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Scott Pugsley is professor and industry co-ordinator within the School of Fire Protection Engineering Technology at Seneca College.Nick Iwanyshyn/The Globe and Mail

As a college-level instructor who teaches students about sophisticated fire sprinkler systems, professor Scott Pugsley is used to complex technology – which comes in handy in the new era of hybrid learning.

”Hybrid learning gives the students the chance to be flexible. They can attend class in person, or they can remain online at home and participate in learning in real time at their discretion,” says Prof. Pugsley, who teaches about 200 students at Seneca College’s School of Fire Protection Engineering Technology.

Mixing in-class with online and recorded learning started before the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, 2020, and has since expanded across college campuses all over Canada. There are still wrinkles to hybrid learning, but there’s no doubt that it’s catching on.

”Colleges pivoted to hybrid learning much more quickly in the COVID crisis than I think anyone thought we could – including us – because we had to,” says Linda Franklin, president of Colleges Ontario, the umbrella organization for Ontario’s community colleges.

”That pivot has helped our students succeed and complete programs and courses, but it has also posed significant challenges,” Ms. Franklin says.

The challenges include the fact that not all students have good broadband internet access, the difficulty in teaching skills that require hands-on instruction, pandemic restrictions on school libraries and on-campus equipment, and the barriers to students enjoying campus life and learning together.

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Scott Pugsley instructs students both in person and virtually using his HyFlex teaching station, at the Seneca College Newnham Campus in Toronto, on Oct. 19.Nick Iwanyshyn/The Globe and Mail

Rules still vary among Canada’s provinces and territories as to how much college campuses can open. In Ontario, students can be on campus with proof of vaccination, and the province’s colleges are scheduled to reopen in-person completely on Jan. 1.

”This fall is a transition. Anyone who does come [to campus] must be fully vaccinated, and life on campus will continue to be an important part of students’ experience,” says Marianne Marando, Seneca’s vice-president, academic.

Yet regardless of how soon the pandemic fades and campuses open, teachers and administrators agree that hybrid learning is here to stay.

”Prior to COVID, our college started adapting our programs to fully online formats,” says Mary Pierce, dean of the faculty of business, information technology and part-time studies at Fanshawe College in London, Ont.

”It’s not easy for some courses in areas that involve technology or trades or health care, but we offered a lot of programs in other areas either remotely or with the option to go remote. It’s good for students who work full time and still want to take courses but can’t get away in the middle of a workday,” she says.

Some colleges, including Seneca, have been using a dedicated system called HyFlex to produce online, accessible course material. Developed back in 2007, HyFlex requires specific technology – a camera at the front of the classroom and strategically placed loudspeakers and display devices in locations where groups of students may be gathered in a different room, city or country from the teacher.

“We started teaching this way before COVID with one of our teachers in Moncton, N.B. and our students gathered in a classroom in Toronto. You might consider it a reverse-remote learning situation,” Prof. Pugsley says.

HyFlex also gives the teacher access to high-tech tools including a 180-degree camera with a 30-times optical zoom, letting him zero in on details that are now easier to see remotely on a laptop than by a student sitting at the back of the classroom.

Seneca actually offers four types of learning – flexible, in which students can choose to show up online or watch a class remotely; online, in which all classes are remote; completely in-class courses; and hybrid, which mixes set online sessions with in-person classes.

Other schools are more informal about their use of technology. With rapid advances in software and high-resolution video cameras in smartphones, they improvise.

“We looked at dedicated teaching technology, but it requires an enormous amount of training – for example, the teacher has to stand in a certain spot to just to be on camera,” says Alan Unwin, dean of business, tourism and environment at Niagara College, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

“Different courses have different needs and requirements, so we adapt depending on the program,” he says.

Instructors have been on a learning curve using the hybrid model both before and during the pandemic.

“I learned to do things on the computer in record time to make my classes accessible to students. It was stressful at first, but it also set off light bulbs about the potential that online learning offers,” says Paul Zammit, who teaches at Niagara College’s School of Environment and Horticulture.

Online is better for his class on environmental sustainability, for example – students’ carbon footprints are lower because they’re not commuting and they can watch guest speakers from around the world.

Ms. Pierce from Fanshawe says there has been no noticeable change in student achievement or marks as hybrid learning has advanced. At Niagara, Mr. Zammit says some of the garden plans students design in hybrid learning settings are actually better than classroom-designed ones, because the remote students seem to enjoy the creative freedom.

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HyFlex gives teachers access to high-tech tools including a 180-degree camera with a 30-times optical zoom.Nick Iwanyshyn/The Globe and Mail

Instructors have to be mindful that students will tune into classes from around the world, Prof. Pugsley says. “If you say the class is at 9 a.m., you have to include the time zone, because some students might be in Asia where there’s half a day’s time difference.”

However, there will always be in-class learning, Ms. Franklin says. “Hybrid learning will be an important tool in our arsenal going forward, but it is not going to replace the value of in-class learning.”

As Mr. Unwin puts it, “some students will always want to get their hands dirty.”

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