Hybrid classrooms – surf the wave

Posted on 3rd Sep 2021 in School News, Switzerland, International Schools, Online Learning

Institut Montana in Switzerland looks back at the rapid switch to remote learning

Spring 2020 – a pandemic swept across the globe like a tidal wave.

The only defence against a highly contagious and deadly virus was to keep people apart from each other. Classrooms the world over went quiet.

A few decades ago, such disruption would have wrecked children’s schooling until the virus went away. But technology offered solutions, as least to those of us fortunate to live in wealthier countries equipped with the necessary computer hardware and fast internet connections. Luckily, communications technology had recently upped its game. Remote learning had lacked that dynamic between teachers and learners that boosts academic progress. However, software that enables shared screens and access to the faces of your classmates as well as your teachers, could now bring it all alive. Classrooms went virtual.

But this was no one-off crisis, a single wave ridden to return to calmer waters where everything would be as it was before. That virus is not going away in a hurry. It is great that schools have been able to reopen but the situation is ever-changing, restrictions on human interaction come and go.

However, with a combination of technological and human resourcefulness, schools can continue to provide high quality teaching in fast changing times.

One of the schools that met the challenge with innovation and creativity was Institut Montana, idyllically located on the Zugerberg just above the lakeside city of Zug.

Institut Montana achieved a head start in March 2020. With the safety of its close-knit community at heart, it stopped on-site teaching a week before the Swiss government-imposed restrictions across the country. Intensive preparations for learning going virtual, with training to bring all teachers up to speed, happened quickly. Although the school was well accustomed to programmes such as Managebac to support teaching of the IB, ensuring that everything, including administrative processes, could be smoothly operated remotely required a concerted effort.

Not only were classes adapted to be delivered on-line but also tests, after-school activities and parent-teacher conferences. The entire admissions process went digital. From all the necessary information to a virtual tour of the campus, the format captured what it would feel like to visit the school.

Returning to their beautiful campus in May was a memorable moment for staff and students alike. As that old truism says, some things are better appreciated after they have been snatched away.

At Montana, groups of students returned gradually to the Zugerberg, where an exacting approach to health and safety protocol aimed to keep everyone safe. Society and schools have learnt a lot this past year, and one important lesson has been the danger of returning to ‘normality’ too quickly. This new ‘normality’ ebbs and flows depending on rates of infection. Technology has another solution to this fluid situation.

Classrooms can be better than virtual; they can be hybrid.

At Montana, some students had managed to return to their home countries for the lock down but were unable as yet to travel to Switzerland and were still joining class through the on-line learning platform. Others had been unable to leave as borders closed and stayed on the Zugerberg in their haven surrounded by trees and meadows (so the campus therefore never actually closed), attending the on-line classes and pursuing their activities. Even for students who live close to the school, local quarantine situations or travel restrictions meant attendance was variable.

The concept of hybrid schooling was born, enabling delivery of both in-class learning and/or live online lessons.

Now, it is becoming more and more sophisticated. At Institut Montana, teacher laptops have been updated so touchscreens and pens let them deliver classes using a virtual whiteboard. Screens and cameras have been installed in several classrooms so that students joining from home can participate far more fully than before.

As they are virtually present in class, students have to concentrate on the assignments, as well as exchange with the teacher and the class. The quality of learning in this way, and the teacher support that it allows, is significantly higher than for standard online learning. Institut Montana is a small school with classes of maximum 15 students, often only 10, so the teacher can give close attention to all the students whether they are physically or virtually present.

Hybrid schooling is here for the long-term.

This investment in expertise and equipment is part of a plan for the future.

Hybrid schooling allows flexibility:

  • The student who has to miss school through accident or illness can still, provided they are fit enough, keep up with their lessons.
  • As an international school with students from all over the world, Institut Montana has experienced the dramas of visa bureaucracy that can delay the arrival of enrolled students on campus. Now they can start the new school year from home and join when the paperwork has come through.
  • Institut Montana can offer ‘Hybrid Trial Days’, so students who are interested can get to know their potential teachers and classmates in advance.
  • Hybrid schooling creates stability:
  • Students on hybrid schooling keep their normal school timetables, including extra-curricular activities.
  • At a time when much has become uncertain, this allows a sense of routine and consistency.
  • Hybrid schooling encourages adaptability:
  • Schools like Institut Montana, with a determination that its students miss not one day of schooling, have shown how it is possible to weather the storm of a global crisis.
  • In this rapidly changing and challenging world, the next generation is learning resilience and creativity.
  • Students will take that resourcefulness with them into their future lives and live them well, no matter what waves they have to ride.

The Importance of Community

Hybrid schooling works at Institut Montana because of a strong community. There is a reason why the ancient universities were built as sites where minds came together and shared knowledge. Even as learning goes digital, the key driver of the whole project is to ensure that teachers and learners can continue to work together.

This article first appeared in the 2021/22 edition of John Catt's Guide to International Schools, which you can read here: