Across the world, hybrid working has become the norm for many organizations. It’s a combination of on-site and off-site work for employees based upon policy or preference. Naturally, this change in working arrangements has caused learning departments to shift their training offerings to hybrid formats as well.
But for many organizations, the logistics of setting up hybrid classes — the nitty-gritty details of how to make it work — remains a mystery. They either aren’t sure how to do it, or they assume nothing special is needed or they haven’t budgeted for this type of investment.
The key to making hybrid classes work well is to create a shared experience between in-person and remote attendees. To equalize the experience so that each participant — regardless of location — feels fully included in the learning experience. That they can contribute, interact and, most importantly, are able to learn.
There are two specific factors that contribute to a successful hybrid class: tech setup and facilitation skill. In many ways, these two factors are intertwined, and they are both of equal importance.
A technology-enabled hybrid classroom setup can overcome deficiencies in facilitation techniques, and a highly skilled facilitator can make any learning environment work. That said, “make it work” training isn’t ideal. Successful hybrid learning shouldn’t be difficult for anyone. The more barriers there are to overcome, the less likely there will be participant engagement or learning transfer. To create a good hybrid learning experience, a skilled facilitator needs to be supported by proper resources.
So just like a behind-the-scenes VIP tour gives insight into backstage magic, here is a summary, based on my many years of experience, on getting hybrid learning right.
Compared to in-person and even virtual classes, hybrid setup requires more intentional planning. Facilitator preparation for a traditional, in-person training class largely centers on content. Virtual facilitator preparation activities include ensuring the online classroom details are clearly communicated and setting up interaction tools like polls and whiteboards. All of these items are still important for hybrid learning, but the emphasis must shift to mainly focus on the participant experience.
In other words, hybrid facilitators need to not only prepare their content and set up the virtual classroom, but they also need to plan ahead for participant involvement. They must clearly set expectations for both on-site and off-site participants and ensure that everyone, regardless of location, has a device that can connect to the virtual classroom for convenient collaboration.
They also need to carefully consider the other items on this list, starting with audio.
When participants are scattered among various locations, audio difficulties can quickly make conversation difficult. In-person participants are often hard to hear, and remote participants can have choppy connections. A key priority for hybrid success is to purposefully place microphones around the classroom space so that everyone speaking can be easily heard. You can also use an audio device that captures all onsite voices clearly. It’s important for remote attendees to use noise-canceling headsets or microphones with high-quality sound.
If those solutions are not possible, then the facilitator must intentionally repeat on-site participant statements so that offsite attendees feel part of the conversation. This extraneous step can quickly become cumbersome. To truly have a shared hybrid learning experience, audio clarity must be a top priority.
Video bridges the location gap between hybrid attendees. Each remote participant should be on camera, and the in-person classroom should be fully visible on screen. The mechanics to make this work well depend upon the classroom setup. Ideally, one camera captures everyone in its view. However, multiple webcams may be necessary. If each on-site participant connects via device, then their personal video may be the best option.
The simplest way to incorporate video is to install a video conferencing system specifically designed for hybrid learning. These systems include cameras and screens that help all participants easily see one another. Hybrid room kits are now readily available from many vendors, some with installation support, which can help your organization configure the best possible video setup.
In addition, be sure to give remote attendees the necessary tools to avoid video fatigue, such as teaching them to hide their self-view, or taking frequent webcam breaks.
When participants gather for a hybrid class, it should be for discussion, dialogue, collaboration or practice. To allow for this type of shared interaction, each participant needs equal access to collaboration tools. For example, if an activity requires input via polling, then everyone needs access to the poll questions. Or, if they are to brainstorm on a whiteboard, then everyone should be able to use the whiteboard. Yes, it’s possible to have the in-person attendees write on a physical whiteboard and the remote attendees use a digital one, but that’s not an equal learning experience.
The solution is to ensure that everyone, both on-site and off-site, has a device connected to the same virtual tools. The device can be a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Just be sure that onsite participants don’t connect to audio, to avoid unwanted echo. In addition, check to see that there’s enough bandwidth in the classroom to accommodate the demand and available power to keep the devices charged.
It takes a village to successfully deliver hybrid learning. To keep the facilitator fully focused on the participant experience, other people can support and assist. For example, someone should be assigned the “tech support” role, to help any participants who have trouble connecting or staying connected to the virtual classroom platform. Another can be the “chat champion,” to keep an eye on the chat conversations and alert the facilitator as needed. I like to assign remote buddies — a point person in the classroom for each remote attendee to help them be their onsite eyes and ears.
These roles can be assigned in advance, such as an external support person who will help with the technology. Or, if needed, the facilitator can request volunteers for various tasks at the start of class. Either way, the more people involved, the more it will be a truly shared learning experience.
As mentioned earlier, a skilled facilitator can fill any technology gaps to create an engaging class. But even if there’s a perfect hybrid setup with up-to-date equipment, the success of hybrid learning is less about the mechanics and more about the learner experience. It’s about human connection and conversation. A hybrid facilitator’s job is to enable relationship-building among participants so that they can learn together. This means encouraging discussion and dialogue despite location differences.
It may seem counterintuitive, but to create space for conversation, a facilitator needs to get creative. They need to be more prescriptive, direct and structured than they would be in other settings. For example, when asking discussion questions, they need to specify how participants should respond. This technique keeps the in-person participants from just jumping in and dominating the conversation, which could easily happen without the extra direction.
To illustrate, instead of simply asking, “Who has prior experience with this process?” a facilitator should instead say something like, “Who has prior experience with this process? If you do, click on raise hand, if not just click on no.” From there, the discussion can proceed based on the input received. Or, to help guide a conversation while also avoiding uncomfortable audio lags, a facilitator can designate the order in which participants speak. Keep in mind that it’s not about controlling the conversation, it’s about enabling it. By providing boundaries, the dialogue can flourish, leading to a better learning experience.
In addition, in the hybrid environment, facilitators should always have a “remote first” mindset, giving priority to offsite attendees. It helps balance out the deficiencies of not being in the room with others.
This type of facilitation doesn’t happen by accident, it requires forethought and planning. The facilitators who successfully bridge the gap across locations are the ones who carefully plan out the methods they will use to generate conversation.
It can be argued that hybrid learning isn’t worth the effort it takes to set up the technology required to do it right. That offering only virtual training programs and/or only in-person programs is the best choice for all. When everyone is together, or everyone is virtual, then everyone’s connection is equal. However, with the recent push toward hybrid work, it will be difficult for many organizations to avoid hybrid learning. It can be done with intentional effort and support. So, if you’re going to offer hybrid classes, then invest in the tech setup and facilitator upskilling required to make it work well.