A hybrid education format is sticking around. Here’s how we can improve the model

By Anant Agarwal

In recent weeks, colleges and universities have had to radically adapt traditional learning to keep students safe as COVID-19 shows little sign of abating. Now, students and teachers are grappling with how to avoid learning disruptions and maximize engagement in a remote world.

The good news is, the online learning space is more sophisticated now. EdTech (or educational technology)platforms have not seen this much demand, pressure, and energy around online learning since the MOOC movement (massively online open courses) first exploded onto the scene in 2012. The difference is that now we have experience and data about what resonates in the online learning experience to create the most seamless and engaging education journey for students.

In fact, given the advancements and benefits of MOOCs, online learning will be here to stay long-term. Students and teachers will see a shift to blended learning (aka hybrid learning), which is a combination of online and in-person instruction, and formats that foster community and connectivity will be essential to online learning success. As both lecturers and learners look toward the rest of their fall and spring semesters, modern blended learning methods will lead to success with the transition to online classes. But universities are facing three major challenges as they strive to make this transition: course catalog, student engagement, and credit integrity.


It’s no secret that the “Zoom moment” in education, marked by the period when content was taken abruptly online, could have gone more smoothly. Most colleges had little or no online content, and the short time period required educators to piece together multiple solutions to teach remotely, and in many instances, the result was a disjointed experience for students. For example, teaching was done remotely, but assessments were still turned in and graded manually, which took away one of the most compelling affordances of online learning—instant feedback.

When the whole world went home to learn online, we saw every school pivot to teaching virtually within a matter of days. Some were more prepared than others. Some colleges have built up substantial online experience, training protocols, and capacity, but they too had only a small percentage of their content catalog readily available online, causing interruption to students everywhere. To combat this, universities should seize this landmark moment in history to reimagine how they create and share content with each other, as doing so will improve student outcomes.


Another clear challenge learners and teachers are facing is staying engaged. Research by Top Hat found that 78% of students say the online class experience, up until now, has been not engaging. It is unfortunate that what is being counted as online learning during COVID-19 is actually remote teaching using very little of what we have learned about good online learning practices in the past decade.

Quality online learning involves active learning, which drives student engagement and impactful learning outcomes, instant feedback, virtual labs, and gamification. Data bears this out. According to a Learning House 2018 report, the majority of students (85%) who have taken both in-person and virtual classes in pre-COVID-19 times believe the online learning experience was equal to or better than attending in-person courses on campus.

Blended learning has even better engagement and learning outcomes than solely in-person or online learning, and can add in-person mentorship, peer learning, group work and social interaction. A few years ago, MIT piloted a full-credit online course, leveraging an existing MOOC and added a private online discussion forum for MIT on-campus students. The students reported more flexibility with scheduling learning, and less overall stress relative to their traditional classes.

Credit integrity

In 2015, MOOCs for credit became possible due to the quality of education the courses provided. Since then, we’ve seen the adoption of credit-backed credentials that make education more accessible to students in terms of location, time commitment, and cost. With the ongoing effects of COVID-19 and rising costs of higher education (56% of college students say they can no longer afford their tuition due to COVID-19), it’s clear that alternative methods must be an option.

So, why do the credit-backed credentials become game changers for students in this ‘new normal?’ One word: integrity. Because universities can offer, share, and accept credit online with confidence in the integrity of that credit, the opportunities for learning remotely and for continuing educational journeys without going to campus are endless.

One huge challenge for students and professors, facing their COVID-19 response was the ability to offer exams virtually. Take it from Erle Lim, vice provost of teaching innovation and quality at the National University of Singapore, who was tasked with this challenge when the virus first hit. In a recent conversation, Erle noted that “virtual proctoring and the coordination it entailed was hugely important in moving fully online in the first few months of the pandemic.”

Going even further, practical approaches to credit integrity are allowing universities to create unique blended models and stackable credit programs for students. These courses can be stacked to receive a full degree from a traditional university, creating more accessibility for prospective students everywhere, who may not have normally been able to afford the traditional route.

This unprecedented period in history has taught us that online education is a thoughtful practice of designing learning experiences for the medium. In order for students to have successful semesters, we need to realistically approach our world’s new challenges. We must take steps now to ensure students can engage in blended learning, setting them up for success now, so they can flourish in the workforce later on.

Anant Agarwal is the founder and CEO of edX, an online learning platform founded by Harvard and MIT, and current professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. In addition to edX, he’s founded several companies including Tilera Corporation and Virtual Machine Works and holds a Ph.D from Stanford.


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