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Is HyFlex a viable teaching approach in ‘normal’ times?


The pedagogical approach known as HyFlex has been part of the learning landscape for more than 15 years, primarily in graduate courses. But it moved from a fringe phenomenon to the mainstream, at least temporarily, during the COVID-19 pandemic, as colleges brought students back to their physical campuses but needed flexibility so that students who were sick or otherwise unable to be in the classroom could continue their educations.

The experience was imperfect, as professors struggled to teach equitably both to those in the physical classroom and to those studying remotely.

A recent episode of Inside Higher Ed’s Key podcast explored whether HyFlex remains a viable option at a time when many students want more flexibility in when and how they learn, and as many colleges continue to experiment with new ways of reaching potential learners.

Joining for the discussion were two professors who have both taught in the HyFlex format and done research on its impact. Enilda Romero-Hall is an associate professor in the learning design and technology program at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville; she started teaching HyFlex before the pandemic and got her Ph.D. in a doctoral program that utilized HyFlex. Alanna Gillis, an assistant professor of sociology at St. Lawrence University, had her first HyFlex experience during the pandemic.

Inside Higher Ed: Tell us about your background and how you come at this conversation about HyFlex.

Romero-Hall: I come to this conversation as someone who has been a student in a HyFlex format, has some experience teaching HyFlex and has investigated this type of instructional modality.

Gillis: I’m an assistant professor in sociology at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. All of my experience is coming from teaching undergraduate courses and sociology about inequality. I wasn’t aware of [HyFlex’s] existence until the pandemic, like many instructors, when I taught five out of my six in the 2020–21 year in HyFlex modality with basically no training. I got to the point where I understood the basics enough that I was starting to informally coach some of my colleagues on it. And I ultimately conducted some research about it to understand it in this undergraduate context, particularly issues around equity and engagement.

Inside Higher Ed: Alanna, you’re probably more typical in having been introduced to this during the pandemic, and probably not under the best circumstances. Enilda, you have a little bit more experience and probably under better conditions, which maybe affects how you both come at this. Why don’t you start by talking about what your experiences have been and how you view HyFlex as an emergent instructional model in times of emergency, which is obviously part of how it might be used, and how it works as an instructional model generally.

Romero-Hall: I did my doctoral degree at Old Dominion University, which has a building fully dedicated to HyFlex instruction and all the technology and technological support needed in that type of modality. You have individual microphones for every student, cameras that follow students around. It does take a significant amount of commitment from the instructor. It also needs a lot of attention in terms of how many students will you have in your classroom. How many students are in presence with you? How many are online, and how do you engage both groups? Do I have a monitor in which I can see my classmates at a distance, and then a different monitor in which I can see the instruction?

My experience as a graduate student was completely different from my experience as an instructor teaching in the pandemic. There’s not the same level of communication; there’s probably feelings of isolation for some of the students who are not being brought into the classroom discussion in a way that is equitable for everyone who wants to participate and communicate. There’s also the pedagogical challenges of “how do I maneuver assignments and activities for my students face to face versus those that are online?”

Inside Higher Ed: Having had HyFlex experience as a student in good circumstances, were you able to bring tactics or strategies to bear on the imperfect situation that you had as an instructor that gave you and maybe your students an edge over those who were dealing with this for the first time?

Romero-Hall: There’s this power dynamic between my students that are face-to-face, who may dominate the conversation, and how do I make space for the students that are online? How do I anticipate which students are going to be face-to-face versus online? Trying to plan for that was something that I had to think about. In terms of simple things like hardware, like I had to go to my IT department and ask them for a speaker I could pass around [to] my students, so students in the back of the classroom could be easily heard by those who were online. There were things that because of my experience I was able to consider and accommodate for, and that made for a decent experience, given the circumstances. But I do feel that institutions were trying to stretch too much in times in which, really, everyone was just trying to survive. To some extent some of us are still trying to survive.

Inside Higher Ed: Alanna, you have done a fair bit of online teaching, so it’s not like you came into this as somebody who’d only lectured for 40 years, like some of the people who had the hardest time with this transition. Tell us a little bit about sort of your experiences and how they shaped your views on HyFlex.

Gillis: I as an instructor was really concerned about ideas around how to do active learning activities and build class community in sociology. In my courses, talking about inequality, I’m constantly having us engage with really deep, critical ideas. The only way students are going to be willing to open up and explore these topics is if they feel like a safe part of a community. How do you do that if that community is not together, either all online together or all in the classroom together?

At first I was thinking through this problem in terms of technology. My university provided a good microphone, a good speaker, a document camera. They provided the basics. The classrooms were small enough that students could generally speak up from the back and still be heard. But I have students spend a lot of time working in small groups. At first I was trying to have students in the classroom bring their laptops or use a phone and join Zoom to participate in small group discussions, to connect the students who were remote. But the students in person despised having to talk to their remote peers. As a result they talked a lot less. They talked about how uncomfortable it was to be in a classroom where maybe their group was still talking, but other groups were done, or the people in the classroom weren’t the ones speaking. And so they’re speaking into silence—they participated less.

The next semester, I made it so sometimes they had to talk to remote students, [but] sometimes they could talk to other students who were in person. I really never found that balance. When I tried in a different course having remote students talk to each other, and in-person students talk to each other, the remote students rightly felt they weren’t really part of the classroom experience. That was a big problem, not just because those students weren’t learning as much, but also in terms of the equity issues.

Who are the students who are likely to be remote compared to in person? The students who are struggling more socially, economically, they’re having transportation issues or they’re having to balance working more. Or students with physical or mental health disabilities who are having to miss class because of some of those disabilities. Those were the students who were then getting the worst experience.

I felt like I was doing a disservice to students who most needed the extra support. Instructors are human beings, and when there’s a face in front of us in the classroom, it’s really hard to not cater to what those people are most wanting. At the end of the day, it didn’t feel like a cohesive community, and it didn’t feel like everyone got an equal education.

Inside Higher Ed: There are really two conversations here. There’s how effective was HyFlex as a practice in these emergency times, and it was mixed at best. Hard for instructors, for all the reasons you’ve cited, and not a good experience for students. None of us do particularly well when we’re thrown into situations that weren’t of our choosing. The question I’m most interested in is, to what extent is HyFlex a viable instructional mode going forward? There will certainly continue to be times when colleges might benefit from using this format as one strategy in an era that isn’t characterized first and foremost by emergency. Even many students who didn’t like what they experienced educationally during the COVID-driven last couple of years like the flexibility of when and how they learned. I think there’s going to be more interest among students in having options, and HyFlex is one way of giving students flexibility—but only if it’s a good option.

Gillis: One big question I have going forward is, does this truly bring something that we need, that goes beyond the tools we would have otherwise? If we’re thinking about [how to] create community among remote students, and among in-person students, why is the answer not just to teach some courses in person and some courses remotely? What does HyFlex bring that a fully remote course couldn’t bring in terms of flexibility when it’s needed? From the instructor standpoint, [HyFlex] feels like teaching two different classes. You’re having to manage different styles, like you’re having to manage different classroom communities, all within one class, which is not only more difficult for the instructor, it also takes a lot more time that’s generally not compensated extra.

Inside Higher Ed: It sounds like you’re saying it would be preferable to just say, “In this course, we’re going to have a section or sections that are in person and a section or sections that are taught remotely, and you can do one or the other.” How much should institutions be expected to provide? Should they use this to provide flexibility to students who just want to be able to decide on a particular morning, “I don’t want to commute 20 miles to class today. I’d rather attend remotely.” We’ve seen institutions largely return to the pre-pandemic days of just saying, “This course is at 10 a.m.—be there or be square.”

Romero-Hall: My perspective is a little bit different. In my experience, HyFlex can provide opportunities not for just students who want to decide on the morning of, do I want to go in person or do I want to attend from my home? It provides opportunities for students who may be in Alaska and want to take a class from the University of Tennessee Knoxville. It can provide opportunities for students who are abroad for military service or something and want to join your class at your institution in the United States.

Moving forward, the conversation really needs to be at the institutional level. How do we want to envision HyFlex at our institution? What resources are our faculty going to need? What are the resources that students need to make this happen? Infrastructure for this type of instruction. Professional development for faculty. Additional instructional design staff to support faculty teaching in that format. And instructional technology to ensure that students who are remote can join in that.

Inside Higher Ed: The benefits that you ascribe to HyFlex in terms of access for people who are place-bound are some of the historical benefits we’ve long linked to online learning generally. So one solution for the student in Alaska is making sure there’s an online section or online course available. What we’re really talking about is a sense of purposefulness. Are we doing HyFlex for a reason? Does it have pedagogical or access learning advantages, as opposed to a fix we think may or may not be the right fix?

Gillis: Right. What is the problem we’re facing, and is HyFlex the right answer? We can make HyFlex work well enough. But does that mean it should be something we’re investing money into? We’re in a huge era of austerity for higher education. The ideal training and technology that’s necessary for HyFlex is a lot of money universities would not be investing in something else. It’s really important that we don’t just say, “What do we need to make HyFlex work?” That we take a step back and say, “What are the problems that our students are facing? And what are the best ways to solve them?” If HyFlex is the answer, then we need to make sure we’re investing in all of those very things that Enilda was just talking about. But if those [answers] lead us to different solutions, we’re jumping on the bandwagon of saying technology can solve these problems without considering whether they should be solved a different way.

There’s going to be an increasing tendency to use HyFlex to overenroll courses that typically met in person. You’re bound to the number of students who could sit in that physical space. With HyFlex, you can dramatically increase the course size and still have that professor teaching the same number of courses. They’re essentially just teaching two classes but only getting paid for one. HyFlex could be a way to continue to promote austerity in ways that are going to be worse for students’ education rather than better.

Inside Higher Ed: Enilda, the situation you described about your doctoral program sounds like the optimal use of HyFlex in many ways. You all went in knowing what it was all about and had made that choice. It provided access to people who were potentially far-flung. And it was done with the right technology and training. That use of it seems to make sense going forward.

The reason I wanted to have this conversation, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, is the problem that HyFlex clearly is a solution to is the one I was describing before—of students wanting flexibility and institutions trying to find a way to provide it—that may or may not be a good enough reason to do it. And it’s certainly not going to be a good solution if it’s not done well. I’m curious how you’re thinking about that.

Romero-Hall: Technology’s definitely not always the solution to all of our problems. When we think about HyFlex, it really is what you just mentioned: giving that student that flexibility and that option of considering the ways in which they can come into their learning experience. For some students it just provides that additional level of social presence; what they really want is some sort of balance between asynchronous and synchronous sessions, in which they can come together with other individuals, whether it is virtually or sharing physical space. HyFlex provides access and social presence for students, and it gives them flexibility. But instructors and institutions need to think about whether it fits for their student body at some institutions. There needs to be an understanding of what are the needs of the students, and what is the support that the institution needs to provide to their faculty.

Gillis: [We also need to think] about the technology that students need access to. It’s totally impractical to think about doing HyFlex if your students don’t have access to the technology that’s necessary. Does this mean we need to be providing technology stipends to students? I work at an institution that has a generally wealthy student body, and even some of those students, their computer breaks, their internet goes out, they have power outages that my area doesn’t have. That’s in addition to having a space where they could actually join class that was private and quiet enough to do so. Every student in my class remembers the infamous time where a student’s roommate is walking in the background in his underwear. That student then didn’t engage for several weeks, he was so embarrassed about it.

Inside Higher Ed: Do you think institutions like St. Lawrence and others need to be thinking more about different modes of instructional delivery, more options for when and how students get their learning?

Gillis: At a small liberal arts college like mine, students are required to live on campus all four years, and they’re paying enormous amounts of money to come here. They expect in-person education. For institutions like mine, the question is more how can we adapt the modalities that we have so we’re actually meeting student needs better. Professors who still have attendance policies that say, “If you miss two classes, your letter grade is going to drop by this much, if you miss three classes, it’s going to drop by this much,” are absolutely not reflecting the realities that students have today.

We do need to be thinking about additional ways that our students can engage and learn. And we need to be building those into our policies so that we’re creating equitable policies so that students of all opportunities, all resources, all health statuses, are able to meaningfully engage. One of my students was having heart issues and is potentially about to have heart surgery. The answer for her isn’t HyFlex; the answer for her is she needs to take some time off of class and then have meaningful ways to be able to make that back up. A lot of these traditional policies were never equitable to begin with.

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