HyFlex and Remote Attendance Options for Graduate Instruction

Case Study

min read

Despite the push to return to in-person instruction, students want flexible learning modalities. How can colleges and universities best meet these demands?

Vector flat illustration, in-person and online classrooms, students looking at large screen
Credit: Viktoria Kurpas / Shutterstock.com © 2024

After the 2021–22 academic year, the first following the COVID-19 pandemic, many higher education institutions began returning to in-person instruction, citing less student engagement and more technical burdens for faculty.Footnote1 At the same time, the demand among students for flexible learning modalities rose. An EDUCAUSE 2022 report noted: "The percentage of respondents indicating that they prefer mostly or completely online courses increased more than three-fold from 9% in 2020 to 29% this year."Footnote2 However, meeting this increasing demand raises a host of considerations such as available classroom technologies and instructors' proficiencies, interests, and preferences for these modalities.

This article explores these considerations and students' modality preferences through findings from the 2023 exit survey at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. We provide unique insights into graduate and professional students' experiences in order to explain their preferences based on course type and common issues experienced by students. We end by offering recommendations based on our findings.


In the spring of 2022, the Humphrey School's Academic Programs team launched its first exit survey for two of its six master's-level degree programs. The survey was useful over the following year for identifying topics of discussion for the Humphrey School's Curriculum Committee. One of the most prominent of these topics was students' experiences with remote learning options. In the spring of 2023, the Humphrey School expanded its survey to include students graduating from all six of its master's-level degree programs. As part of this initiative and in accordance with the results from the first survey on remote learning experiences, the two of us, as the principal survey investigators, revised our questions about remote attendance options in consultation with the Office for Classroom Management and the Disability Resource Center.Footnote3

Our goal with this revised technology section of the survey was to better understand students' experiences in flexible settings, their preferences based on course type, their reasons for wanting more remote learning options, and any barriers with these modalities. Unsurprisingly, one of the challenges of our revision was to find the appropriate language for discussing modalities, with the awareness that the language used by students and instructors and in the course catalog—for example, hybrid and blended—can have broader meanings.Footnote4 Moreover, the boundaries of modality are being disrupted. We found that we needed to survey students about HyFlex instruction and remote attendance options. In this article, we refer to HyFlex as a course designed to give students the flexibility to choose between in-person and online attendance within the same course. More broadly, such as when discussing in-person courses in which students are allowed to attend one or more classes online, we use the term remote attendance options, acknowledging that the courses are not necessarily designed for remote attendance.

Our first survey captured the experiences of students who started their program in the fall of 2020. Their experience is unique, because most of their first-year courses were completely remote due to the pandemic. In this survey, students reported feelings of isolation and a lack of belonging. They felt alone and disconnected from their peers. And yet, as classes started to return to in-person instruction, over 80% of the respondents indicated that it would be helpful to have the option of attending classes virtually moving forward.

After one year, we saw a difference in these results, with a greater sense of community and an increased appreciation for the remote learning options. As of the spring of 2023, every single student who completed the survey had taken a course as either HyFlex or with remote attendance options during their program, and 97% of students indicated having the option to attend classes virtually moving forward would be helpful. When we asked students why this option would be helpful, the most popular reasons included attending courses while sick, accommodating mental/physical health, being able to work and pursue degree programs, needing transportation flexibility, and rewatching lectures. These are primarily issues of access and accessibility,Footnote5 and they align with research on the benefits of HyFlex instruction. Some of these issues are especially important for graduate students, who are more likely to be working full-time, living off campus, and/or caring for family while completing their degree.


As previously noted, an increasing number of students want or need remote attendance options for reasons related to access and accessibility. When we asked students about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and positive learning experiences, many of the responses pointed to flexible course modalities:

  • "The hybrid options to attend class were phenomenal."
  • "Make hybrid options more available."
  • "A Zoom option should be available for all classes in the event students . . . cannot participate in person."
  • "Having so many remote and hybrid options was very helpful. I was able to stay home . . . [and] could accommodate my schedule and transportation."

These are only four of more than twenty open-ended text responses that praised and advocated for remote attendance options. Students lauded the benefits of remote learning options for accessibility and inclusion. Their responses are indicative of a larger issue in higher education following disability-rights groups' advocacy for the preservation of pandemic-era instructional modalities at higher education institutions.Footnote6

As an added bonus, HyFlex instruction can improve both access and accessibility for students. In fact, if a student requires remote attendance as an accommodation for an in-person course, the university Disability Resource Center sometimes recommends that the student contact the instructor to explore whether a remote option exists for the course; if not, the Center helps the student explore the option as a formal accommodation.

When we revised our survey for 2023, we sought to understand what modality students prefer based on course type, as well as what barriers they encounter in these new modalities. Students were asked their modality preference for each course type (lecture, discussion, and lab) and were given the choice of four answers: in-person, HyFlex, remote, or "it depends." Students' top choices were split between the in-person and HyFlex options:

  • Students rarely preferred remote (synchronous online-only) for any course type, never exceeding 11%.
  • Students preferred lectures to be offered as HyFlex (49%), with in-person (33%) as the second-most-preferred modality for lectures.
  • Students preferred labs to be offered in-person (45%), with HyFlex (33%) as the second-most-preferred modality.
  • Students preferred discussions to be held in-person (57%), followed by HyFlex (26%).

These results likely differ by discipline, particularly for lab courses. For example, in public affairs courses, most labs use specialized software in a computer lab, and we have an infrastructure that makes remote access and instruction possible and practical.

As for discussion-based courses, comments that we received in the exit survey and other data suggest two major reasons for the disparity between in-person and HyFlex preferences: available classroom technologies and an instructor's proficiency with technology. Of student responses, 9% said that their modality preference "depends" for discussion courses, and one noted: "Some professors do a good job with facilitating discussions in a Hyflex situation, but other times, discussions in-person are better."

Most of the courses at the Humphrey School occur within general-purpose classrooms, and while these classrooms have been updated since the pandemic, they are not yet built to fully handle HyFlex instruction. The most frequent issues for online students were the following: "Cannot see in-person students," "Cannot hear in-person students," and "Cannot see the whiteboard." The latter two issues are major impediments to an engaging classroom discussion that includes both in-person and online audiences. When it comes to an online audience seeing in-person students, our classrooms are limited because they are built for lecture-style courses: the cameras are positioned in the middle of classrooms so that they can capture only the instructor. Similarly, in-person students reported having one issue more frequently than any other: the inability to see online students, which likewise impedes class discussions and student-to-student engagement. This issue can be solved either by training instructors to show online participants at appropriate times or by using more specialized classroom technology.

In an ideal world, all classrooms would have technology for HyFlex courses, and this technology would be easy for instructors to use. Many classrooms that are built for HyFlex courses have cameras that face the audience as well as the instructor, with auto-tracking or framing, and they have monitors that are programmed to consistently display online participants. Some classrooms have whiteboard cameras and confidence monitors to help the instructor more easily track the online audience. However, these rooms are not yet common, are costly, and are not necessarily user-friendly, despite facilitating engagement between audiences and helping instructors manage cognitive bandwidth. While our survey results point at deficiencies in our classrooms and the importance of technology-rich learning environments, they are even more important for helping us understand how the Humphrey School's Academic Technology team can better target our advice, support, training, and resources for the typical classroom.

HyFlex instruction requires that instructors have different proficiencies in terms of both using the available technologies and teaching inclusively. When students were asked about their instructors' skills on average, they indicated that instructors were "competent" or "proficient" with classroom technologies (80%) and Zoom (82.9%). These responses measure students' perception, and we can see a gap here between perception and practice based on the number of students who identified hearing in-person students as an issue. Most of our general-purpose classrooms have ceiling microphones, and the inability to hear in-person students is usually because the ceiling microphones are not being used. This suggests a need to improve instructors' familiarity with this technology.

What students felt was most lacking was related to teaching in these modalities, noting that on average, instructors are between "beginners" (27.6%) or "competent" (45.7%) at knowing how to include all students, in-person and online, in discussion. HyFlex is a newer modality, and instructors are still learning to teach in it. Furthermore, although 100% of the survey participants reported taking a course with remote attendance options, very few of the Humphrey School's courses are offered as HyFlex in the course catalog. Most of the online experiences for students are with in-person courses in which instructors provide remote attendance accommodations or options, sometimes decided at the last moment. Many of these courses remain designed and taught for an in-person modality.


Our findings highlight several challenges for implementing HyFlex and remote attendance options, including course design and pedagogy, proficiency with classroom technologies, and availability of classroom technologies. As we have already noted, an ideal scenario is one in which HyFlex classrooms are more ubiquitous and easier to use; however, most HyFlex classrooms require greater technological competency than do conventional classrooms and are costly due to additional requisite technologies and programming. Designers of these classrooms may be able to reduce costs (e.g., via approved vendors) but may run into other issues as a result (e.g., support/maintenance, continuity with other classrooms, ongoing costs for repair and refresh). They may also have difficulty persuading their units or institutions to invest in these classrooms, although it can be argued that this investment contributes to increased enrollment and accessibility.

One of the greatest challenges is building instructors' confidence and interest. Although most students want remote attendance options and although many instructors will accommodate their students, instructors may not be interested in teaching courses that are designated as HyFlex. Anecdotally, from conversations with instructors and based on personal experience, teaching two audiences simultaneously is challenging, especially without the sufficient technology. It requires greater cognitive bandwidth to manage two audiences at once, plus the ability to engage with them or facilitate engagement between them. Finally, many instructors do not want to lose in-person engagement, which is what they are most familiar and comfortable with, and some have expressed that they are fearful of a situation in which most of their students move online in a HyFlex format.

Redesigning courses for a new modality can also be a burden on instructors when they have limited time and resources. The challenge with courses that are intended for in-person audiences despite remote attendees is reminiscent of a similar issue that students, instructors, and technologists experienced during the pandemic: the lack of engagement in and effectiveness of classes and activities that are designed for one modality (i.e., in-person) yet are taught for another modality (i.e., synchronous online). When this happens in a course with both in-person and online attendees, the in-person audience is often favored over the online audience. When coupled with technology barriers, online students may be at a disadvantage. Opponents of this type of instruction may point to this issue as proof that the HyFlex modality is not an effective type of instruction; however, it is not the modality getting in the way but the course design, which needs to account for the modality. Thus, course design is another area where educational technologists must intervene proactively with consultations and contingency planning to meet students' access and accessibility needs and reduce the burden on the instructors who are redesigning these courses.


All students can benefit from offerings with flexible modalities. Many need them, and as advocacy groups push to preserve pandemic-era accommodations, modality is being recognized as an issue of equity and inclusion. This sentiment is reflected by the fact that modality was tied for the most popular theme identified among DEI comments in our survey.

Based on our findings, we make the following general recommendations, which we hope will be instructive for colleagues at other institutions looking at these issues:

  • Gather feedback from students and instructors, by conducting surveys or by incorporating students and instructors into any planning around modality.
  • Informed by this feedback, provide and increase training and resources for both HyFlex teaching strategies and classroom technologies.
  • Model HyFlex strategies in the training provided to instructors.
  • Provide students with resources on effective practices for participating in HyFlex courses, whether online or in-person.
  • Proactively provide design consultations, teaching consultations, and contingency planning for courses that are listed as HyFlex or that are in-person with remote attendance options.
  • Offer additional support, such as TAs, for courses that are listed as HyFlex or that are in-person with remote attendance options.
  • Draft HyFlex and remote attendance and participation policies that instructors, departments, and programs can adapt.
  • Update learning spaces with technologies that facilitate HyFlex instruction.
  • Liaise with internal partners, such as a disability resource center or office of classroom management, on these initiatives.

Among these recommendations, several are intended to build instructors' confidence and interest, including ensuring that students and instructors are part of the conversation and provide ongoing input. Increased training, support, and resources can also contribute to instructors' confidence and proficiencies and to students' learning experiences. Modeling good practices in meetings and training environments can improve instructors' trust in the effectiveness of the modality, and policy drafts on remote attendance and participation can help instructors set boundaries and feel more secure in these courses.

Another goal of these recommendations is to ensure that this type of instruction becomes easier for instructors to implement and that they have options to help them manage their cognitive bandwidth. Offering additional onsite support, such as teaching assistants who can help monitor the multiple audiences and the videoconferencing chat, is especially useful toward this end and may also serve as an incentive for some instructors. HyFlex classroom technologies can also help with bandwidth issues, enabling an instructor and students to engage with multiple audiences. At the Humphrey School, we have limited access to HyFlex classrooms; however, we are updating one of the learning spaces for this reason, seeking to make it as user-friendly as possible while emphasizing technologies (e.g., a confidence monitor) that assist the instructor with tracking an online audience.

Along similar lines, generating resources that can be shared with students may also help instructors manage their bandwidth. These resources can provide guidance, expectations, or "ground rules" for online participants regarding how to use a camera, raise their hand, and utilize the chat feature, as well as for in-person participants regarding how they can engage with online participants, especially in classrooms with limited technologies.

At the Humphrey School, we are still discussing next steps, as well as the relevance of these results for our students' circumstances and the significance of trends in higher education, such as declining enrollment in the United States. This survey will inform our work going forward and ultimately will help us assess our success at any modality initiatives that we adopt as we continue to gather data. Moreover, beyond the Humphrey School, we hope to provide other educators with equally valuable insights into HyFlex and remote attendance options at their own institutions.


The authors thank their colleagues who provided feedback on the article as well as on the survey modality questions. Special gratitude goes out to Angela Carter and Emily Ehlinger for their thoughtful comments and suggestions, as well as to Diana Beck, assistant dean of graduate education.


  1. Julian Roberts-Grmela, "More Students Want Virtual-Learning Options: Here's Where the Debate Stands," Chronicle of Higher Education, June 5, 2023. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Jenay Robert, 2022 Students and Technology Report: Rebalancing the Student Experience, research report (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, September 2022). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. The exit survey was first designed in 2022 by Deborah Levison and the "PA 5933: Survey Methods" courses. In the spring of 2023, Asa Olson and Rachel Wittkopp worked with key stakeholders to revise and expand the survey. In the spring of 2023, 159 students graduated from these programs. A total of 114 responses (71.7%) were captured, with 105 responses (66%) completing the survey. This sample size is small, and responses do not constitute a randomized sample; however, meaningful information can be gleaned from the results. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Valerie Irvine, "The Landscape of Merging Modalities," EDUCAUSE Review, October 26, 2020, provides a still-relevant discussion of issues with terminology. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. We believe the following distinctions are important when considering remote attendance options: access is one's ability to benefit or engage with something; access barriers may include such things as transportation, finances, and (full-time) employment; accessibility is the quality/degree of that access. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Sylvia Goodman, "Campuses Are Going Back to Normal. This Group Has One Message: Stop," Chronicle of Higher Education, September 2, 2022. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.

Asa Olson is Assistant Director of Academic Technology, Academic Programs, at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

Rachel Wittkopp is a 2023 Master of Public Policy graduate of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

© 2024 Asa Olson and Rachel Wittkopp