Equality, equity and social justice in hybrid education

Image Credit: Original Unsplash, Remix by Joe Arton

In this post, Professor Velda McCune, Personal Chair of University Education and Deputy Director of the Institute for Academic Development unpacks some common thinking around equality, equity and justice for the student experience of hybrid learning. 

As I’ve been talking with colleagues across the University about hybrid education for Semester 1, I’ve realised that many of them are concerned that students who are learning online within a hybrid model won’t get the same learning experience as the students who are able to attend some classes face-to-face. People are rightly deeply concerned about fairness to students and worry that hybrid models might inhibit this fairness in new and important ways. This is important to think through carefully. The idea of a hybrid model is that some students within a cohort may be learning wholly online, while others in the same cohort do some of their learning face-to-face. Rather than these being distinct cohorts, the idea is to bring the students’ learning together as much as possible and that students can move between online and face-to-face learning depending on their changing circumstances.

I think the first thing I want to say about the concern over students having the ‘same’ experience is that this has never been the case. A gay white man who grew up in poverty near Glasgow, a black male international student, and a middle class white woman student with dyslexia might sit in the same classroom but they will not be having the same experience. Depending on the teaching and the course context, each of these students will feel more or less valued and included and will have more or fewer opportunities to thrive educationally (Morgan and Houghton, 2011). Likewise, we have known for many years that students with different interests and prior educational experiences can perceive the ‘same’ course in quite different ways (Ashwin et al., 2020).

I think a useful way to work through some of these issues is to think about the difference between equality, equity and social justice. This is explained nicely in this cartoon:

So giving the students the ‘same’ experience, as in the first part of the cartoon, might not be the best approach to increasing justice and giving all our students excellent opportunities to thrive educationally. Ideally, we want to break down as many of the structural barriers to full participation as we can in all the creative ways we can imagine. In a hybrid approach there are many possibilities to achieve this, including a few I’ve suggested below, can you add more ideas in the comments?

  • Giving students some choice about how and when they participate in courses to make things easier for those with caring responsibilities or who feel anxious about certain kinds of learning situations. The multiple modes of participation available in hybrid teaching are excellent for this. Online and face-to-face, synchronous and asynchronous, visual and textual. Our traditional model of physical co-location has never been equitable for all.
  • Showing explicitly how we value contributions from different cultures in our programmes. We have more about this on the IAD website (https://www.ed.ac.uk/institute-academic-development/learning-teaching/staff/inclusive/accessibility/curriculum/inclusion).
  • Teaching all of our students to see structural inequality and introducing them to our dignity and respect policy (https://www.ed.ac.uk/files/atoms/files/dignity_and_respect_policy.pdf) so that they learn how to support all of their peers to have the best learning experiences.
  • Don’t forget the small actions around accessibility, they are symbolic of our wider culture and crucial to some students’ participation. Always wear the microphone if there is one, use sans serif fonts to make things easier for students with specific learning difficulties.

All of this is not to dismiss that there are some forms of learning where we’d much rather have all of our students in a lab or studio face-to-face. We do need to be aware though that the ‘same’ experience has never really existed and that there are many things we can do to enable more just experiences of higher education. Also, while face-to-face might be the best option for most students for things like lab classes, there will likely still be some who are more easily enabled to participate with an online option. They may have social anxiety, extensive caring responsibilities or be shielding. I hope that all we have learned about changing teaching during this pandemic will leave us with lots of new ideas about possibilities for inclusive higher education.

Here are a few examples from Teaching Matters that can inspire you if you are thinking these things through:





Ashwin, P., Boud, D., Coate, K., Hallett, F., Keane, E., Krause, K-L., Leibowitz, B., MacLaren, I., McArthur, J., McCune, V. and Tooher, M. (2020). Reflective teaching in higher education. 2nd Edition. London: Bloomsbury.

Morgan, H and Houghton, A-M. (2011). Inclusive curriculum design in higher education. York: Higher Education Academy. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/inclusive-curriculum-design-higher-education


Velda McCune

Velda McCune is Deputy Director of the IAD and Head of the Learning and Teaching Team. She has oversight of the continuing professional development opportunities which the IAD offers for staff involved in teaching and supporting student learning. An important focus of her work is collaborating with colleagues in Schools and Colleges to take forward research and scholarship relating to teaching and learning in Higher Education.


  1. Thanks Velda. This article has certainly made a few light bulbs go off in my head around how to make hybrid teaching equal in terms of student experience. I was initially in the camp of worrying about those who were asynchronous online, but now I can see how providing options and being more flexible in how they engage with the material is actually all round a better way of teaching. Phew!

  2. Another thing I try to keep in mind is with increasing attention being paid to creating online resources, whether students can co-create some of these resources, and ensuring that any pictures we include in online resources represent the vast diversity reflected in our students and staff.

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