In many schools, the switch to distance learning in the wake of COVID-19 may have been traumatic: students have missed the day-to-day interaction with their friends and staff and families alike are worried that distance learning may not be effective at teaching social skills and creating relationships.
But should that worry extend to blended learning? As schools begin to implement protocols for a gradual reopening, should parents and teachers expect a schedule with reduced face-to-face time to stunt children and teenagers’ communication abilities or – as counterintuitive as it sounds – to strengthen them?
Learning from each other in a blended environment
One thing most blended learning strategies have in common is a revolution for the teacher’s role in the classroom: with the whole of the Internet at their fingertips, no student can expect the teacher to know everything. When online learning and in-person lectures combine, the teacher becomes less of a giver of pre-packaged information and more of a guide, mentor and moderator whose job is to help students navigate an overwhelming amount of content and discuss the day’s topic in a civil and fruitful manner.
The flipped classroom model in particular, which is a form of blended learning in which students learn new content by way of online lessons and use classroom time to practice it, in a reversal of the traditional model in which the classroom is for learning unfamiliar concepts and homework is meant to apply them, can be an excellent way to improve social skills.
Traditional lectures do not leave much room for socialising: talking is usually considered disruptive and the students’ duty is to listen and leave meaningful interaction with their peers to breaks in between class periods. A properly implemented flipped classroom model, on the other hand, moves the less interactive part of the learning process to the students’ homes and makes it their role to debate what they have learnt and ask questions, not necessarily to the teacher, but possibly also to fellow students who have gained a better understanding of the ideas they are struggling with.
Blended learning, when applied wisely, creates a class of true equals who can learn from each other and makes the teacher a respected, but less intimidating figure who has most of the answers, but not all of them.
In-person teaching tends to separate learning and socialising; with blended learning, they are one and the same.
Socialising anywhere, anytime, with blended learning
With blended learning, using social media to keep up with classmates is no longer frowned upon, but a vital part of the process. Once considered a distraction and a waste of time by teachers who did not know their true potential, discussion forums and chats can become a virtual extension of the classroom.
In an increasingly digital world, good communication skills no longer consist of just talking: interacting with one another correctly on social media, using the full range of the multimedia capabilities on offer, following basic netiquette rules and switching register appropriately between a more formal classroom forum and a more informal chat among friends, is a skill that needs to be trained.
The long interruption in the relationships among classmates has confirmed the old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but now that students are slowly beginning to have a chance to reconnect in person, teachers must accept that this extended stretch of time in which social networks were the only way to maintain their friendships has made the Internet an even more integral part of their lives that should be used to their advantage in a learning environment, not dismissed as a disruption to their education.
Online communication is still communication and has become part and parcel of a person’s social skills. It may take a different form, but it is still a way to socialise that, with a little help from mobile devices, can follow students anywhere and make them easily reachable anytime, which is in itself a valuable lesson: today more than ever, humans are social creatures who thrive in being connected to one another and social skills are not a switch you can turn on and off, but something you should take with you long after the last bell of the school day has rung.