Can hyflex be made to work?

Can hyflex be made to work?
Photo by Dennis Brekke / Unsplash

Mention the word hyflex to college faculty today and you might need to start running for your life. This term – referring to a mode of course delivery where the course is offered in face-to-face and online modes simultaneously ("hybrid") and students choose on a regular basis which mode they want to use ("flexible") – went from an obscure notion based in the work of Brian Beatty at San Francisco State University, to the hottest topic in the higher education universe during Summer 2020, to a concept that was both the darling of higher ed administrators and the bane of many college professors' existences.

Administrators and some faculty (including myself) liked the idea of hyflex because, on paper, it neatly solved the problem of social distancing and quarantining in class. (If you are in quarantine or just don't feel like coming to campus for any reason at all – switch to the online delivery. Otherwise show up.) But in practice, many faculty using hyflex (including, er, myself) found it to be exhausting and not particularly effective.

That's putting it mildly. For many faculty I've spoken to, hyflex is the course-design-paradigm-that-cannot-be-named. It triggers more high blood pressure incidents than flipped learning or active learning, which is really saying something. Many faculty tried hyflex last year β€” many of those were made to try it β€” without the support or knowledge they needed and it was a horrific experience. "Hyflex" for many is now a toxic brand.

But given the current state of higher education and the emerging needs of learners, a concrete way to commit to an empowered educational experience for learners is to give them options for how they engage with their classroom instruction and the flexibility to choose the option that works best for them in the moment. And that means, as much as we might not want to admit it, it's time to give hyflex another look and think about how we might make it work, not only for students but for faculty and everyone else.

Recap of my experience

I set up one of my Fall 2020 classes in a sort of DIY-hyflex setup. The class had Monday/Wednesday/Friday meetings and the students were divided in to Group A and Group B. Group A was in person on Monday while Group B was participating synchronously online through a Zoom live-stream; this was reversed on Wednesdays; and everybody was synchronously online on Fridays. But, I decided to allow any student who wanted to opt out of their group's in-person meeting day, to be online with the other group on that day. Later on I let students do the reverse (opt into an in-person meeting on their group's online day). I also set up an asynchronous option for students if they wanted.

So students could pick from these three modalities on any day, no questions asked and no prior permission needed. That's the classic hyflex setup.

It was a really interesting experience, but a mixed one:

  • Students definitely appreciated and liked the options and choice, and it did resolve some potential pandemic/Covid related issues.
  • Since I teach using flipped learning and active learning, the course preparation was more than if I were using just a single modality β€” but not incredibly more. Everyone regardless of modality was doing the same flipped learning pre-class work. Everyone but the asynchronous people was doing the same in-class activities. It was maybe 10% more work than a single modality β€” if you don't count the asynchronous part.
  • Counting the asynchronous part, it significantly added to the workload. I couldn't just repurpose the in-class activity; I had to rebuild it to be a self-paced, individual version of the activity that was equally challenging and taught the concepts equally well. That's not easy. It takes time, and you're not guaranteed that anybody will even need it, since students can choose modalities at will.
  • I think many students were not well-served by context-switching so often. Some would choose modalities based on convenience or preconceptions rather than on what really helps them learn best, and it hurt them.
  • But the hardest thing about the setup was that we never really gelled into a cohesive social unit as a class. When you see the same people in class, or when you see the same people in Zoom meetings, week after week you begin to form a relationship with them based on the place even if the "place" is online. But when people are switching up modalities at will, this place-association never happens. By the end, I felt like we never made progress in becoming a community of learners and that more than anything was a major downside.

I have frequently said that if there is a way to teach with hyflex that is sustainable for the faculty member and effective for the student, I haven't yet seen it and certainly haven't yet practiced it.

What will it take to get hyflex right?

But, I've also frequently said that it's too bad that I didn't crack the code on hyflex last Fall β€” too bad, because on paper, it still seems like an amazing idea that benefits students. If you keep teaching focused on active learning it should (!) really minimize the overhead. And the technology, and our comfort level with it, has gotten to the point where I think we can use it effectively to mediate that active learning. Β 

So, I really think that it's time to think seriously about how to do hyflex right. I think so, because learners want – and benefit from – the flexibility that hyflex affords. Also because we have no idea what history will throw at us next, and being able to adapt quickly to the next End of the World seems like a good idea.

What will it take to get to the point where hyflex is something we can use with confidence?

  • Hyflex course design cannot entail a significant increase in faculty workloads. I still say that hyflex doesn't double the amount of work it takes to prepare a course. But it does add a lot to faculty's plates, especially to contingent and pre-tenure faculty without the experience or familiarity with teaching or the institution. In other words, designing a hyflex course really needs to be no more than maybe 1.2 times the amount of work it takes to teach a single-mode course. It cannot amount to two preps for the same course. Whatever innovations in teaching or course design or anything else need to take place to make that happen, need to happen first.
  • There has to be the realization that hyflex is an emerging instructional paradigm, and faculty need compensation and air cover for trying it. A move toward hyflex cannot come as a top-down edict. It's an innovation, and like all innovations, it needs to be driven by incentives and through small skunkworks of like-minded faculty who don't mind giving it a go, and who are well-supported in their efforts by the institution. Get a small group of faculty started, give them some resources (both time and money), maybe exempt them from traditional course evaluations for the year, and have them take notes, share ideas, and do research on what happens.
  • Also training for faculty β€” in the technology needed to make hyflex work, and also in the core pedagogies that keep it from turning your life into endless work: Active learning, peer instruction, flipped learning, and more. You just can't ask faculty to do something as radical as hyflex without giving them the tools.
  • Some reasonable limitations need to be spelled out for the "flex" part. Giving students unlimited flexibility is good but extreme. It was certainly what caused the most work for me, in my experience – not knowing from day to day how many would be in the room (Would there be enough students for the group activity I had planned?) or asynchronous (Do I even need to make out the parallel asynchronous course work?). Putting some reasonable limits on this seems like a prerequisite to making hyflex functional. Β For example, maybe students should have to declare their modality not day-to-day but every week or two weeks, and then commit to that modality for that period.

The question in the headline isn't really the right one. Hyflex can certainly be made to work β€” there are faculty right now who are making it work, and doing very well with it. The question is really, can hyflex be positioned as something that faculty, students, and institutions all want to use? I sense the answer is "yes", but we have some groundwork to lay first. Β 

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.