Will Hybrid Teaching Stick Around as the Pandemic Fades?

Teaching and Learning

Will Hybrid Teaching Stick Around as the Pandemic Fades?

By Jeffrey R. Young     Oct 19, 2023

Will Hybrid Teaching Stick Around as the Pandemic Fades?
A training video offered by Central Michigan University demonstrates techniques for HyFlex teaching, an approach that allows students to pick whether to attend in person or online.

Stuart Blythe teaches writing courses at Michigan State University that are officially listed as in-person only. But he makes it clear to students that they are welcome to join any class session remotely via Zoom if they can’t make it in on any given day.

It’s a practice he started at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many students were in quarantine and needed ways to continue learning remotely. Now, having gone to the trouble to design course resources that can be accessed remotely and feeling accustomed to turning on a webcam in the classroom, he has continued to embrace a teaching practice that is known as “HyFlex,” a portmanteau of hybrid and flexible.

“For example, this morning I taught a web design course, and one of my students has epilepsy, and he said, ‘I can feel something coming on so I better not come out today,’” Blythe says. “Things come up in students’ lives, and the HyFlex gives them the ability to still be part of a class even when things get in the way.”

But not every educator who tried hybrid teaching of some kind during the pandemic has continued it. Even vocal proponents of HyFlex admit it’s not widely popular among college instructors.

“It’s a pendulum swing, that we need to get people back in the classrooms,” says David Rhoads, director of hybrid and emerging pedagogy at Vanguard University in California, who considers himself a proponent of HyFlex teaching. He says instructors who felt forced to quickly allow for remote options or teach remotely are now eager to get back to what they consider normal.

“Faculty are saying, ‘I’m back in the classroom where I want to be,’” he says, admitting that there is less HyFlex teaching now than during the pandemic.

Rhoads argues that students often feel differently than the people at the podium about returning to the default of all-in-person teaching. “Students discovered the flexibility,” he says, “and now they're demanding it.”

Some data seems to back that up: A survey earlier this year from Tyton Partners found that nearly seven out of 10 students said they preferred courses with at least some virtual component, while more than half of faculty members said they preferred face-to-face teaching.

Even so, proponents of hybrid teaching are making a push to build on the experience so many educators gained teaching online during the pandemic. Just last week, for instance, fans of the approach held a workshop and sessions teaching HyFlex practices at the Educause conference in Chicago, and a group called the HyFlex Collaborative held a national conference on HyFlex teaching over the summer. And they point to a recent Educause Horizon Report that listed HyFlex as an emerging practice in part because of an increasing demand from students for greater flexibility in accessing higher education.

Will their efforts succeed? And how much flexibility is best to balance convenience and high-quality teaching?

Built for Flexibility

The first known course that called itself HyFlex emerged in 2006, at San Francisco State University, taught by Brian Beatty, a professor of instructional design and technology. And one main driver was surprisingly mundane: traffic snarls that routinely kept students from getting to class on time.

The goal was to employ a high level of course design from the outset, so that the instructor built all the course material for students to use either live during a class session (online or in person) or as on-demand modules for those who can’t be there at the appointed time.

“Faculty say it’s more work for them to do that,” says Rhoads. “And 100 percent it’s more work.”

It’s work that pays off, though, Rhoads argues, since it opens the course material to students even when they are sick or unable to attend, and the material can easily be reused over time.

“The question that usually comes up is, ‘I don’t have enough time and I don’t have enough money.’ Which is completely 100 percent valid,” he says. That’s why Rhoads argues that institutions should invest in making courses more flexible rather than just leave the work to those teaching the courses.

One of the biggest complaints about the HyFlex model is the logistical challenge for the teacher of attending to those in the physical classroom as well as those logging in remotely on Zoom.

For Blythe, of Michigan State, he says he has gotten better at doing that juggling over time, and that it’s now pretty routine for him in his classes of about 20 students. He says he arranges his computer so his notes are open on one half of the screen and the Zoom display is on the other, “so I can look at the students in front of me or look down at the computer screen and see those students.”

But he admits that when he enters the classroom each day, he has no idea how many will be joining him in person and how many he’ll see only as a small box on a screen.

“I’ve had days where I have two people in the room and everyone else is online and vice versa,” he says. “It probably feels a little weird if it’s just me and another student, but I guess I’ve gotten used to it.”

While Blythe feels the extra effort is worth it to help students, many faculty argue that by trying to serve everyone, even those who can’t attend, the experience is worse for everyone. As one instructor wrote in an essay last year, “everyone lost something in HyFlex courses. The students in class, the remote students and the instructor each felt they’d been given short shrift.”

What’s the ‘Gold Standard’?

The proponents of HyFlex classes are often making a larger argument against the standard lecture model of teaching that is the norm at colleges.

Rhoads, for example, says that complaints about hybrid formats often stem “from believing that traditional way of doing education is the gold standard. I do not believe that.”

He argues that the process of redesigning a course to be taught in various formats — online or in person — pushes instructors to rethink how to best help students achieve the learning outcomes.

“I would love to ask faculty, ‘Do you know of any research on traditional education showing the efficacy?’” he says. (Lectures, for example, are not holding up well in some studies.)

And for those instructors worried that no one will come to an in-person class if an online option is given, he argues that “if you design an experience that students can't get any other way than in person, then I think they’ll come.”

HyFlex is not the only way to make courses flexible, however.

At the University of Central Florida, officials say that while some instructors do HyFlex teaching, they’ve had more takeup for so-called “blended” courses, where some sessions are online and some are in person. Unlike in the HyFlex model, where students can pick whether to come or not on any given class, the blended model means that, say, for a class that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Tuesday sessions will be held in person and the Thursday sessions will be online.

“We train faculty to take advantage of the in-person moments to do the things that can only be done in person,” says Thomas Cavanagh, vice provost for digital learning at the University of Central Florida. As a result, he says, “those classes have the highest review from students, they get the highest grades and they have the lowest withdrawal rates.”

Rhoads, the HyFlex advocate at Vanguard University, hopes that the pendulum will start to swing back to online again as educators have time to properly design flexible classes.

“Professors are kind of beat coming out of the pandemic,” he says. “We have to get them refreshed and say, ‘Shake it off for a minute.’ I think many more faculty actually know what they need to do — they need to do more to be flexible.”

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