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In the 1960’s, cities built multipurpose stadiums for football games, baseball games, and concerts. These were supposed to be sleek, modern, and broad enough to encompass the needs of every entertainment industry. They were designed to be all things to all people. However, the multipurpose stadiums weren’t designed with the fans in mind, which led to have half-empty baseball games where fans had horrible sight-lines. In football, athletes were losing traction on the baseball infield and slipping on the dirt. As for concerts, the stadiums were exciting but they lacked the sound quality of an auditorium or amphitheater.

This is the same challenge we are facing in hybrid learning. If we’re not careful, we can all too easily design lessons that don’t work for students at home or in the physical classroom.

I’m not a fan of teaching a hybrid lesson where half the students are at home and half the students are attending via video conference. On a purely functional level, it works. But it doesn’t work well. It’s the instructional version of a spork. By trying to merge together two incompatible formats, you’re left designing lessons that lack the full range of options in either environment.

I made this mistake the first time I taught a pedagogy course where half of my students were in person and the other half were at home. I ended up lecturing in front of my computer camera so that students at home could see me via Zoom. I then faced my web camera at the board where they were expected to look at the slides. Fortunately, I had uploaded my slideshow to the LMS but still . . . it was bad. When students asked questions in person, I would repeat it to the students on Zoom. When they had questions, I would repeat it aloud for the students going face to face. I attempted to place students at home with small groups who were in person, leading to bad echoes. Eventually, I changed the grouping and modified the assignment. However, the lesson remained clunky and awkward.

However, hybrid learning doesn’t have to be spork learning. I left that first evening with the realization that I had to change our entire hybrid model. I couldn’t simply have students “Zoom in” to the physical course and expect it to work. I had to find a new approach that would maximize the benefits of both face-to-face and virtual environments. That semester, I focused on the Differentiated Model. However, in other semesters, I have used the Multiple Tracks model and the Split A/B model. In today’s article, I’d like to explore five different models you can take with hybrid learning.

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5 Ways to Structure Hybrid Learning

The following are five different models for structuring hybrid learning. Every model has its own strengths and weaknesses. As educators, we need to be strategic about which model we select based on the needs of our students. The following table illustrates these differences.

1. The Differentiated Model

In this model, every student attends the class synchronously at the same time. However, you design differentiated activities for students who are at home and in person. It works well to make use of both synchronous and asynchronous communication tools for students at home and in person. As a refresher, here’s a sketch video I created on this topic:

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With this approach, all students attend the lesson at the same time. Students begin by logging into a video conference platform from home or going to their seats in person. From there, you can differentiate your approach to the two different modalities.

Sample Class: Traditional Lesson

  • Warm-Up: Students at home and in-person work on a warm-up that you have posted to your learning management system. You can set a timer in-person and online so that students know the time limits. This is often when you take attendance.
  • Direct instruction: Students at home view a prerecorded “flipped video” by pressing play on the link you share in the video chat. Everyone in the video conference should be on mute. Meanwhile, you press play on the same video for your students in-person. This allows all students to access it together.
  • Guided practice: Students meet together as a whole class. They can submit their questions on a Google Form and you answer them, in the moment, in front of the computer so that students at home can hear. Or, you can allow students to use a wireless microphone and you can hook up the computer to speaker so that students at home can speak to the whole group class and also hear what the in-person class is saying.
  • Independent practice: As students move into small groups to practice their learning, the students at home can work collaboratively using the breakout rooms while students in person can meet in small groups. You can add accountability components by having students write in a shared document. At times, you might have student groups that include in-person and at-home students but this is admittedly tricky.
  • Closure: Every students fills out an online form for a closing activity.

Sample Class: Project-Based Lesson

  • Warm-up: Students work on their blog posts
  • Direct instruction: Students at home view a pre-recorded “flipped video” by pressing play on the link you share in the video chat. Everyone, including the students, are on mute. Meanwhile, you press play on the same video for your students in-person. This allows all students to access it together. This short video might be a quick review of the research process or it might be a key concept they need to learn connected to their project. This part is 5 minutes maximum.
  • Project time: Students at home work on their projects with other students at home by being strategic with tech-based collaboration tools. Often, they start by reviewing their project progress on a spreadsheet or using a tool such as Trello. From there, they use a mix of tools as they work on their projects. This is the bulk of the class time.
  • Closure: Students reflect on their learning using an online form or they go back to their project management tool (Trello board, spreadsheet, calendar, etc.) to set project goals for the next day.

While this option keeps groups separated by in-person or at home, students still interact with one another on the class learning management system. You can post questions as warm-ups in a way that creates a combined classroom community. You can also design assignments with mixed groups where students at home and in-person might work together for a smaller amount of time. They might give feedback using the 20-minute feedback system or they could work on a shared document together in collaborative brainstorms. I love doing online carousel activities this way. Here, all students are in breakout rooms and every student headphones. This helps prevent issues of echoes or bad audio quality.


2. The Multi-Track Model

This second approach treats each group as an entirely different cohort within the same larger class. So, while students might learn the same lessons and the same objectives, they essentially function almost like separate classes. At the start of the course, students sign up for the virtual track (synchronous remote learning), the online track (asynchronous remote learning), or the face-to-face track. As you teach, you run the virtual and in-person lessons at the same time. Meanwhile, students can access the online modules on their own time. Here’s what this looks like.

Sample Class: Traditional Lesson

  • Warm-Up: Students in all three tracks log in to their cohort’s LMS and answer the same discussion question. You have the directions for logging in posted on the video chat for the Virtual Cohort and displayed on the board for the face-to-face group. Meanwhile, students in the Online Cohort post their answers on their own time.
  • Direct instruction: Students at home in the Virtual Cohort view a pre-recorded “flipped video” by pressing play on the link you share in the video chat. Meanwhile, you teach the same direct instruction in a more interactive way to the face-to-face group. Students in the Online Cohort watch the same flipped video as the Virtual Cohort. However, they simply need to watch and respond by the end of the day.
  • Guided practice: You vary your guided practice depending on the day. So, you might do guided practice work with your in-person class while students in the Virtual Cohort engage in small group discussions to deepen their understanding of the content. The next day, you can flip it. Members of the Online Cohort have the option of joining the Virtual Cohort if they need additional guided practice.
  • Independent practice: As students move into small groups to practice their learning, the students at home can work collaboratively using the breakout rooms while students in person can meet in small groups. Students in the Online Cohort can collaborate using asynchronous tools.

This second model is the most tailored to each environment. It has very few “spork moments.” However, it is a real challenge in terms of prep work and logistics. For this reason, it sometimes helps to divide the cohorts into separate classes and allow different teachers to alternate teaching the virtual or in-person groups.

For project-based learning, there’s more flexibility. You can craft projects that allow the Online Cohort to work independently or to schedule collaborative project work time throughout the week. You can then do email and video conference check-ins. The Virtual Cohort  can also work on the same projects and you can essentially place them in the breakout rooms immediately after they log in. Meanwhile, your face-to-face group can begin working on their projects the moment they walk through the door. As the facilitator, you can move between groups in each location and help problem-solve and guide students reflection. When you need to do direct instruction, you can create a flipped video for students in the virtual or online environments and you can do the same type of direct instruction face-to-face when the moment arises.


3. The Split A/B Model

The last two models work best in situations where half the students are required to stay at home at all times. This is true in university courses where students live far away but also during the quarantine with families who do not want to send their students to a physical classroom building. However, in some cases, you might have all students opting in to face-to-face learning but you also need to maintain social distancing. Here’s where the Split A/B model works well.

A typical A/B Schedule might look like this:

  • A Group meets Monday and Wednesday
  • B Group meets Tuesday and Thursday
  • Friday is for home room, study hall, and open office hours

With the A/B schedule, teachers can make the most out of face-to-face time by maximizing student interaction when they meet in the physical building. They can then have students watched flipped videos, do station rotations, engage in meaningful independent practice, or do independent projects when they are at home. In other words, the synchronous learning happens face-to-face and the asynchronous learning happens at home, when students can work at their own pace. My friend A.J. Juliani has written a great blog post on 4 engaging structures teachers can use in an A/B hybrid course. Building on these ideas, I’d like to share a few ways you might organize an A/B classroom:

  • Flipped Model: Students watch a video, read an article, or get a preview assignment that they do at home. Then, when they meet in person, they might do a lab to reinforce the ideas, engage in guided practice, or do small group intervention instruction. Teachers might even do shorter game-based learning activities or simulations to reinforce the concepts they learned at home.
  • Project-Based Model: There are two options here. The first is to have students work on an independent project at home and a collaborative project in-person. This is the easier option logistically but it can lead to project fatigue. The second option is to have students work on their projects in person and then engage in more traditional work (watching direct instruction videos, doing skills practice work) at home. The third option is to have students work on their projects at home and at school. So they might engage in inquiry in person and then do their research at home, where they share their findings in a Google Doc. They can then meet in person to debrief the research and engage in ideation in person. From there, they might do prototyping in person and at home, using the same shared project management tools in class and at home. It’s key that we keep equity in mind and that we allow students to bring home materials from the classroom when necessary.
  • Station Rotation Model: Students move through stations that they can do in person and at home. Catlin Tucker has a great model where students meet with the teacher, engage in online learning, and engage in offline learning (like reading a book). I love this idea because it brings to mind the reminder that distance learning doesn’t have to be in front of a screen. However, there many station rotation models you can use where you can rotate students through key skills and concepts in online and in-person groups.
  • Intervention and Enrichment Model: With this model, students engage in online learning and then show up to class with specific questions. Teachers then pull small groups for intervention, clarify misunderstandings, and create options for meaningful enrichment activities. This isn’t a study hall. It’s much more structured. However, it is designed to maximize the dynamic, interactive elements of targeted help.
  • Seminar Model: This closely aligns with the college seminar model. Students do a reading, watch a video, or listen to a podcast. Then, when they are in person they engage in a Socratic Seminar. This model might make use of PBL elements and might include the occasional direct instruction. However, the whole focus is on maximizing group interaction time. So, students might do some reflective writing but the bulk of the class time is small group and whole class discussion. While the seminar model tends to be focused heavily on academics, teachers can also use it for social-emotional learning. It can be a time for community building.


4. The Virtual Accommodation Model

There are times when you have a small handful of students (figuratively, because, let’s be honest, you can’t fit your students in the palm of your hands unless you teach Smurfs) who need to work remotely while the rest of the class learns in person. In these moments, a virtual accommodation model works best. Here, you can teach the same lesson you would typically teach but have one student volunteer use the video chat and a single computer to allow students to participate. This person can sit near the teacher during direct instruction. You might still do a flipped video that the students at home watch. However, they might just watch you teach face-to-face. As they move into small groups, you can mute the video conference and let the students at home form a small group. You can then place the assignment on your LMS and have students in those small groups continue to work independently as a virtual group. However, it’s important that you continue to check in on them throughout the process.


5. Independent Project Model

Sometimes your in-person activity simply doesn’t connect with what students can do at home. It might involve a specific lab or a maker project. In these rare moments, you might need to do an independent project. Students can learn the same standards and focus on the same learning targets but they do so in a way that is separate from their classmates.

One alternative is to do an independent project that students can do at home or in-person. For example, you might do a Genius Hour Project:

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You might have students engage in an inquiry-based Wonder Day Project:

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You might have students work on their own choice menus. You can find four different choice menu options here. Another variation might be a self-paced approach, where students have access to an adaptive learning platform where they can master the learning at their own pace. However, the independent project model is not ideal for most situations and it can lead to isolation and loneliness. Learning is inherently social, so the goal in this model should be to find ways for students to move into the other models instead.

No Perfect Model

Each of these models work well in certain situations and poorly in other situations. As teachers, we can think strategically about how to design our learning so that we can optimize the benefits of each models. As schools, we can think creatively about when and how to use these models so that we avoid some of the pitfalls of a spork-based approach to learning. Even so, there will be mistakes. Learning is dynamic and complicated and hybrid learning adds another layer of complexity. However, by being intentional, we can help students thrive in every learning environment.

Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I have a virtual learning hub with resources, articles, and webinars. I’m also working on the finishing touches on a book about empowering students in distance and hybrid learning. I can’t wait to share it with you!

If you’re a district or school leader and you’re interested in student-centered learning in virtual, hybrid, and blended environments, please check out my speaking and workshops page.

If you want to take a deeper dive into empowering students in distance learning, please check out my course. It’s fully self-paced and on-demand, which means you can work on it at your own pace. It’s packed with videos and practical resources. The course is designed to take 15 hours and I offer district and school bulk license discounts.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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