Slouching toward HyFlex

by Sunita

In my part of the Coronavirus world, one of the biggest questions is how we are going to teach in the fall. Our Chancellor has assured us that we will have a fall semester. But what that semester is going to look like is still being hashed out by various committees. The ambiguity is not just hard on students but on faculty who teach (faculty research is already a mess but that’s a whole ‘nother post). We know we’re not going to be teaching Fall 2020 the way we started Spring 2020, but we also know that we have to be more prepared and put together more coherent instruction than most of us managed in the week and a half we had to pivot to emergency remote learning.

The Cal State system just announced that it would be fully online in the fall. But most colleges and universities, especially elite residential institutions, fear losing a substantial number of their fee-paying students if they do the same. The on-campus experience is a major part of the attraction they charge such high prices for, and the comprehensive undergraduate and professional experience depends on face-to-face interaction. This interaction is not just about classroom- and lab-based learning, but all kinds of extra-curricular and extended learning activities, from clubs to internships to clinical placements. And, though no one really wants to talk about it, housing and fees are lucrative for most institutions now. If it turns out that the health situation makes bringing students back to campus too risky, then we’ll have to go fully online. But as of now the administration is looking for ways to have something resembling campus life.

We have been told what is not happening. We are unlikely to begin earlier than usual; we aren’t going to shift to block scheduling; and the overall duration of the semesters is going to remain close to the same. What’s left is starting at the same time or later, but if it’s later then we’re essentially time-shifting and that’s it in terms of the schedule. I wondered about this, but then I realized that it would be very difficult to reschedule all the classes. You’d essentially have to make up the new timetable with course times and days, go back to the departments and have them reschedule all of their classes, then have the registrar assign classrooms on this new basis, and then run student registration all over again. It’s possible but becomes increasingly more difficult the larger your student enrollment is.

What will teaching look like (everything else is above my pay grade, thankfully)? Students and instructors in classrooms will have to practice social distancing, which means the number of students per room has to shrink considerably. Small seminars have to be moved into bigger rooms, medium-sized lectures into larger lecture halls (of which we only have a few), and so on. It’s probably not logistically possible to have everyone physically in class even if they’re in residence.

Enter HyFlex. This is a term that I didn’t know until this week, and now I’m seeing it everywhere. I guess if you’re in educational development, etc. you’re familiar with it, but it’s been years since I was in that part of the system. Inside Higher Ed has jumped with both feet onto the HyFlex bandwagon and you can read stories about it here and here, with lots of links available to follow if you’re interested. Essentially, the name is a portmanteau of Hybrid and Flexible and it was developed at Cal State San Francisco to accommodate students who had difficulty attending classes in person. SFSU, as I’ve always known it, is an urban campus with a lot of adult learners who have work and family responsibilities which prevent them from following a traditional undergraduate curriculum, so HyFlex was developed as a way they could either attend classes in person or follow the course via online options. It combines synchronous and asynchronous, face-to-face and virtual learning, and one of its big selling points is that students decide, for each class meeting, whether they want to come to class or complete the material and requirements from a distance. The professor has the responsibility to make the two options equally effective (and presumably equally appealing).

You can see why this is attractive to administrators who are currently on a short clock. Faculty have to know very soon whether they will be expected to design or re-design their courses to fit new platforms. We can’t get away with “emergency remote learning” after six months of pandemic time, but there also isn’t the time to teach faculty to develop fully online courses. And the universities don’t want to say they’re doing that anyway, because there’s already enough dissatisfaction with the changes that have been and continue to have to be made. So we choose a method that promises at least some in-class, face-to-face learning and emphasizes that it’s the student’s decision. (I’ll be curious to see how much student choice is retained in our version, because with a lot of the constraints we’re facing no one really gets choices.)

I’ve now read quite a bit about HyFlex and I’m still not sure how it works. I get the in-or-out-of-class part, and I get that course material and instruction have to be available online, but I can’t get a sense of what an actual week in the semester looks like. What if everyone is on campus and wants to come to class? Unless I have a qualifying room space they can’t. So perhaps they sign up for in-class slots? How does participation work? Is it synchronous with an asynchronous backup of the same material, or is it synchronous with an alternative delivery of the material for the asynchronous crowd? If everyone is on campus then we can be assured of internet access and connectivity quality, but if they’re not, how does that affect our expectations of participation and work completion?

And all of these are logistical, relatively technical questions. They don’t go to the heart of what I do, which is transmit substance and develop both expertise and analytical skills. I keep reading about “learning outcomes,” but those differ from topic to topic, not just discipline to discipline. Learning outcomes in a methods course, a policy analysis course, a political theory course, and a topics course are assessed in different ways, and that’s just in one discipline. They’re all trying to develop “critical thinking” but they’re not all the same kinds of critical thinking, so telling us that critical thinking is a goal is reassuring but not concretely helpful. We already have ways of assessing outcomes for our individual classes, but what is a satisfactory outcome in a hybrid class where you don’t know in advance who’s going to be in class and who isn’t? One of the experts on HyFlex whose discussions I’ve been following seems obsessed with how to track attendance and repeatedly gives examples of how HyFlex helped her do that. I’m glad it did, but since that’s not a problem for me, I kind of need it to help me do other things, and I’m not hearing those solutions. So much of the discussion operates at a level far above the nitty-gritty of what goes on day to day in my classrooms.

There’s also a tendency to knock down the strawman of “long lectures to bored students,” which is undoubtedly a problem but not the main one we face right now. One of the best teachers in my program is an internationally renowned scholar in her subject. She teaches old style, with lecturing combined with the Socratic method. Students line up to take her courses because she’s not just knowledgeable, she’s fantastic in the classroom. Her waitlists are enormous. And yet she basically lectures, just like one of my best professors did when I was at the University of Chicago decades ago (he also had to cap his classes and turn away students). Another of our most in-demand professors combines PowerPoint with lively in-class discussion in a way that I would love to be able to do. Yet another has a flipped classroom. All of these choices work for the professors and the students, and there is no single way that they can all be adapted to a hybrid model. So who’s going to help them with their transitions? A teaching center where everyone’s degree is in educational instruction and development (or a humanities field) and no one has experience with the substance of many of the courses being redesigned? I’m skeptical.

I also want to push back hard against the idea that traditional classrooms have everything happening in the class. This position has been advanced in the discussion about flipped classrooms and used to argue that having students do work before they come into the class meeting is better for learning outcomes and pedagogy. HELLO. WE KNOW THAT. I don’t know anyone teaching substantive and topics classes who doesn’t tell their students that they are expected to do the class readings before the meetings so that we can explore the subject more fully and in a more sophisticated way. Lots of us also have students complete response papers or the equivalent before class to help them think through the material. What’s most different in flipped classrooms, from what I can tell, is the order in which stuff happens, not the actual learning; although, again, this is going to vary by how course materials are structured. But stop using bad teaching methods and slacker instructors as the rationale for changing everything. Engage with the existing good teaching methods. A bad instructor isn’t necessarily going to do a flipped classroom better than a traditional classroom. Technique doesn’t fix quality/commitment.

My gut instinct right now is to prepare my courses to be fully online, with both synchronous and asynchronous components, and with the expectation that some students will have suboptimal internet connections and study environments. The two areas where I know I need to make changes are in the level and quality of student-to-student interactions and out of class teacher-student interactions, so I’m looking at small group activities (which I always have in my classes anyway) and one-on-one tutorials (which I’ve also had in various classes). We need some way for the students to get to know each other when they aren’t coming to class together every week, and some way for them to get to know me.

The two goals in that last sentence are ones that the HyFlex model was absolutely not designed to facilitate, but it’s critical to address for institutions like mine. So many of the studies of HyFlex and similar course models start with solutions for non-residential students. If you take an online course because you need the asynchronous component, then of course you’re not going to complain that there weren’t enough synchronous components. By contrast, one comment we’ve seen repeatedly from students this past semester (not just in my university but across the spectrum) is that they prefer having synchronous class options because they miss their fellow students, they need the structure, and they want the continuity of the class they started with.

There is no single path to a satisfactory system for higher education. Higher education is an umbrella under which a multitude of institutional forms coexist. I frequently see comments criticizing the emphasis on elite colleges and universities’ situations when those are so different from the issues faced by teaching-focused colleges, community colleges, commuter-dominated campuses, and the like. But the reverse is true too. What works for SFSU can’t be ported wholesale to Swarthmore. They’re both teaching and they’re both good at what they do. But they do it in different ways, serving different populations.

The one silver lining for me is that there is no way on our campus that faculty are going to do anything in lockstep, and the administration is not even going to try to make that happen. The worst outcome will be more muddling along, the best outcome will be different but successful adaptations based on different needs and conditions. The reality will probably fall somewhere in between. In the meantime, beware of educational consultants telling you they have the solution to problems the likes of which none of us have ever seen before.