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C2C Digital Magazine Spring-Summer 2022

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Flexible education models and redesign of traditional classrooms into hybrid learning spaces

By Adam Holden and Matthew Olesnevich


According to Collins and Halverson (2018), schools are facing a digital revolution in learning “on the same scale as the Industrial revolution” (Collins & Halverson, 2018, p.4). Indeed, such a rate of systemic change has rarely been witnessed in public education, a phenomenon further intensified by the transformation required of schools associated with education delivery following the spread of COVID-19 (Danchikov, Prodanova, Kovalenko, & Bondarenko, 2021). During this time, educational institutions were forced to use virtual learning platforms to rapidly switch from the regular in-person delivery of classes to an online learning process (Holden, 2021). In doing so, thousands of educators faced the necessity of immediately embracing new technologies, an occurrence primarily witnessed where there is a significant need to do so, and crises usually create and drive such a need (Stalder 2018).

It was not simply the necessary adoption of these new technologies that had a lasting effect; rather, the need to reimagine the concept of educational delivery as part of the process. Education systems faced disruption of an unprecedented magnitude, and while the return to more traditional schooling is complete in most countries around the world, there is a remaining sense that it will never quite be the same (Witze, 2020). Naturally, the enormity and immediacy of this shift in practice had varying levels of impact on student learning but also resulted in new spaces of possibility opening for schools to offer an alternative, creative approach to learning and for pedagogical innovation (Hay 2021). This unintended potential now serves as a foundation for schools to comprehensively review how they integrate digital technologies into the learning process and, more importantly, how this can modify the instructional paradigm.

Figure 1.  Computers in a Classroom (by wipperfuerth on Pixabay)

The concept of flexible learning

The need for educational institutions to provide greater flexibility and individualized learning opportunities for students has been at the forefront of educational change for more than a decade (Barnett, 2014). Often veiled in the term “differentiation,” meeting the individual needs of diverse learners has become central to educational services offered, often giving students and parents a voice in what, when, and how they learn (Higher Education Academy, 2015). This increased focus on flexibility encompasses all aspects of the learning process, from the curriculum studied and how it is taught to the spaces where the teaching takes place.

In many cases, this adaptive approach is supported using digital technologies and online platforms (Johnson, Jacovina, Russell, & Soto, 2016). Therefore, it is not surprising that most educational institutions used the methodology behind such programs as the launching point for the development of their own remote learning initiatives. While early research findings as to the effectiveness of such an approach on student achievement suggest a varying but predominantly negative impact (Bird, Castleman, & Lohner, 2022), there can be little doubt that in terms of increasing the flexibility and adaptability of the learning process at scale there were significant successes (Dhawan, 2020).

However, the question remains whether the methods utilized in online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic can be used to replace some of the aspects of classroom practice without compromising educational quality now that students have returned to campus (Owston & York, 2018). If it is determined that traditional classroom time can be improved using a more flexible delivery system without negatively impacting student achievement. Then it would encourage the deliberation of replacing some or most classroom teaching with a genuinely blended, online, hybrid approach in the future (Peters et al., 2020).

Given the radical changes in educational delivery over the past two years, the consideration of such a methodology has never been more opportunistic. Still, it will take a considerable paradigm shift in understanding the concept of blended learning and a redesign of physical classroom spaces for scalable and sustainable change to occur.

Redesigning learning spaces

Coupled with the infusion of digital technologies, an array of flexible learning spaces have recently emerged in educational institutions as educators work to adapt their teaching systems to better meet the needs of modern pedagogical practices (Kariippanon, Cliff, Lancaster, Okely, & Parrish, 2018). Charged with the integration of so-called twenty-first-century skills, these flexible learning spaces contain a variety of furniture options in a relatively open space, which can be modified and configured in a variety of ways to facilitate a range of teaching and learning experiences (NSW Department of Education, 2018). These new spaces are a significant contrast to traditional classroom spaces, better characterized by rows of individual desks focused on the teacher’s presentation space at the front of the room (Figure 2). As a result, educators are facing fundamental and profound changes to their classroom environments and the required pedagogical methodology to make them successful (Nikolov, Lai, Sendova, & Jonker, 2018).

Figure 2.  Traditional vs. Flexible Learning Spaces

Research asserts that these new flexible learning spaces support teachers in the adoption of a student-centered approach to learning (Mulcahy, 2016).  Flexible classroom spaces promote a variety of learning modalities, including collaboration, explicit instruction, independent work, and experiential learning, all instructional methodologies associated with improved student engagement and motivation (Ryan & Patrick, 2001). Additionally, the cognitive, social, and behavioral benefits of increased student engagement have consistently been linked with the retention of knowledge, test scores, and grades (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). These adaptable learning environments also provide opportunities for students to enhance creativity, communication, problem-solving, and innovation, all critical elements of a 21st Century learning model (Stehle, & Peters-Burton, 2019). Consequently, educators now find themselves navigating evolving teaching landscapes in innovative and unfamiliar environments while striving to master a flexible and adaptive pedagogical approach to provide increasingly personalized support to students (Kariippanon, Cliff, Lancaster, Okely, & Parrish, 2018). Such a shift in professional practice might normally be regarded as the type of seismic departure from “business as usual” that usually is met with stubborn resistance, but in the post-COVID educational environment, many educators accept the rationale that now is the time for change. And at the epicenter of this paradigm shift is the role that digital technologies play in helping transition to the new normal.
It is widely accepted that digitality is no longer a new cultural skill for most students and the use of learning management systems, digital media, and online content in the process of learning are no longer described as “new” technologies (Iivari, Sharma, & Ventä-Olkkonen, 2020). Nevertheless, to date, much of the integration of technology into regular classroom practice has been limited by the belief that digital technologies are additional instructional tools in an already determined learning process. A gateway for students to research, edit, practice, and work independently. There is change on the horizon; however, as in the post-pandemic educational reality, virtual and online learning models and even homeschooling are likely to play a significant and continued part of everyday school life (Nikolov et al., 2018). Accordingly, the need to view digital technologies as the conduit to new and improved pedagogical designs rather than simply instructional tools lies at the very nucleus of the ongoing digital revolution. Perhaps for the first time, the need to merge virtual learning spaces with a built environment is upon us, and the required modifications in the pedagogical approach stand as both the greatest barrier and the utmost potential (Chandra & Mills, 2015). 

The emergence of hybrid classrooms

As an increasing number of educational institutions invest in technology-enhanced learning spaces, the debate intensifies regarding how these environments might be shaped to ensure that they are as effective as possible (Raes, Detienne, Windey, & Depaepe, 2020). Until now, these learning spaces have integrated technology into face-to-face instruction as well as virtual, online settings, primarily using a blended format. Following the pandemic-created disruption to educational practice, a new learning space is now under consideration (Figures 3 and 4) – an asynchronous, hybrid learning environment where both on-site and remote students come together to learn simultaneously (Raes, Detienne, Windey, & Depaepe, 2020). Obviously, given the novelty of hybrid learning spaces, empirical studies have yet to emerge, but the little research that has been completed suggests that practitioners should have a cautious optimism regarding synchronous hybrid instruction and its ability to create a flexible and engaging learning environment (Raes, Detienne, Windey, & Depaepe, 2020).

Figure 3.  Hybrid Classroom Perspective of Remote Participant

“Exploring Student and Teacher Experiences in Hybrid Learning Environments: Does Presence Matter?” by A. Raes, (2022) Postdigital Science and Education 4:138–159 ©imec  (This is used with permission.) 

Figure 4.  Hybrid Classroom (KU Leuven, Campus Kulak Kortrijk)

From “Exploring Student and Teacher Experiences in Hybrid Learning Environments: Does Presence Matter?” by
A. Raes, (2022) Postdigital Science and Education 4:138–159 ©imec  (This is used with permission.) 

The concept of hybrid learning has been defined in various ways, most notably associating the merging of on-site and remote students with flexibility and blended learning. Irvine (2020) speaks of the concept of a hyflex learning environment, where multi-access synchronous blended learning is combined with asynchronous hybrid attendance (Irvine, 2020). This model suggests that a learning environment of this type needs to offer four levels of access: face-to-face, synchronous online, asynchronous online, and open access (Irvine, 2020). This is by no means the only definition, however. Ladd (2020) suggests the concept of a ‘concurrent classroom’ where there are two discreet existences in the same learning space, those that are learning in-person and those who are learning from a remote location (Ladd, 2020). Bell et al. (2014) posit an asynchromodal or dual-modal approach, and Nørgård (2021) introduced the concepts of hybridity, focusing on the notion that physical and digital learning takes place synchronously though in separate ways.

Existing literature intimates that the development of hybrid learning spaces has the potential to be beneficial in the learning process, specifically providing increased flexibility and engagement. Nevertheless, such an approach also presents a considerable challenge in both pedagogical and technological aspects (Raes, 2022). Clearly, on-site, and remote students do not have the same experience in a hybrid, synchronous learning space (Zydney et al., 2019), and research suggests that students learning remotely feel a sense of isolation and lack of connection with the teacher and their peers in the classroom (Ramsey et al., 2016). This is especially the case when technical difficulties are encountered, interrupting understanding or when they cannot contribute to the class or get the attention of the teacher in real-time (Huang et al., 2017). Similarly, teachers express mirrored frustrations, though often felt more intensely as they feel an increased sense of responsibility for the success of the learning experience (Raes, 2020). 

Despite these caveats, there are several studies have established that steps can be taken to mitigate the potential negative impact of hybrid learning and that provided hybrid learning environments are designed holistically, and with a focus on meeting the needs of a diverse student body, they can be highly effective (Raes, 2022). Provided that teachers allow for natural pauses in the learning process (Heilporn et al., 2021) and that the technology works consistently with a special focus on audio quality (Bower et al., 2015). The space design allows remote learners to feel that they are ‘in’ the classroom (Irvine et al., 2013). Teachers have expressed that hybrid learning spaces support them in qualitative teaching and serve to engage both staff and students (Joy et al., 2013). The key to success in these learning environments appears to be achieved only when remote students are genuinely invited into the learning space to actively engage in learning (Raes, 2022).

When you analyze these findings, it is not surprising that educational institutions worldwide are beginning to move forward with the creation and development of hybrid learning environments. The first case studies of what these educational spaces can look like and the educational experience that they can offer are now being shared (Raes, 2022). While still in its infancy, the movement towards the adoption of interactive hybrid learning spaces is slowly gaining momentum.

Figure 5. Hybrid Lecture Hall

From “Exploring Student and Teacher Experiences in Hybrid Learning Environments: Does Presence Matter?” by A. Raes, (2022) Postdigital Science and Education 4:138–159.  (This is used with permission.) 

Figure 6.  KU Leuven (Campus Kulak Kortrijk)

From “Exploring Student and Teacher Experiences in Hybrid Learning Environments: Does Presence Matter?” by A. Raes, (2022) Postdigital Science and Education 4:138–159.  (This is used with permission.) 

Somewhat futuristic in nature, these spaces have different configurations for them to be used in each of Irvine’s hybrid modalities face-to-face, synchronous online, asynchronous online, and open access. The configurations available include the development of hybrid lecture theatres, small group hybrid learning spaces, hybrid traditional teaching rooms, and open access teaching studios, and allow for interactivity while keeping the teacher at the center of the learning process. One of the best examples of this emergence is the synchronous hybrid learning at Edulab, the living lab of KU Leuven Campus Kulak Kortrijk, where a variety of hybrid learning spaces have been created to allow for the flexible delivery of content (Figures 5 and 6). In these learning spaces, remote students can join classes virtually either as an interactive participant, a non-active, passive participant, or an observer of the recorded class in their own time. This project marks one of the first large-scale adoptions of hybrid learning spaces and foreshadows what the future education spaces might look like.

Initial feedback from hybrid learning environments has shown promise, though as with any complex and innovative learning setting, significant empirical investigation needs to be completed before any definitive findings can be made (Raes et al., 2020). As with all innovations, time will tell, but should these learning spaces prove to be a worthwhile investment, they hold the potential of genuinely changing the paradigm of classrooms as we have known them and the best pedagogies to be used within them.


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About the Authors

Adam Holden has been an international educator for more than thirty years. Adam is a highly regarded international speaker on digital innovation in education with keynote engagements in Asia, Europe, and North and Central America in recent years, as well as two TEDx presentations. Adam has multiple publications on digital technologies and blended learning, serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Online Learning Research, and Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education.

His email is  

Matthew Olesnevich is a school administrator with seventeen years of experience in education. Mr. Olesnevich has experience as a Dean of Students, Athletic Director, Assistant Principal, and is currently the Head of Upper School for Admiral Farragut Academy. Mr. Olesnevich is presently a doctoral candidate at Liberty University, where his research agenda focuses on 21st-Century learning experiences.

His email is 
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