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COVID-19 Planning for Fall 2020: A Closer Look at Hybrid-Flexible Course Design

Since I have only written guest blog posts, many of you won’t know of my plans to write a modern-day, Gulliver’s Travels-esque satire. The hero or anti-hero – I haven’t yet decided which – travels time instead of oceans. Namely, he can jump to different possible futures and see the repercussions of present day decisions. How many of us would like that ability right now, as we make decisions about fall 2020?

I bring this up because I recently included a brief paragraph about how we should “consider ‘hybrid flexible’ course design to support ‘remote flexible’ courses” in the fall. I then followed up on this idea in “Considering Hybrid (Flexible) Models,” a podcast episode conversation with colleagues Phil Hill and Jeanette Wiseman. And then I replied to questions and comments on listservs (e.g., a thread on the POD Network discussion group) and Twitter (see below).

While I see the hybrid flexible approach – HyFlex for short – to be just one possibility among several, it really does offer a clear opportunity to begin working on fall courses now, without waiting for institutions to decide a) if campuses will be open to students in fall 2020, b) how many students might be allowed to return to campus, c) how they would respond to a mid-term resurgence of COVID-19 cases, and so on. In organizational change scenarios, ambiguity is one of the biggest challenges for any community and one of the biggest potential impediments to progress and success. Being able to choose a path during a time of uncertainty provides more time for course planning, professional development, preparation for student support, and even technology adoption, as appropriate.

Rightfully, people want to know more about the HyFlex model – how effective it has (or hasn’t) proven to be, how faculty would respond to the idea, how much work would be involved, to what extent students are successful when they choose different participation options, and much, much more. So, I decided to take a closer look at HyFlex along with its pros and cons. Here’s what I’ve put together so far.

The World (Re)Discovered HyFlex

If you’re new to the idea of HyFlex course design, I can explain it by way of comparison. In typical hybrid courses, the instructor makes most of the choices, such as when the class will meet in person or online, and the percentage of each format over the term (e.g., 50/50; two-thirds online, one-third face-to-face). In HyFlex courses, students decide when and how they participate – that is, for each and every class meeting they can choose to sit in the classroom or to join via videoconference (Zoom, Adobe Connect) in real-time, or they can watch the recording and complete online activities later. The approach adheres to four core values or principles, listed here as stated in Brian Beatty’s book:

  1. Learner Choice:Provide meaningful alternative participation modes and enable students to choose between participation modes daily, weekly, or topically.

  2. Equivalency:Provide learning activities in all participation modes which lead to equivalent learning outcomes.

  3. Reusability: Utilize artifacts from learning activities in each participation mode as “learning objects’ for all students.

  4. Accessibility: Equip students with technology skills and equitable access to all participation modes.

In the spirit of transparency, our entire Instructional Technologies department at San Francisco State University put every graduate course into HyFlex format, primarily to support working adult students who needed flexibility to participate in and complete classes that started at 4 pm, requiring them to leave work at 3 pm or earlier to arrive on time. When my colleague, Brian, introduced the HyFlex format to our department in 2006 or so, it was a novel idea. Perhaps even an idea slightly before its time.

The question today seems to be, is now its time? If you’re seeking proven strategies to prepare for the fall, then yes, it’s time for HyFlex – even if it will share that time with other design solutions. The “flexible” part of the HyFlex title maps to other professional developers’ thinking right now, as they use terms like “pivot” and “resilient” to describe course design prep for fall 2020.

Personally I’m a fan because it aligns with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles. [In fact, stay tuned for next week’s episode of the ThinkUDL podcast, featuring host Lillian Nave’s interview of yours truly!] HyFlex not only provides multiple pathways for students to participate in class meetings, but also multiple pathways to reach the learning outcomes. It also puts students in the driver’s seat and increases learning equity, both of which are some of my own core values.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw a tweet this week by my friend and colleague, Claire Howell Major, author of Teaching Online. She wrote:

In my course this term, from the start, students could do the learning module 100% asynchronous online, could come to f2f class sessions, or could zoom to class sessions. And they could choose which to do each module. Apparently, there’s a word for that: hyflex. Who knew?

That one tweet alone got at least 360 likes by the time I started writing this blog post. A number of people also tweeted replies to Claire, sharing how they were doing something similar, just under a different name, including but not limited to “flex” (@sherrirestauri), “high flex” (@dthomasg), “building more resilient courses” (@pontesmanny1), and “comodal” (@nadianaffi).

For faculty who expressed interest in following suit, Claire rightfully suggested “if folks want to do this particular approach, they should start working on it now.” Along the same lines back on April 22, Edward Malony and Joshua Kim described the HyFlex model as one of 15 Fall Scenarios: “The HyFlex model is perhaps the most flexible and for many will be the most attractive. It is also possibly one of the more difficult approaches for faculty.” While I strongly recommend Brian Beatty’s book, Hybrid-Flexible Course Design, I want to answer some of the questions about HyFlex that I’ve seen this week on the Interwebs.

A few implications of adopting HyFlex

HyFlex courses attract fewer students in person

It’s likely that you will end up with fewer students in person. During this spring’s emergency remote teaching, a high percentage of students expressed appreciation for being able to watch a recording if they could not join a class meeting in real-time via videoconference. At SF State, a large Intro to Marketing class with over 300 students shifted to an almost HyFlex model when the contract with a neighboring movie theater ended. The class meetings were conducted in person, but students also could join via videoconference or could watch the recording later. On any given day, about 15-25% of the students would come to class in person, meaning that the campus no longer needed to reserve spill-over rooms to accommodate whoever couldn’t fit in the largest room available. Over ten years, the class grew to over 1500 students per term, while the ratio of students attending in person did not change much.

We saw similar ratios in the active Twitter exchange started by Claire Major. Claire reported that 6 out of 36 students (~17%) came to the in-class sessions, 6 to 10 (~17-27%) participated via videoconference in real-time, and the rest (over 50%) participated asynchronously. In the same Tweet thread, Nadia Naffi (@nadianaffi) shared that 8 out of 30 students (~27%) participated in classroom meetings, 18 (60%) were live via videoconference, and the rest (over 30%) completed activities asynchronously. [NOTE: Knowing that our students are craving human contact after staying at home for months, there could be an initial period when a higher percentage of students want to be in the classroom.]

HyFlex courses require more planning

It’s true that HyFlex courses take more planning and effort, but not as much as you might think. For example, it takes a couple of extra minutes to start up a video conference session and press record. However, you can start the session on a laptop before you enter the classroom and just “let the students in” when you’re ready to start. After delivering your in-class lecture, you have your recording for the asynchronous group.

Let’s say you want to conduct a “think-pair-share” activity. You just need to add two bullets to your instructions:

…Okay. No matter where you are in time and space, I want you to think about [topic X] or answer the following [question Y]. Write down your ideas for one minute only.

  • If you’re in the room, turn to a (distant) neighbor and share what you wrote.

  • If you’re on the videoconference, I’ll put you in breakout groups of 2 or 3.

  • If you’re watching the recording, press pause and participate in the Think-Pair-Share discussion forum. Then come back and press play. I’ll summarize the ideas of the people who are live.

While the students take 60 seconds to jot down their ideas, you turn to the computer and assign students to breakout groups. You do have to set up the discussion forum prompt ahead of time, but then you can copy and paste it as a “script” to introduce the in-class activity. Even better, I suggest creating a “run of show” document for each class session.

Update 6/12/2020: In response to a request on the POD Network listserv, I created a “run of show” Google doc with examples of a 50-minute HyFlex class session and a 75-minute HyFlex class session. Specifically, I wanted to see what types of typical in-class activities would work for different length HyFlex course sessions, as it may take more time to prepare students and conduct an activity with students participating in different ways. I based my examples on research-based practices, such as breaking the class session into mini-lectures paired with activities. This reduces cognitive load and gives students a chance to work with a concept before moving onto a new idea.

Below I have pasted just a few rows to give you an idea, but go see the full Creative Commons document which you are free to use and adapt.

There is still much to explore. Thanks to feedback from POD Network colleagues like Lauren Rosen who provided feedback on an early draft, we can get an idea of how long it might take to run an activity in a HyFlex environment. For example, the “think-pair-share” activity I suggested above might take 15 minutes in a HyFlex environment compared to 10 minutes in a traditional classroom environment. Five minutes may not seem like a big difference, but if you have a 50-minute class session, you may choose activities more judiciously. As I continue to work on the Google doc with examples, I will build out a library of time estimates for some common activities.

End of Update 6/12/2020

Some HyFlex pros and cons


  • Given that at least 50% and usually more students prefer a virtual format, campuses can both maintain close to normal class sizes and limit the number of students in a classroom (so they can sit 6 feet apart). Even more traditional hybrid classes can be modified to be HyFlex. For example, half of the students come on Tuesday, the other half on Thursday. On the off day, you participate online or asynchronously. It’d be a little like Mexico City’s No-Drive Days (“Hoy No Circula”), which are designed to reduce traffic emissions.

  • Faculty still have a live audience. One reason why the Intro to Marketing instructor liked the hybrid format better than a fully online course was that he didn’t like recording lectures behind a monitor. He wanted to see students’ faces to determine if they understood the concepts.

  • Having fewer students in person potentially means faculty can give more attention to students who need it. With 30 to 50% of students being asynchronous, you actually can engage with more students across three modalities – in person, via videoconference, and in discussions – than you could if everyone were in the room.

  • Students have more control over their learning experience.

  • Students like the HyFlex format and can perform just as well as in traditional courses. A study of a large, undergraduate statistics course (N=161) reported “substantially positive feedback from students” and “‘no significant difference’ in student performance among those using different participation modes.” In a study of a large, graduate (MBA) course (N=156), “just as many students completed the course successfully as before (approximately 90%) and … the achievement gap between classroom and remote or online students was effectively eliminated.” For more impact data, see the Cons below and Brian’s review of over a dozen studies about the impact of HyFlex.


  • Having three groups of students means faculty have to keep track of each participation group in different ways. To control the flow, you may have to have more formal “Q&A breaks” rather than allowing informal questions on the fly. Otherwise, you risk forgetting to look for videoconference questions or you have to assign a student to be the “chat jockey” – someone who lets you know when a videoconference participant has a question. Not everyone likes having to pay continuous partial attention to different modalities, and even if you’re adept it can cause mental fatigue.

  • Beyond “keeping track” of the students, faculty have to engage asynchronous learners just as much as synchronous learners. A study of a large, undergraduate engineering course found that in-class attendance may have led to better scores on a difficult exam. Brian’s review of the study framed it this way:It’s not enough to leave learners on their own to watch videos, read reference materials, complete problem sets and take quizzes online. …Especially when learning course content is difficult, and motivation to learn may be low, additional effort from instructors (and TA’s when available) to engage with online students may be helpful.

  • Although they are able to attend to more students’ needs, faculty will be doing more work than they would for most traditional on-ground classes. It’s more on par with the workload for a fully online course.

  • On certain days the number of in person students may feel too small – both to the teacher and to the students in the room. In these cases, it helps to lean on the videoconference participants.

  • Although they gain flexibility, students need to take greater responsibility in completing learning tasks. This means that the teacher and the campus both have to be proactive in preparing students to be successful.

Closing thoughts

Again, there are other course design approaches out there to create flexible or resilient courses for the fall. I’m thinking about exploring some of those others as well. For now, though, I know that HyFlex courses would allow classes to continue in the Fall under almost any circumstances – starting on campus, starting off campus, having to make another mid-term transition, whatever. The examples and impact studies I mentioned above cover all types of courses – large and small, graduate and undergraduate. In a follow-up post I’ll go into more detail about where HyFlex might be most effective. If this has piqued your interest, go check out Brian’s book to get the full scoop and keep the questions coming. Share what you’re doing along similar lines – HyFlex, flex, co-modal, whatever – and share other, different ways you’re preparing for the fall as well.