The HyFlex Option for Instruction if Campuses Open This Fall

The HyFlex course model is getting buzz as one way colleges could educate students if their campuses are open but physical distancing remains. A panel of experts discusses the pros and cons.

May 13, 2020
 

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Around the country, and the world, college and university leadership teams are immersed in high-stakes discussions about whether and how to physically open their campuses to students this fall in a way that is both physically safe and educationally sound.

For some institutions, those decisions could be make or break, the difference between survival and closure. Many others still face significant pressures to open: from students (and their parents) who chose to spend their hard-earned dollars on a residential college experience and may take a pass if faced with a virtual one; politicians who want their states and prominent institutions to open up; alumni who are desperate for football Saturdays.

Yet the countervailing pressures are significant, too. To name a few: first and foremost the health and safety of students, faculty and staff members, and those in surrounding communities; the ethical and legal risks of opening prematurely; possible local, state and federal restrictions; and the logistical challenges of housing, feeding and educating hundreds or thousands of students.

This column is not about whether campuses should open; my Inside Higher Ed colleagues and our contributors are continuously exploring those questions elsewhere in these pages. This "Transforming Teaching and Learning" space generally examines how colleges and universities ensure that their students get a high-quality education, so the focus here is on how campuses might undertake the central experience of student learning if they are partially or fully open to students in the fall.

Today we explore the pros and cons of one possible approach to doing so: a course model known as HyFlex in which each course is built to give students a choice to attend either in person or online. And I've solicited some help from three very thoughtful campus learning experts, one of whom has literally written the book on HyFlex, another who has experimented with it and a third who has lots of hard questions about it.

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A thoughtful conversation about how colleges and universities might continue to educate their students in the fall requires you to start with one of a few assumptions. Our bloggers Josh Kim and Eddie Maloney have laid out 15 possible scenarios for campuses this fall, including delays and such, but I'm going to focus on three:

  • Campuses fully open to students with few restrictions (highly unlikely);
  • Campuses fully virtual (possible, but for many places undesirable); or
  • Campuses open with significant physical distancing restrictions in place, or with meaningful numbers of students not physically on campus.

The second scenario would create a significant set of challenges for colleges (some of which I explored in previous columns like this one), most prominently meeting what are almost certainly going to be heightened expectations from students and parents for a more engaging, richer and higher-quality virtual learning experience than most colleges almost amazingly got up and running in a matter of days this spring.

Resources on HyFlex

In some ways, though, it's the "in-between" scenarios -- neither fully in-person nor fully virtual -- that are most confounding to imagine and may be the most difficult for many colleges to pull off.

That, potentially, is where HyFlex comes in. I have to admit that after reading a bunch about it and listening to three very thoughtful people discuss it in the video conversation below, I remain a little unclear about both how, and whether, it might work for most campuses. But a lot of institutions seem to be considering some version of it, so here's my brief attempt to summarize the pros and cons and to point you to as many resources as possible to help you assess it for yourselves -- including the wonderful conversation below with these thoughtful experts.

  • Betsy Barre, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University, in North Carolina
  • Brian Beatty, associate professor of instructional technologies in the Department of Equity, Leadership Studies and Instructional Technologies at San Francisco State University and author of Hybrid-Flexible Course Design, a free ebook.
  • Bonni Stachowiak, dean of teaching and learning at Vanguard University in California and producer and host of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast.

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So What Is HyFlex?

Beatty and his colleagues at San Francisco State are widely credited with conceiving the Hybrid-Flexible format in the mid-2000s as they sought to make their existing residential instructional technologies master's degree program more accessible to students in their region, many of whom were working adults. The program's leaders did not have the expertise and internal support to build a fully online program, but they wanted to make it possible for students -- at their convenience and choice -- to participate either online or in person in ways that led to equivalent learning outcomes.

The model they developed, beginning in 2006 but adapted over time, aims to make sure that students aren't penalized from a learning standpoint if they move back and forth between in-person and online participation in the class, from week to week or even class session to class session. Instructors essentially must build a fully online course and a face-to-face version, with the same learning outcomes in both.

Lots of professors have created "blended" or "hybrid" courses that either incorporate digital elements into face-to-face classes or allow a student to participate in an in-person class from a distance, says Beatty. Typically they decide which elements would be best delivered in person and which most effectively learned via technology, and break up the course that way.

With HyFlex, by contrast, professors "don't have that luxury," Beatty says. "You want to be able create a fully online version and a fully face-to-face version and find ways to bring them together into a single course experience that has multiple participation paths … And the student gets to control whether they're doing it online or in the classroom."

Creating an instructional model that allows students to toggle back and forth between educationally comparable in-person and virtual formats depending on the circumstances at the moment has a lot of resonance at a time like this. Not only is there enormous uncertainty about whether campuses will be able to open physically, says Stachowiak of Vanguard University, but the pandemic could interrupt the educations of many individual students if they or their family members get sick and are forced to quarantine.

Educational interruptions are likely to be an increasing factor of the future, be they hurricanes or forest fires or, of course, pandemics.

"I never hear the response, 'just let them take some time off from their degrees,'" says Stachowiak, who has experimented with flexible, hybrid models in her own teaching. "I see a real emerging need for this kind of flexibility."

Barre, of Wake Forest, started a thought-provoking discussion on the POD Network Listserv about the pros and cons of the HyFlex approach. In that exchange and in our discussion below, she said she saw professors and institutions embracing hybrid-flexible models as if they could just put a camera in the classroom and let far-flung students listen in -- "kind of a 1990s distance learning," she said.

"It may be a convenient fix to ensure social distancing, but I'm worried it's popular because it allows schools to say they're offering face-to-face courses without having to change much to stay safe," she said on the Listserv discussion. She stressed the importance of differentiating between the sort of "blended synchronous" approach many professors used to conduct their classes via Zoom this spring, versus the fully developed online and face-to-face pathways that Beatty champions.

"Are we all talking about the same thing?" she asked.

Barre also raised an issue that has arisen in several discussions of models that differ significantly from what professors are used to, which is how concepts like this would play out at scale, when it becomes the "default" for faculty members who are not experts (and may have inadequate training and support from their institutions).

"What does it look like when everybody is forced to do it?" she asked. "What can the average faculty member be expected to do with a little bit of training, rather than Superman or Superwoman?"

As the conversation evolved, there was general consensus that it's impractical to expect that most professors can build fantastic blended courses that can be delivered both online and in person by fall, especially given workload issues.

"Can a whole campus get there? No, never, and I'm an optimist," said Stachowiak. "I'm aiming for a dimmer switch, where [a course] gets a little bit better all the time."

Below is a recording of the entire discussion -- if you're interested in these issues, I think you'll enjoy it. (A transcript of the conversation is here.)

And please, as always, if you have thoughts about topics to explore in future iterations of this column, please write me here.

Stay well.

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