What businesses and educators need to hear about hybrid learning

Having been schooled remotely through a time of extraordinary upheaval, students returning to the lecture theatre can offer educators useful guidance in shaping the future of digital learning 

The past 18 months in education have been characterised by a stream of technology-driven changes, which have demanded flexibility from students and teachers alike. Even as classroom-based courses resume, it’s likely, if not certain, that digital learning will continue to play an important role. While educators adapt their methods to realise some of the opportunities presented by the format, they would be wise to consider the insights gained by students who’ve lived and learnt through this transitional period.

We asked freshmen at the New York University Leonard N Stern of School of Business, who are spending this academic year at NYU London, to reflect on their experiences. After all, many are likely to become business leaders themselves in the future, with budgets to allocate to staff training and development. 

Having spent their final year of high school as online students, they have returned to the classroom as undergraduates. Which aspects of their digitally administered instruction have been most valuable? What do they appreciate about being back in the classroom? What would their ideal learning experience look like? And how can these lessons be extended to the business world?

Keels Braga: “Since the world shifted towards an entirely new way of learning, there has been time to examine both the benefits and drawbacks of digital education. My need to use software such as Zoom has taught me how to adapt more quickly to other new programs and shift my style of learning and thinking. But, since my return to the classroom, I’ve found it nice not to have to worry about whether I’m going to hear ‘your mic is on mute’ – a phrase I hope I won’t encounter too often again. 

“As the business world becomes a more online-focused environment, it’s important to consider that most large deals will still be sealed in person. After all, if someone is selling their company or giving large sums to invest, they might at least want to shake a hand.”

Antoine Van Veen: “Initially, digital learning offered me unprecedented work/life balance, allowing me to spend less time travelling to school and more with my family, but this silver lining of the pandemic was short-lived. For me, the calibre of in-person learning is unparalleled. I appreciate the social interactions it enables me to have with my classmates and teachers. The business world needs to emphasise a hybrid model. An effective approach would be one that allows students who aren’t well enough to travel to remain fully immersed in the classroom environment.”

Sriya Yemireddy: “I think I speak for most students when I say that distance learning wasn’t the peak of our educational experience. Our past 18 months in isolation have revealed just how crucial face-to-face interactions in the classroom are. The connections a student makes with their classmates and teachers are just as important as their academic work. If we could keep the individualised learning aspects from online school and the interpersonal relationships from traditional school, we could create more productive working environments.”

Hannah Olah: “The digital-only learning experience reduced the number of cooperative classroom activities that we could engage in. Group work, class discussions and interactive lessons all became rare occurrences. Online education became a less personal and more homogeneous process because educators were restricted to giving lecture-style classes, while students were limited to developing their ideas individually rather than collaboratively. As a result, students faced a ‘social disconnect’ that prevented them from learning as efficiently as they would in a face-to-face setting.”

Anish Jog: “My time as an online-only student showed me how unpredictable technology can be. I had to cope with random power cuts, internet outages and even mic problems. My office space was the same space I slept in – every day felt the same. Returning to the classroom has made me feel sociable again. 

“My ideal learning experience would definitely factor in face-to-face interactions, because I appreciate how engaging the classroom environment is. There is something about talking to a screen that I find unsettling. But online learning has at least taught me to be more tech-savvy, which should prove invaluable in our increasingly digital world.”

Andrew Zou: “I’ve found the most valuable part of digital learning to be its accessibility – ‘snow days’ could no longer stop classes, for instance. The past year has convinced many people that non-traditional online universities are the future. After all, why would you pay so much for college tuition when you can learn the same material online more cheaply? But I disagree with this sentiment. I found that, once I was back in the classroom, I appreciated my social interactions with students and teachers. 

“Ideally, digital learning will be used to supplement traditional learning, not replace it. It could enable students learning about apartheid to hear from a civil rights activist in South Africa, for instance, or help students learning French to practise by talking online with people in France.”

Aadhya Khanvilkar: “I did value the ability of remote learning to unite my classmates during the Covid crisis. It made it much easier for people to stay connected in difficult times. But, honestly, the learning wasn’t the same. I appreciate having live instruction, because being there with a teacher helps me to focus and encourages me to ask questions. My ideal learning experience would take place in person and prioritise active discussion, rather than busy work assignments or lectures. 

Kiran Kashyap: “I lose almost an hour a day now that I’m commuting to the classroom, yet I find myself more productive than I’ve ever been. I’m avidly reading new material, pumping out essays and working hard on other projects. There is some magic about being in the classroom that beats not only the comfort of virtual learning but also the loss of time to travel. The magic of face-to-face interaction isn’t restricted to the classroom; it extends to the workplace and is ever so relevant to the business world.”