Can HyFlex Options Support Students in the Midst of Uncertainty?

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When campuses closed due to the spread of the coronavirus and the threat posed by the COVID-19 illness, faculty who were teaching HyFlex classes were already prepared to teach high-quality, fully online courses.

small teacher and student caricatures in front of a laptop display
Credit: GraphicSurfCom / © 2020

Over the last several months, there have been many discussions in our professional networks about faculty and institutions looking to "HyFlex" courses for the next academic year as one way to manage the expected physical distancing requirements and the ongoing public health concerns about face-to-face contact in educational settings.1 The classic HyFlex (hybrid-flexible) course design model supports both in-class and online students in the same class sections, typically by using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online participation paths for students who choose not to, or are unable to, participate in traditional classroom instruction.

The term HyFlex originates from faculty work to support both online and traditional students—without developing a completely separate online master's degree program—in the Instructional Technologies master of arts program at San Francisco State University.2 Many other institutions followed similar paths in undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, often branding their "student-directed hybrid" approach with terms such as Peirce Fit®, BlendFlex, Comodal, Trimodal, FlexLearning, Multi-Options, Mode Neutral, Converged Learning, Multi-Access Learning, and Flexibly Adaptive Learning Environment. Other major design efforts combine classroom and online synchronous learning but do not allow students to switch participation modes during the course. These approaches include Blendsync, Remote Live Participation, gxLearning, and Synchronous Learning in Distributed Environments.

The high level of interest currently focused on HyFlex raises questions from those new to this approach. These questions are essentially the same as those that innovative educators have been answering for every major new course approach over the last century. Does this work? Can (and do) students learn as well in a HyFlex environment as they do in a traditional classroom? Perhaps new to the discussion is the acknowledgment that well-designed online instruction works effectively when appropriately implemented. In most settings, educators aren't asking whether online instruction works or whether students can learn as effectively online as they can in the classroom. In most cases, the answer to these questions is "yes" and is supported by an extensive body of research. HyFlex doesn't have that extensive body of supporting research, but hundreds of institutions of all types are using HyFlex (by any name), and many of these institutions have been conducting initial studies of their own to test and revise their approaches and documenting the achievement of their unique set of HyFlex goals.3

From the beginning, individual faculty, support staff, and institutional leaders have supported research into the effectiveness and efficacy of HyFlex course design. The majority of this early research focused on courses design descriptions (how and what to build), student participation patterns (How do they "flex"?), student preferences (they generally love having the options control over their experience), and gross learning outcomes comparing HyFlex to traditional classroom instruction (Do grades change?). In the work conducted at San Francisco State, faculty wanted to be very sure they were not inadvertently disadvantaging students by providing "dangerous" paths that could lead to weaker learning.4 The focus of emerging research (before the coronavirus pandemic) has shifted to include more questions about student and teacher engagement in HyFlex courses, especially looking at improving the engagement of synchronous online students in the live classroom experience. The work of colleagues in the "Blendsync" area has contributed significantly to the understanding of effective practices and which environmental setups better support synchronous engagement across participation modes.5

Faculty frequently ask how much extra work is required to design, build, and facilitate a HyFlex course. Clearly, more effort is required to build out the online course-participation mode for HyFlex than simply refreshing a previously taught classroom course. At most institutions, this work is completed by faculty, with additional support from instructional designers as needed. Many faculty want to know if it takes twice as much work to prepare to teach an online class as it takes to prepare to teach a face-to-face class. It could, but in most cases it doesn't take close to twice as much time. The more experience faculty have using digital methods in hybrid or online courses, the less additional effort they may need to put forth to design and build the online path. When designing for HyFlex, three primary instructional tasks are typically considered: (1) providing content, (2) evaluating learning, and (3) engaging students throughout the course.

Content used in face-to-face delivery can (and should be) provided to online students as well. This may not require any additional work if materials are already available in digital format and posted to the LMS. Likewise, new content created for online students should be provided to classroom students. Assessment approaches may need to change to serve online students, but most faculty are able to use identical or very similar assessment strategies for students in both modes. If a faculty member decided to shift from a high-stakes testing format to an "authentic assessment" approach in which comprehensive projects or papers are used for learning assessment instead of tests, then more work may be involved, especially in evaluating learning and providing feedback to students. Engaging with students who are participating online will require new approaches, though the effort required may not be substantial. For example, faculty can engage with synchronous online students during the regular class session by using most web conferencing tools. Incorporating multiple methods of engagement may take some new skills, but it can be managed. Some faculty recruit student volunteers from the classroom to help facilitate online synchronous students. If an asynchronous track is provided, faculty are likely to facilitate discussion forums to support learning between class sessions. Facilitating discussion forums may require more of a change to workflow than an increase in workload. Scheduling several twenty-to-thirty-minute discussion moderation periods per workweek may be sufficient for most classes. Some faculty also recruit (or assign) student facilitators to help with larger class discussions.

If an on-campus program is planned for the coming academic year, physical distancing requirements will almost certainly prevent full classrooms at normal seating capacity. A variety of blended or traditional hybrid solutions can help institutions meet these new requirements. In a traditional hybrid course, the instructor directly enforces participation, and in-class time is limited for all students. The instructor directly enforces how students participate (in class or online). HyFlex courses, on the other hand, may be able to support students who need or want to be in class all the time. Some students may not be able (or want) to attend classes in person at all, given the public health uncertainty. (Cleanliness and health safety on public transit systems, in classrooms, and throughout public campus spaces could all present significant challenges to in-class participation.) A well-designed HyFlex class, with effective alternative participation modes that all lead to the same learning outcomes, can provide meaningful learning opportunities for all students.

When campuses closed due to the spread of the coronavirus and the threat posed by the COVID-19 illness, faculty who were teaching HyFlex classes were already prepared to teach high-quality, fully online courses. No (or perhaps very little) development was needed to transition these classes to fully online delivery. Looking ahead, if it becomes necessary to close campuses again for almost any reason (natural disaster, smoke and fire threats, transit system interruption, or the next pandemic), students and faculty in HyFlex classes should be able to continue without interruption in fully online mode. The capacity for instructional continuity may prove valuable to all stakeholders.

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  1. For examples, see Doug Lederman, "The Shift to Remote and What's Ahead for Fall: Your Turn," Inside Higher Ed, May 6, 2020.
  2. Brian J. Beatty, "Beginnings: Where Does Hybrid-Flexible Come From?" in Hybrid-Flexible Course Design: Implementing Student-Centered Hybrid Classes, ed. Brian J. Beatty (EdTech Books, 2019).
  3. Brian J. Beatty, "Evaluating the Impact of Hybrid-Flexible Courses and Programs," in Hybrid-Flexible Course Design: Implementing Student-Centered Hybrid Classes, ed. Brian J. Beatty (EdTech Books, 2019).
  4. Ibid.
  5. For a summary of the research-supported best practices in this area, see Matt Bower et al., "Blended Synchronous Learning: A Handbook for Educators," Sydney: Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching, 2014.

Brian Beatty is an Associate Professor of Instructional Technologies at San Francisco State University.

© 2020 Brian Beatty. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.