This winter, I’ve been struck by how often I’ve heard that “hybrid is the new normal” for higher education. EdTech vendor briefings are a common source, typically in the context of new or improved synchronous learning technology. Industry tends to define hybrid more broadly than institutions to include formal and informal combinations of asynchronous, synchronous, distance, and in-person instruction. Recently, I’ve also heard more faculty use hybrid as a catch-all phrase for flexible instruction, so hybrid-plus-HyFlex might become the new hybrid, even if neither becomes the new normal.
Nothing would make me happier than the proliferation of flexible instruction. In the hands of experienced faculty and receptive students, these richly-textured learning experiences sing. Moreover, remote instruction has driven remarkable technological innovation to better support flexible learning experiences. If people’s hearts and minds are there, the technology is certainly available to meet them.
However, the hearts and minds of many institutions, faculty, and students are not ready for flexible instruction. In 2019, some faculty were still debating student use of digital devices in the classroom. This year, institutions recognized but could not fully alleviate unequal student access to the internet, computing devices, or appropriate study spaces. Faculty raised concerns about academic rigor and cheating scandals. Students are still protesting the use of surveillance technologies and online proctoring. To those of us bearing witness, the collective weariness expressed on academic Twitter at the end of the semester was noteworthy and concerning. When students and faculty return to campus, they are much more likely to recreate pre-COVID teaching and learning rather than to strike out to create a new normal.
The widespread—and by widespread, I mean more than us die-hard digital pedagogists—desire for and adoption of flexible instruction will require a transformation. As my colleague Rae Clemmons writes, “transformation is not the right construct for thinking about digital in much of higher education. To transform suggests a significant and dramatic change…. Being a modern digital college or university is so much more nuanced than that.”
Although Rae is addressing IT infrastructure and not pedagogical practice, the statement holds across contexts. Change in complex systems like higher education is inconsistent and inconstant, an evolution rather than a transformation. “Hybrid is the new normal” is not helpful, because it does not capture or validate the baby steps instrumental to driving real change.
Just for a moment, let’s discard big predictions and buzzwords to appreciate the subtle ways in which remote instruction and related educational technologies may move us a little closer to flexible instruction over time. Here are my favorite baby steps and little predictions for 2021. As you consider these, I hope you will add some of your own.
Finally, we all learned something. Despite the angst surrounding remote instruction, not all experiences were terrible. Many people had the first experience of understanding the depth and strength of online relationships, the power of online networking, and the flexibility of digital learning environments.
 The term new normal is as problematic as it is ubiquitous in the current conversation on higher education. Unpacking it deserves its own blog post. However, for now, I’m defining new normal as a condition that is widely accepted and practiced by choice, without undue influence of external forces.
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