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COVID-19 Update for Fall 2021: Flexible course delivery is a big part of campus re-integration strategies

In Fall 2021, we are finally entering Phase 4A of higher education’s response to COVID-19 – i.e., many campuses are in a period of re-integration and trying to define the “emerging new normal” (see Phil Hill’s updated chart of all 4 phases below). Back in January, I wrote about COVID-19 planning for Spring 2021, focusing on hybrid flexible, or HyFlex, courses as a strategy for instructional continuity during Phase 3. Today I’ll expand my discussion to include all flexible course delivery modes and combinations, of which HyFlex is a subset. I’ll also explore whether or not flexible courses will comprise a large part of the emerging new normal.

How campuses are defining flexible course delivery

In Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 – the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic – faculty and campuses acted as innovators and early adopters and tested several variations of flexible course delivery. These variations included different combinations of in-person, real-time remote and asynchronous course delivery, as well as different models such as offering learners a choice and putting students into rotating cohorts. Over Summer 2021, we saw this flexible course delivery trend move along Rogers’ diffusion of innovations adoption curve to the early majority. Individual campuses outfitted classrooms with technologies to support simultaneous teaching and learning across multiple environments. Even more campuses and entire state systems trained faculty to manage those multiple environments and to support student success, regardless of how they participate.

My “Many Flavors of HyFlex” Google Map (below) has grown considerably in the past year, both in the number of terms used to describe flexible course delivery options and the number of campuses using them. The map is not exhaustive, and should be considered a representative sample of what campuses are calling their flexible course options:

Many Flavors of HyFlex in Fall 2021 Google Map

What people are saying and doing about flexible course delivery

No matter what the kids are calling it these days, I’m not the only one who has been thinking of flexible course delivery as a key component of the emerging new normal. Here are just a few indicators from the past few months in mid-2021.

Building on the flexibility trend, a number of ed tech companies and external, non-profit organizations have begun referencing terms like “HyFlex” or “flexible learning” directly, supporting flexible course design and teaching, and/or offering products or services that support flexible course options. Examples include, but are not limited to, the following:

What people are sharing about teaching and learning in flexible courses

Now, as campuses begin their fall terms, students, faculty and staff are grappling with the reality of increased flexibility and the challenges that flexibility presents to all involved. In response, individuals and institutions have been sharing strategies a) to help others make courses more flexible and b) to maintain a reasonable workload and/or one’s sanity:

How people feeling about flexible courses

Across a number of articles, blog posts, tweets and podcasts, flexible course delivery is often described as difficult. Almost all of us were forced to go online very quickly during the pandemic, so there was not much time to think about optimizing the learning experience. It’s 18 months later and we’re making another major pivot at a time when many are tired and burned out. Although a lot more thought has gone into improving the flexible course experiences this fall, there’s a lot we don’t know. In the abovementioned Twitter thread sharing 6 things everyone could do to make mixed modality conversations work well, Jenae Cohn stated:

NB: I’m referring to “hybrid” to mean simultaneously in-person and online participants for synchronous/real-time conversations. Lots of very legit concerns with this modality, but since it’s happening regardless, it’s worth thinking about how to make it better.

We also need to be careful about our analysis of what happens in Fall 2021. Within the early majority crowd, many faculty and students will be experiencing flexible course delivery for the first time. This may lead to mixed results, requiring more patience on the part of students (and possibly parents). I will be interested to see student reactions this fall – not just to HyFlex, but to the larger set of flexible course delivery options being offered. Overall, if campus efforts to increase flexibility are successful, then I do believe we’ll see the trend move from being a re-integration strategy to being a key piece in the emerging new normal.

What we need to do next

Although I just said we need to be careful about our analysis, we do need to study what happens and how well flexible courses work for different learners. As part of the work I am doing with the Cal State system, we plan to get faculty, faculty developers, instructional designers and academic technologists together in early October. I would love to get some student voices involved as well. The goals are to support the early adopters, to determine how the community members can support one another early in the semester, and to provide valuable information to the early majority that has not yet gotten as far. We’ll repeat this sharing in January to inform Spring 2022 planning. If anyone else is going to do a meta-level evaluation of flexible course experiences, either mid-term or after the fact, I’d love to hear about it.

During a recent chat with Brian Beatty, he mentioned that there is a need to research the equity issues for students who enroll in HyFlex courses. I agree and think this should be expanded to encompass all flexible course delivery methods. If we define equity as “freedom from assumptions, biases and institutional barriers that negatively impact student motivation, opportunities or achievement,” then we need to know if flexible course delivery creates barriers for some students while removing them for others. This will support teachers as they design and facilitate flexible courses. Here are just a few potential equity issues:

  • Flexible courses may create challenges related to access. Even when campuses give learners a choice, some students will be forced to learn asynchronously because they have to work or take care of children during class meeting times. Many of the flexible options around the country do not have an asynchronous option. Other access issues arise for students with unreliable Internet connections, students who use smartphones as their primary or only device, and students who have less skill with technology.

  • Flexible courses may disadvantage students with disabilities. Students who use screen readers may have difficulty keeping up with simultaneous audio streams from the live lecture or discussion along with chat comments. Similarly, students who are deaf or hard of hearing may have difficulty tracking text-based chat comments and questions as they watch a sign language interpreter or live captions. We also should explore the flexible learning experience for students with learning disabilities, students who have an attention deficit disorder, and for students who are neurodiverse.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for formal research efforts and/or informal reports about flexible course experiences this fall, and will share anything I learn. Please do the same and share your own experiences.

Disclosure: Kevin created the Flexible Course Experience Institute for the California State University system Chancellor’s Office.