and, where possible, for each individual student.

If we are honest with ourselves, the educational system we designed over the last century involved a lot of generic herding and sorting of large groups of students. We knew it was not ideal, because we have always known that students are not cattle, but rather individuals with different backgrounds, needs, and motivations. One of the great things about the recent shift to online - as abrupt and painful as it has been - is that we have become more nuanced and compassionate as teachers with our students. We are experiencing a painful time ourselves, and so we understand that our students are as well. Instead of reflexively thinking: “What is wrong with you?” we are instead thinking “What has happened - what is going on with you?” It is a world of difference, and we need more of it.

I introduced the SAMR model here a few weeks ago. To review, those letters stand for: Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition. I said then that “we are stuck at substitution.” By that I mean much of the online instruction we have been able (or willing) to create in the last year is merely designed to replace what we have always done in the classroom with parts digitally mediated but based on essentially the same pedagogy. An example of this is the HyFlex model (sometimes confusingly called hybrid), where class takes place as before in-person, but there is a device (such as an Owl) that includes students located elsewhere.

Augmentation is the next step from mere substitution, where we might take a problem description and make it the subject of a breakout group, then put it on Google Docs for a collaborative exercise to solve or improve it. Modification involves redesigning the student task you used to assign in a way that gives students more freedom to show mastery outside of the “paper and pencil.” Perhaps through a video they develop or a podcast interview.

It is when we truly reimagine how to achieve each learning goal that we reach Redefinition - a completely different way of interacting with the instructional material than what we used before - one that emphasizes quality engagement over seat time, and offers the student greater autonomy support.

We need to use the current crisis as an opportunity to reflect on the shortcomings of what we had before, and to build an educational system that is redefined by being hybridized - to leverage a mix of in-person and online technologies to be more nimble, varied, and targeted.

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Letters of Recommendation

This week, my recommendation is once again a book, this time Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, by David Sax. In the book, Sax makes the argument that analog experiences enhance digital creativity, and describes ways in which we can benefit from what each is good at. While doing so, he recounts the survival of LP record presses, and many other analog tools that have been preserved and continue to be celebrated in the digital age.

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Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Quote, from the brilliant jazz saxophonist John Coltrane:

The real risk is in not changing. I have to feel that I’m after something. If I make money, fine. But I’d rather be striving. It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.