Kevin Gannon

Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University

Our HyFlex Experiment: What’s Worked and What Hasn’t

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Image: iStock

For a large swath of higher education, this is not just a “Covid semester”; it’s become a “HyFlex semester,” too. As colleges and universities finished a chaotic spring and contemplated an equally uncertain fall, many of us embarked on a crash course in HyFlex learning. It offered compelling answers to the many questions we had about the semester ahead:

  • What if we don’t know whether we’ll be teaching in person, online, or both in the fall? HyFlex lets you build multimodal classes, so we’ll be prepared for anything.
  • What if we want to offer in-person classes but some students refuse to come to the campus? HyFlex allows for both in-person and remote learning simultaneously.
  • What if we start in one mode but have to pivot to another again? A HyFlex course, out of all the alternatives, is the most “pivot-able.” Unlike in the spring, we would be prepared to move online in a hurry.
  • Gee, is HyFlex the answer to our prayers? Sure sounds that way. LET’S DO IT.

One measure of how HyFlex courses have swept across the higher-education landscape is to Google the term. In April, when I first began investigating HyFlex courses for my own institution — having recalled an article I’d read a few years ago about them but nothing more — a Google search for HyFlex returned results mostly pertaining to a company making industrial pumps, mixers, and sprayers, with a few pedagogical references scattered downpage. Today, the same search brings up pages of results to click through before reaching any that don’t have to do with higher education.

And now we find ourselves roughly at the midpoint of the semester, and it’s worth asking: What have we learned so far? Both at my institution and more broadly — if my email lists and Twitter feed are any indication — the results have been decidedly mixed.

Under the HyFlex model, developed by Brian Beatty at San Francisco State University, students can take a HyFlex course in one of three ways: in-person synchronous, online synchronous, and online asynchronous. The idea is that they can move back and forth between those modes throughout the duration of the course as it fits their needs and contexts. That means HyFlex courses are built along three interrelated, yet still distinct, tracks. What Beatty calls the “four pillars” of HyFlex courses — learner choice, equivalence between modes, reusability of course materials across modes, and accessibility — would ensure a meaningful student-learning experience in any of the options.

The flexibility afforded to students by HyFlex courses has been evident this semester, but the style of teaching required has proven more difficult to maintain than anticipated. Moreover, that same flexibility has been the proverbial double-edged sword when it comes to student success.

Given a choice, students aren’t necessarily opting for the mode that would best advance their own learning, and the criteria that they’ve used to choose how they’ll “attend” class have not been the most effective. There’s always a difference between plan and implementation, and HyFlex learning is no different. In assessing the results so far, I’d like to venture the following lessons from a wide deployment of HyFlex courses at my own undergraduate institution.

HyFlex courses are hard to build, and even harder to teach. It’s an obvious point but bears repeating: Teaching online involves far more than simply dropping a face-to-face course into the campus learning-management system. Designing effective online courses is hard work and differs significantly from in-person teaching. HyFlex courses essentially braid the two together. Moreover, the braiding is even more complicated because the online strand is further divided into synchronous and asynchronous paths.

For all of us, but particularly for instructors with little-to-no experience teaching online, this has been a heavy lift. On top of that, once the course is designed, the actual day-to-day practice of teaching it effectively is complex, indeed:

  • Enter the physical classroom.
  • Wipe down the instructor station.
  • Log in. Log in to Blackboard. Log in to Zoom.
  • Start the Zoom meeting.
  • Greet the students who are attending in person.
  • Share the computer screen.
  • Make sure you’re not walking too far from the mic.
  • Repeat the in-person student’s question so the students on Zoom can hear it.
  • Ask for a response from the Zoom students.
  • Wait. Wait. Wait.
  • Repeat the question.
  • Realize you didn’t turn up the volume.
  • Take off your glasses because they’re fogging up again, even with your new mask that was supposed to minimize that.

I’ve been teaching college classes for 23 years, and there have been times this semester when I’ve felt less like a teacher and more like one of those circus performers spinning stacks of plates and cups on my arms and head — except in my case, there are many more drops and crashes.

What seems clear is that institutions using the HyFlex model need to find more and different ways to support faculty members than before. Hire work-study students to wrangle Zoom? Improve the integration and workflow of these various tools? At the very least, we have to acknowledge the significant burden now on classroom instructors, a burden for which very few of us were prepared.

HyFlex’s origin story matters. HyFlex courses were initially developed for graduate students in an educational-technology program. The students tended to be full-time educational professionals (i.e., they already had day jobs), and were pursuing graduate work from a variety of locations and experiences. For that type of cohort — a self-selected set of experienced learners, familiar with a variety of technologies — HyFlex is a perfectly tailored mode of teaching and learning.

For first-year college students whose prior experience with online learning in the spring of their senior year in high school was, shall we say, suboptimal, HyFlex courses are a more daunting task. In retrospect, we needed more in the way of introducing students to HyFlex — more clearly and specifically outlining how the courses work and how to navigate them most successfully.

It’s one thing to know intellectually that HyFlex is different. It’s another thing entirely to see students struggling with just how deep those differences are in practice. And moving from their high school, where there was no flexibility in format, to college, where course delivery is even more flexible this year than usual, presents a steep learning curve for most students.

HyFlex works better for some types of classes than others. It’s no coincidence that faculty members who are finding HyFlex a difficult fit are those whose classes are either completely or mostly discussion-based, perhaps even student-led. The traditional seminar model in the humanities — with a small number of students gathered around a table dissecting a text or arguing an interpretation — doesn’t replicate well into a HyFlex format, where there are two interrelated but still separate “classroom” spaces. That issue certainly can be overcome, but in a Covid-19 semester, amid all the extra cognitive load involved for both instructors and students, the resources for doing so may simply not be available.

On the other hand, HyFlex is eminently suited to classes that are more content exposition in nature, or ones in which presentations with brief discussion or Q&A interludes are the norm. It offers the advantage of having class sessions recorded (including what’s been shared on the screen), which is a useful resource for all students, not just those attending asynchronously. What we’ve learned at my university, which likely mirrors the experience of many others, is that while HyFlex can be used across disciplines, its suitability and effectiveness can be decisively shaped by the disciplinary and pedagogical context of a particular course. As we look toward the spring semester, an awareness of this variability needs to inform our planning.

We need to help students learn to become online learners. Those of us who’ve taught online courses for a while know that they’re a different animal, and that we need to prepare students to adjust to the differences in order to succeed in class. But when you make what is essentially an institutional shift into online teaching and learning — even if there’s an in-person dimension — you need to scale up your attention to student success online, too.

Time and material resources go a long way here, and most of us had little to none of either this summer. Learning is hard, but online learning adds an extra layer of difficulty, particularly for students who’ve not experienced it before. Moreover, differing levels of access to both the resources and the cultural capital to thrive online mean that our students’ HyFlex experiences — and their success within them — vary greatly.

Faculty members cannot hide from structural racism and economic inequality any more, because our students were never able to in the first place. That is perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned in our HyFlex semester.

In the Before Times, when most courses were taught in physical classrooms, it was all too easy for instructors and institutions to dismiss student struggles with access to technology and available bandwidth. In some quarters, “I couldn’t upload the assignment to Blackboard” has been caricatured as the 21st-century version of “the dog ate my homework.”

But after our pandemic-induced pivot, the dramatic disparities in this area became brutally evident. We have students who:

  • Share iffy Wi-Fi with other family members all trying to do some form of online schooling at the same time.
  • Try to do their coursework on a smartphone, since the computers they relied on are in now-shuttered campus computer labs.
  • Do not have reliable internet access at all, and attend class on Zoom while parked in the McDonald’s parking lot, hoping the restaurant’s guest Wi-Fi signal is strong enough.
  • Keep their cameras off, not because they’re zoning out or playing video games during class, but because they’re crammed into a tiny apartment with the rest of their family and they’re sitting in the bathroom because it’s the only quiet place to attend class virtually.

None of those inequities are new, but the abrupt shift in modality has both exacerbated and intensified them. If all your schooling is now online, and you can’t get online, then for you, school is closed. And with the similar online shift in learning-support services, the scaffolding that many of our students depended upon — and which we told them they were entitled to and exhorted them to use — became unreachable. Covid-19 has laid bare the profound inequities in our society, from the global scale all the way down to my section of “Ancient World History.”

HyFlex classes didn’t cause those inequities, but they can reflect and intensify them. If we employ an instructional model that is dependent upon things like live videoconferencing and streaming media — without ensuring that all students are able to access their courses — we’ve committed institutional malpractice, and it doesn’t matter if we’re in a pandemic. If we are open for learning, it has to be for all our students or none. To do otherwise is to intensify the very inequities we say we want to fix.

All of these lessons sound fairly negative. But I think that reflects the extraordinarily difficult circumstances in which all of us find ourselves this fall as much as, or more than, any particular shortcoming of the HyFlex model itself.

While there have been implementation issues, technological snafus, and steep learning curves — as you’d expect with any changes this significant — there have also been a number of HyFlex success stories on my campus, and likely yours, too. I have colleagues who, having learned particular technologies to teach a HyFlex course, are now integrating that knowledge into all of their teaching and making plans to incorporate these new skills and abilities (Remote office hours can be more flexible! Recording videos students can always access is a great way to start reviewing for an exam! Having students all on the same digital whiteboard space to mark up a paper draft is really cool!) across all their future courses.

We have students who, quite literally, would have had to drop out if their courses had not been available in the HyFlex format. All of us are learning how to increase our capacity for compassion, flexibility, and empathy. Given the circumstances in which we find ourselves, that may be the most important outcome of all.

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