The very name of HyFlex teaching – hybrid flexible – implies that this type of teaching allows for additional flexibility. While HyFlex adoption was initially driven by public health concerns, there are still myriad reasons why today’s students need additional flexibility: most are paid workers, many commute to campus, and some are parents of young children. Unprecedented mental health crises, as well as quarantines due to COVID-19, mean college students are struggling to attend face-to-face classes every day.
Could HyFlex – where professors typically teach students in person in the classroom while others participate remotely – could be the solution?
Unfortunately, while faculty can make HyFlex work, it shouldn’t become the new normal in higher education. I have conducted research in my HyFlex and online courses comparing student learning, barriers and perceptions. Based on this evidence, below are six reasons why HyFlex should not become the standard course structure.
Reason 1: Optimizing multimodal lesson plans is nearly impossible
Teaching well is hard work in a single modality. It requires training, resources, and customization based on student needs. Good teaching in multiple modalities simultaneously requires not only the necessary technology to engage students remotely (e.g. video camera, microphone, document camera). Lesson plans need to optimize the learning needs of remote students and the learning needs of on-site students – and sometimes these are opposites.
While trade-offs can be made, the additional instructor time to prepare these various modalities is generally not compensated for. Also, the compromise in quality in both modalities means that everyone learns less than they otherwise could.
Reason 2: Real-world barriers prevent achievement of HyFlex goals
In an ideal world where HyFlex is implemented, all classrooms would be equipped with the technology needed to allow remote students to hear what is going on in the classroom, a loudspeaker to allow in-person students to hear when remote students speak, and a document camera so remote students can see what the professor is writing “on the blackboard” (actually a piece of paper under the camera). However, when you consider that many higher education institutions may not have implemented HyFlex because they believe in its teaching value, but rather to save money by oversubscribing courses, the ideal technology investments are not always the reality. A friend of mine at another university had to teach a HyFlex class without a microphone or speakers in the classroom, making it impossible for distant students to hear their peers or for the instructor to hear distant students’ questions.
Even with all the necessary technology, students will encounter obstacles in their lives attempting to engage with HyFlex remotely due to technological or social barriers in their lives. HyFlex requires consistent access to stable, high-speed internet and well-functioning technology that is always available during class time. It is assumed that a student has access to an appropriate quiet, private learning environment in which to participate in class. There may be technical issues, as well as issues from roommates or family members that create too much background noise for students to unmute and participate.
It is clearly totally unrealistic to rely on idealized notions of perfect access to technology.
Reason 3: HyFlex limits student engagement and community building
Effective teaching requires active learning, community building, and student-to-student interactions. However, my research has revealed that the gap between remote and face-to-face students poses an insurmountable challenge to creating true community. In-person students didn’t want to use technology to talk to their distant peers. The in-person students spoke less in small group discussions and activities, even when these were added on purpose to bridge the gap.
Worse, having the ability to remotely participate in poor student decisions, such as B. Trying to multitask during class. I had students attend classes while on public transit or in cars, while on appointments, or while otherwise completing tasks that required their attention.
In an active learning classroom, students need to be in an environment where they can actively process and respond to course content and their peers. Enabling an option to participate remotely when multitasking not only impacted the student’s ability to learn, but also impacted the experience of fellow students in their small group, who often waited in silence to see if anyone would respond in the discussion.
Reason 4: HyFlex reproduces many of the inequalities it seeks to reduce
Ideally, HyFlex would reduce inequalities. Students with fewer financial resources are more likely to miss classes due to transportation or conflicts with paid work. Students with physical or mental disabilities are more likely to face barriers to participating in class. Therefore, improving access for these groups should reduce these inequalities.
Instead I found the opposite.
No matter how many strategies I employed, students who spent most or all of the semester attending classes remotely felt they had an inferior education. As an instructor, I agreed. They missed the opportunity to ask private questions, engage in small talk, and otherwise connect with me or their peers. I would feel better prepared to write a letter of recommendation for a decent in-person student than for one of the best distance students.
Even more disturbing is that no matter how many times I have told students not to attend classes if they are ill (whether it was a physical or mental crisis), students have always attempted to attend remotely . The ableist assumption that they had a duty to try to attend, regardless of their personal circumstances, prompted them to attend, even though missing classes would have been far better for their recovery. I even had a student email asking him if he should try remotely attending class from his hospital bed.
By allowing the flexibility to participate from anywhere, there is a real risk that students and faculty alike will reproduce ableistic or classistic assumptions that there is now no reason a student ever needs to miss class.
Reason 5: HyFlex tries to solve structural problems with technology solutions on an individual level
The root causes of student problems—lack of childcare, inaccessible transportation, limited access to health care—cannot be solved by technology in the classroom. By looking for technology to solve these problems, we distract from the meaningful work universities must do to meet the basic needs of their student population.
In addition, the universities themselves face budgetary challenges. Investing money in HyFlex technology (and training to ensure instructors maximize that technology) means diverting money from other pressing concerns.
Reason 6: HyFlex does not provide meaningful benefits over existing modalities
Almost all problems that HyFlex claims to solve can already be addressed with fully remote courses that follow best practices. As my research into my own pandemic distance learning course shows, students have been able to learn effectively and form meaningful connections with me and their fellow students. By being able to focus my full attention on optimizing this correspondence course for distance learning – or my face-to-face courses for face-to-face learning – the students received a better education and I felt like a more competent educator.
While flexibility, engagement and accessibility of all students must be central guiding principles for the advancement of higher education, the widespread implementation of HyFlex is not the solution. HyFlex can be useful in certain circumstances. However, higher education would be better served by helping faculty to adapt other modalities to student needs – for the benefit of students and faculty alike.