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The Hybrid Learning Theatre - an inspiring environmentDigital Learning Summit: speaker interview

Maud Pols, Learning Specialist, will give a presentation about the University of Amsterdam’s award-winning Hybrid Learning Theatre at the Digital Learning Summit. Here she talks to us about how the project came about and what the reaction has been from students and lecturers.

What made you interested in hybrid learning?
Learning is all about interaction. In education, the relationships between lecturers and students, between peers, and between students and content are crucial for enabling learning and attainment in a safe learning environment. So what does meaningful engagement really mean? And how do we create the right conditions for it? These are especially pertinent questions now that hybrid work and learning are part of our day-to-day lives.

I’m convinced that when you start with the relationship between lecturer and students, the effective use of technology, in combination with the right pedagogic approach, can create an inspiring learning environment that makes students feel more connected and committed to active learning.


Tell us about your award-winning project.

When the pandemic forced us to adapt our teaching methods very rapidly at the University of Amsterdam, we had to be creative with the resources at our disposal. With restrictions on the number of students that were allowed on-campus, we came up with the idea of the Hybrid Learning Theatre (HLT).

Why a theatre? Education should encourage students to come out of their comfort zone, be inspired and engage in new experiences. We created a cosy environment with large comfortable sofas (socially distanced), and a huge 10m x 10m video wall, where 100 students (two groups of 50) are projected to interact with each other, the students in the room, and the lecturer – and students were encouraged to take an active part in each class. The HLT allows an online audience of 1500+ students to join online and participate via the chat.

With professional lighting, sound and three cameras, we created the perfect mixture for a new learning experience. Every chair had access to a dynamic microphone (no background noise), to ensure good audio quality in every class, and so that lecturers/teachers were not worried about any technical aspects. Working with different camera angles and switching between different shots created a very intimate, ‘together’ feeling that enabled a sense of belonging for both the on-site students and online students, regardless of their geographical location.

This may sound very expensive and sophisticated, and requiring a long preparation time; but due to the experimental nature of the project we were able to set it up in two months from start to finish. The actual construction of the studio was finished in one week. Working with a great team of professionals from different industries, and taking a risk in such a new concept, we were very proud and extremely grateful and honoured to be the overall winner of the 2021 EUNIS award for Best Overall AV Enabled Education Space.


What about the learner experience?

It is crucial to measure the impact of an experiment like this. Out of 200 survey respondents, 75.8% of students reported that they preferred the hybrid lecture to a straightforward Zoom lecture. Particularly interesting is that the second-year students significantly preferred it over a ‘normal’ on-campus lecture and would like it to continue permanently after the pandemic.

If we dive into the qualitative analysis, one of the lecturers explained: “The students who get to attend in person are highly motivated and very keen to take the microphone and participate. You can bring students from the other side of the world into the classroom and have meaningful interaction with them. It means that education is really part of the global ecosystem.”


How’s the teacher perspective?

Teachers explained that it was a positive change for them as well. Not only did they find it more inspiring to have ‘real-life’ students to engage with in a hybrid setting, they were also able to tell their own story.

As a storyteller, there is a lot to get used to: where to stand or sit; where the lights and cameras are. It takes a lot of preparation at the beginning. You have to cater for three types of attendees interacting in different ways: on-site participants, panellists on the video wall and regular attendees who interact via chat.

One advantage is that teachers love to see students’ names on the ‘wall’. In a ‘traditional’ classroom with 600 students, they were not able to interact with many of them – but by knowing their names and being stimulated to interact more personally, it is an enriching experience.

Moreover, we have technical support in the room (mostly student assistants) to ensure the lecturer can concentrate fully on the content. There’s a lot of technology present, but we make sure this is not a distraction but a prerequisite that has been taken care of. We should always keep in mind that it’s still all about teaching.

When technology comes into play, resistance is sometimes encountered as teachers fear losing control. This is normal; it can be challenging to change one’s habits and still feel comfortable. However, in reality, it’s all about the pedagogy. Technology is just a tool; this is not about replacing traditional teaching. Hybrid learning is about finding the right balance between using technology to encourage active and flexible learning, and ensuring the right relationship between students and lecturers for a safe learning environment.


Speaker background

Originally from the Netherlands, Maud Pols has a strong background in both education and technology. With bachelor degrees in Psychology, Educational Sciences and Cultural Anthropology the interest for understanding how people learn was already coined. After a Master’s Degree in Business Administration with a focus on Digital Technologies, the combination of Education and Technology formed the foundation of her career.

She has worked in roles in both the commercial and public sector, including E-learning specialist for developing learning content, Project Leader Educational Innovation at the University of Amsterdam and currently as a Learning Specialist at Microsoft.


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