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COVID-19 Planning for Spring 2021: What We Learned About Hybrid Flexible Courses in Fall 2020

Given that the coronavirus is resurging, mutating and more, we know that Phase 3 of higher education’s response to COVID-19 will continue into spring 2021 (see Phil Hill’s updated chart of all 4 phases below). Last spring, I took a closer look at hybrid flexible course design as one option to maintain instructional continuity in fall 2020. Now that 2020 is over, it behooves us to explore fall 2020 implementations of hybrid flexible, or HyFlex, courses and to derive lessons that will help us better support students and faculty this spring.

Four phases of higher ed response to Covid-19, from rapid transition in Spring 20 thru new normal in late 2021 and beyond

How Did Campuses Describe the HyFlex Experience?

In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” HyFlex by any other name usually implies a different set of initial conditions. Even using the term HyFlex can mean something different from school to school. This makes it important for institutions to operationally define their approach so students know what to expect. With this in mind, I took a spin around the country to see how different colleges and universities described the then-upcoming fall 2020 learning experience. I even made a Google map, pictured below. [NOTE: Visit the “Many Flavors of HyFlex” Google map for links and more details. I’m sure I missed quite a few, so please share other large-scale, hybrid flexible implementations in the comments below.]

Here is a breakdown of just a few HyFlex iterations:

How Did People Feel About the Fall 2020 HyFlex Experience?

Before the Fall 2020 Term

University of Maryland-Eastern Shore solicited faculty opinions about HyFlex before the fall 2020 term. As might be expected, those opinions fell along a spectrum. On one end, faculty voiced valid concerns about stressing institutional priorities over safety, additional workload, insufficient time, and a lack of collective experience with the HyFlex model prior to large scale adoption. On the other end, faculty identified possibilities for reaching a “new frontier of teaching and learning” or achieving a “flexible mindset to instruction.” In the middle, faculty asked important questions about how to support equity or accessibility as they grapple with HyFlex course design. I’d be interested to hear some of those same instructors’ opinions now, after teaching HyFlex courses for a semester.

During the Fall 2020 Term

  • “HyFlex courses are hard to build, and even harder to teach.”

  • Context matters when considering HyFlex, such as the type of class and type of student.

  • “We need to help students learn to become online learners.”

  • “Faculty members cannot hide from structural racism and economic inequality any more.”

  • “We have students who, quite literally, would have had to drop out if their courses had not been available in the HyFlex format.”

In late November 2020, Maria Bergstrom from Michigan Technological University framed HyFlex as “a new teaching genre” that requires investigating and addressing its limitations and possibilities. Bergstrom correctly claims that HyFlex is not just a combination of other teaching methods. As such, she cautions against “assuming that what works in other teaching genres will work in the same way in this one [HyFlex].”

After the Fall 2020 Term

I have not yet found any post-mortem analysis of any institution’s fall 2020 implementation of HyFlex. That said, it has only been a few weeks. Here are some examples of what would be helpful:

  • Student and faculty survey results: Institutions that implemented HyFlex widely would help a great number of faculty and students by conducting surveys or focus groups to find out what worked and what did not. In 2013 a team at The Ohio State University published a HyFlex study that collected several types of data from students, including end-of-term surveys and focus groups. That article might offer some sample questions to ask, although there are obvious differences in the pre-pandemic study.

  • More retrospective articles: The two articles listed above get us off to a great start. Maria Bergstrom shares a personal viewpoint as an instructor doing something new. As Director of Grand View’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Kevin Gannon supports many faculty, so his article offers a broader perspective. I will keep my eyes open for more articles of either type.

How Can Campuses Prepare for HyFlex in Spring 2021?

Building on the lessons outlined above, here are a few ideas for schools or programs that plan to implement some variation of HyFlex in spring 2021. Learn from those who have put themselves on the HyFlex map, and share what you learn right back.

Help students succeed in your version of HyFlex: With Kevin Gannon’s article and my earlier blog posts, now two Kevins have written about the need to support student success.

Provide HyFlex resources and examples for faculty: Above, I mentioned how University of Nebraska-Lincoln recorded presentations of faculty describing how they planned to implement HyFlex course design. The Ohio University created a Digital Toolbox for Developing a HyFlex Course, a technology self-training that includes an “example hyflex scenario.” Last June, I created a Google doc to help faculty plan realistic HyFlex class sessions. My Google doc allows comments and I would love to build out this resource further before spring 2021.

Share professional development resources about teaching HyFlex courses: In addition to their workshops for students, Seton Hall also has a page listing their fall 2020 workshops for faculty teaching HyFlex courses. Ohio University’s Digital Toolbox: Developing a HyFlex Course pulls back the curtain for people from the outside to see how they might support instructors.

If you know of other resources in the above or any other categories, please share them in the comments section. I’ll update this article or write another as I find other useful tools or ideas.

Disclosure: Kevin supported Santa Clara University in building their Learning and Engaging in Virtual Learning (LEVL Up) course to prepare students for online courses in Fall 2020.