Ever since Saint Paul’s Choir School (ISPCS) in Harvard Square transitioned to remote instruction last spring, Clemens, 11, has missed his classmates and fellow choristers. But thanks to the choir school’s innovative virtual learning tools, he and his friends recently reunited—and will remain closely connected with each other and with their teachers this fall.
“When I came into the classroom and saw my friends—some in the room and some on the screen—it felt like all of us were there,” says Clemens, smiling.
The gathering, part face-to-face and part virtual, aimed to familiarize students and teachers with “hybrid” instruction, which the choir school will implement at the start of the 2020-21 academic year. The integration of the two modalities will help “de-densify” classrooms and safeguard health while ensuring the personal approach to learning that is central to the SPCS educational experience.
“I truly felt like I was there,” says Chris, 13, who participated remotely. “You could see the whole class, watch the teacher move in the room and write on the blackboard. And the teacher often directly addressed me and my friends who were online.”
For teachers, the key is to provide learning experiences of richness and rigor for all students, whether they are six feet or six miles away. “To be engaged, students need to be able to express themselves,” says Patrick Moran, a social studies teacher at SPCS. “The ones logging in from home can’t just be blocks on a Zoom screen, they have to be full participants. You have to make eye contact with them through the camera and give them something interesting and engaging to look at. Finally, you have to make sure that they can ask questions, give answers to exercises, and interact with their peers”.
To equip classrooms with hybrid-learning technology, SPCS partnered with Professor Matthias Ehrhardt, founder and CEO of Cambridge-based Designing Talent Inc., and a Saint Paul’s parent and Advisory Board member. “I was so impressed with the willingness of students and faculty to embrace this technology and to create the best possible learning experience at SPCS amid all the challenges of the pandemic,” he says.
According to Professor Ehrhardt, hybrid teaching, in its most basic form, does not require much technology. A webcam, a computer with a decent microphone, and a stable Wi-Fi connection are sufficient. “Another compelling yet cost effective option is to use a smartphone as an additional camera to overlook the classroom or zoom in on experiments,” says Ehrhardt. More sophisticated solutions include camcorders, sometimes mounted on movable tripods, or cameras that employ artificial intelligence (AI) to follow the teacher around the classroom or focus on the board or specific points of interest.
Possibilities for fluid and dynamic hybrid-learning experiences grow as teachers become comfortable with the cameras and experiment with different approaches. Many report that, after just a few sessions, technology is no longer their focus—they “forget” about the cameras and are able to concentrate fully on their students.
“There was a definite progression from my first hybrid classroom demo to my last one,” recalls Alyssa Cunha, an English Language Arts (ELA) Teacher at SPCS. “The first time, I was afraid to touch the cameras, I didn’t even want to be near them. After one day of training I was just connecting with my students like I usually would. It wasn’t this idea of two separate classrooms. It was one, and the technology just wasn’t a focus anymore.”
Research and practical experience will continue to reveal ways that hybrid teaching can advance student success. For now, Patrick Moran is certain of its value for SPCS: “We already know that hybrid teaching is so much more powerful than just sending emails with attachments or even sitting in front of a screen and talking to your students,” he says. “The fact that they can see the classroom and some of their peers in it—that makes all the difference”.
What lies ahead? “Only God knows what the larger public health situation is going to be in the fall,” says Dr. Thomas Haferd, Head of Saint Paul’s Choir School. “We want to be prepared for all kinds of scenarios. Hybrid teaching will definitively be a part of the solution. It’s very reassuring to know that we have this capacity.” That’s good news for Clemens, who will see his friends again after the summer break. And if some of them are on screen, that´s okay too—it will certainly feel like they are all together.