As pandemic-related restrictions ease and pressures to return to campus increase, higher education institutions are pivoting away from remote instruction and towards what many call HyFlex learning, a hybrid-flexible format in which students attend class sessions in person or virtually, while faculty toggle their attention between environments.
As Professor Kevin Gannon recently observed, “HyFlex courses are hard to build, and even harder to teach.” Many faculty are concerned that they expose students to the worst of both (onsite and online) worlds. In a recent small and unscientific Twitter poll, I asked faculty to tell me what they thought of HyFlex instruction and the most popular response was “Byeflex!” In other words, HyFlex is having a somewhat rocky go of it.
To be fair, what most faculty and students are experiencing is not true HyFlex learning. The model was developed in very specific contexts, none of which align with a pandemic use case. Nevertheless, institutions are forging ahead, and many are framing the challenges of HyFlex as purely technical: If online students could only better see and hear what was happening in the physical classroom, institutions could more effectively support HyFlex learning.
As a result, many campus IT departments are investing heavily in additional classroom communication technologies, like room cameras, in-ceiling microphones, and 360 all-in-one conferencing equipment. These investments are most likely misguided. At its core, the challenge of HyFlex is pedagogical, and the technical problems that campus IT leaders are being asked to solve result from unsurfaced and potentially faulty pedagogical assumptions. Fix the assumptions, and the technical problems might fix themselves.
Widespread HyFlex adoption has many drivers, not all of them pedagogical. We know from years of educational research and experience that online learning can engage students in powerfully active, authentic, collaborative learning. However, many faculty are moving away from online and towards HyFlex learning. They are resolved to “keep teaching” by returning as quickly as possible to what they assume offers the best student experience: onsite, synchronous learning.
Some students will benefit from returning to the physical classroom–those with limited internet access, who need academic environments to help them prepare to learn, or who need physical proximity to initiate social interactions, to name a few. However, see Gannon’s article for a cringy but realistic sample of what a HyFlex class discussion can sound like. Seamless integration between onsite and online learning spaces for classroom discussion is difficult. Moreover, pandemic-related physical restrictions are still in place, so onsite interactions are not what they once were. Spaced seating, face-shielding, and masking offer significant impediments to inspirational classroom interactions.
Therefore, it is worth asking whether the pivot to HyFlex learning is motivated by evidence that it will inspire richer classroom interactions or whether it is merely the closest option we have to normalcy.
One of the known difficulties of HyFlex learning is its tendency to privilege onsite students while making online students feel as if they are observers. While onsite participants engage without the need for technology, online participants must negotiate three filters:
When institutions seeking to improve HyFlex learning focus entirely on optimizing onsite classroom technologies, they assume that the onsite classroom is the preferred setting for learning. What if they challenged that assumption and optimized the virtual classroom instead?
Audio and visual output for all students would run through the videoconferencing application, and onsite students would wear headsets with microphones to hear and speak. Onsite students still access the benefits of their location: institutional internet access, academic surroundings, physical proximity to peers and instructors for informal social engagement. However, using the virtual classroom to engage all students reduces the cognitive burden to faculty (because they are working in a single environment) while also unifying discussion, presentation, polling, and whiteboard spaces. Furthermore, videoconferencing breakout rooms support small-group interactions better than physical space, at least until spaced-seating requirements are lifted.
Additionally, focusing on virtual classroom technologies has the added benefit of allowing campus ITs to leverage technologies that were purchased for remote instruction and limiting additional spending needed to upgrade onsite classroom technologies.
Immediately after the shift to remote instruction, colleges and universities created and published online resources to help faculty keep teaching. The just-in-time tutorials and support links are very useful, but the name, “keep teaching,” is misleading. Faculty cannot keep teaching without first rethinking their assumptions, strategies, and practices within the context of our times.
We are living through a moment in which conditions for in-person instruction are still precarious and business is not as usual. HyFlex classes offer solutions for students who absolutely must have access to physical, on-campus resources. However, the restricted opening of physical classrooms does not automatically negate the proven potential of digital learning technologies. When campus IT leaders are asked to support HyFlex learning initiatives, it is imperative that they keep an open mind, ask questions to help surface pedagogical assumptions, and consider online as well as onsite technology solutions as part of their strategies.
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