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COVID-19 forced universities to improvise and adopt a range of online learning and teaching methods. One of these is what we have termed “realtime blended” learning in which online students are taught simultaneously with students who are experiencing proximate learning. Two cliques could develop with those learning online becoming observers rather than participants in an active learning process. By trying out realtime blended teaching in practice we have been able to develop an inclusive approach to simultaneous teaching of proximate and online students. This approach includes alterations in classroom layout, the equipment used and teaching strategies to encourage social interaction.

The technology: Portable video conferencing technology was used with a high-quality microphone. This microphone was able to pick up speech from both the lecturer and students wherever they were in the teaching room. A camera could show the whole class. The video conferencing platform adopted was Zoom

The classroom: the camera was located at the screen end of the room pointing towards the class so that online students could engage with their colleagues in class. The lecturer faced the camera and screen. The online students, on Zoom, were projected on to the screen. Those online could see and engage with those in the classroom and vice versa. By facing the camera, the lecturer appeared to be speaking directly to the online students and by facing the screen, where the online students were projected, meant that the lecturer was facing their images. This established contact between the lecturer and the online students. The horseshoe layout meant that some proximate students were in the lecturer’s sightline during the first hour of each three-hour session. This physical orientation meant that the lecturer had their back to some students based in the classroom. Nevertheless, this layout was an attempt to produce a level playing field between students located in the classroom and those online.

Three teaching strategies were identified and deployed to overcome the disadvantages experienced by online students compared to proximate students. The focus here is on enhancing inclusion and ensuring that all students have similar opportunities to engage in active learning:

(1)    Online students were encouraged to make dramatic physical gestures including raising their hands or waving when they wanted to interject. The lecturer and other students were able to rapidly pick up these movements. More normal nonverbal cues are lost in the online environment and must be replaced with more dramatic gestures.

(2)    The second hour of each session revolved around a lecturer facilitated discussion. One issue was that students located physically with the lecturer might dominate the discussion and those online might observe and rapidly disengage from the teaching encounter. The classroom might become a form of reality television in which online students observed rather than interacted. One solution was to begin the discussion with the online students and then facilitate a dialogue between those online with those students located in the classroom. The lecturer must ensure that all students, irrespective of their location, have an opportunity to co-create the learning experience on equal terms. The issue is one of providing opportunities for both proximate and online students to engage. It is important not to assume that physical presence is equated with engagement. Nevertheless, it is easier to identify proximate students who are disengaged from the learning process.

(3)    It is important to avoid using the chat box on Zoom as this creates an inequality between the proximate and the online students even if the chat box is monitored effectively. The danger is that a subgroup, or online clique, develops that might engage in a chat box discussion that is disengaged from the wider group. This is an issue that is not experienced when a module is entirely taught online. The key issue is to ensure that all students have the means and motivation to interact directly with one another. This includes breaking down the physical barrier – the screen – between the online students and those in the classroom setting.

This is the first peer reviewed paper that explores 'real-time blended learning' or teaching students who are both proximate and online. The focus is on pathways towards inclusion and on the student experience.

Thomas M. & Bryson J.R. (2021), 'Combining proximate with online learning in real-time: ambidextrous teaching and pathways towards inclusion during COVID-19 restrictions and beyond', Journal of Geography in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03098265.2021.1900085