Universities Expand HyFlex Learning to Meet Student Demands

According to a study from last year Barnes and Noble Education, 69 percent of university students indicated flexibility as an important requirement for the completion of their studies. As universities and colleges become more comfortable with expanding online learning options, schools like Lehman College in New York City are modernizing their facilities to meet student needs for flexibility through courses that offer both online and in-person options offer.

according to a press releasethe college recently began evaluating the feasibility of offering “HyFlex‘ – short for ‘hybrid and flexible’ – courses in bulk that can be taken in person and online, together or asynchronously to work with students’ changing schedules.

Lehman is leading much of the City University of New York’s effort to expand HyFlex learning and joins 13 other CUNY colleges testing the model since last fall. College CIO Ron Bergmann said the $5 million CUNY project aims to equip 172 of about 200 classrooms with the technology needed to make HyFlex learning a new norm.

“Many of our students are working and parents. Many of our students were or are important employees. Depending on what the courses offer, it’s not always easy to attend classes in person,” he said. “We’ve been through the response and recovery during the pandemic, but we’re now in a period of renewal as we’re reaching some semblance of ‘normalcy’ – at least for now – and knowing that that can change. We’re all concerned because we think there could be an uptick in the fall with COVID and we just don’t know.”

In addition to funding technology needs, the college has placed an emphasis on the professional development of professors to “bring them up to date” with the tools at their disposal.

“Our classrooms aren’t always modernized in some ways, so the equipment tends to be older. That [initiative] allows us to upgrade classroom equipment and add HyFlex capabilities…Sometime in the fall we will have 172 classrooms and four lecture halls equipped with HyFlex capabilities,” he said. “Among the upgrades are laser projectors, which have a much higher resolution and can be viewed very well in sunlight, for example, during the day. It’s a general upgrade in computers, projectors, screens and wireless capability.”

Those skills, he said, are important in expanding access to higher education for underserved populations who sometimes cannot afford or even attend traditional courses in the Bronx, where the college is located. In terms of accessibility, he said the college has also worked to address digital justice during the pandemic, lending Chromebooks, laptops and connectivity devices to students who need technology.

During the pandemic, he noted, over 3,000 students have reached out to the school to request devices.

“We recognized that the need for devices for our students is important and we made a strategic decision to ensure that every student who needs a device during, but also after COVID has access to one,” he said .

Bergmann noted that the recent push toward HyFlex learning has been a long time coming. He said the model was first developed at San Francisco State University in the mid-2000s to, among other things, attract and retain graduate students who juggle work schedules with classes.

Among the nearly 35 percent of courses — mostly arts and humanities — that have been using the model at Lehman since last semester, faculty saw improvements in participation and engagement.

Professor Sherry Deckman, Professor of Social Studies at Lehman, commented in a press release that the emerging model expands their students’ ability to access classes and course materials.

“I offer my classes in the evenings, and having a HyFlex format that allows for both asynchronous students and students who are zooming in means we not only get students who work 9-5, but also students who Have service jobs and maybe work evenings,” Dowling said in a public statement.

Daveisha Augustin, a biology major, mother and full-time teaching assistant, said that given the demands that come with being a working parent, she needed courses that were compatible with her schedule and were less rigid than traditional courses. Like many students taking courses that require more hands-on learning, she chose to attend most of her courses in person, save for moments when she had to look after her 12-year-old son in recent quarantine.

“I would prefer HyFlex to online or face-to-face classes,” she said. “It’s the best of both worlds, especially when you have multiple responsibilities to juggle.”

The move from CUNY to HyFlex learning is part of a broader trend happening across the higher education sector, according to a survey of college presidents conducted by the American Council on Education earlier this year and cited by CUNY officials. According to the study, 41 percent of respondents mentioned future plans to expand or add similar HyFlex learning offerings in their facilities, while 40 percent are still considering it.

Bergmann expects HyFlex learning to soon expand to the higher education sector in the coming years as universities and colleges aim to “meet the needs of the times.”

“I think the model has gotten to a point where it’s becoming practical and workable, and it’s something that adds value for both students and faculty,” he said. “But there is a transition to get there. We are in the process of managing this transition.”

Officials at other major universities, such as Northern Illinois, are also increasingly welcoming the new model.

While only a handful of courses at NIU use the HyFlex model, about half of the classrooms and lecture halls have been equipped with similar technology for recording and streaming lectures, according to NIU’s Jason Rhode, director of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning.

Among other technical requirements, he said classrooms must have advanced audio equipment similar to what is used at Lehman to record lessons with minimal background noise.

“Schools that do this on a large scale must be very careful to have a strong technological infrastructure in the classroom combined with a [new] pedagogical approach to teaching,” he said. “There’s a piece of technology and then the pedagogy: ‘How do you structure your classes so that all students can participate?’

“When the pandemic hit, we had classrooms with streaming technology, and these classes were the best candidates to try this approach,” he said. “We have also equipped classrooms with it [additional] Technology required for remote student participation.”

Rhode anticipates that NIU and others will expand their HyFlex offerings in the years to come as students become more comfortable with online learning options that fit their schedules. He said student demand for flexibility could continue to be a driving force behind such trends.

“There’s certainly an expectation on behalf of the students,” he said. “I think we’re also going to see higher education educators become even more willing to try out these new technologies and pedagogies through some of these new tools.”

In light of new pedagogical approaches, teaching experts at the University of South Carolina have developed a guide to HyFlex learning. It states that HyFlex courses must provide clear, regular guidance on course objectives and assignment expectations, as well as access to easy-to-navigate course content.

Vera Polyakova-Norwood, director of distributed learning at the University of South Carolina’s College of Nursing, said the emerging model could better prepare schools for drastic shifts to distance learning, similar to what will happen in 2020 if campuses have to close again in the future.

“If we say, ‘Teachers need to move to online-only delivery’ in the middle of the semester, they’re already there. You don’t have to do any additional planning or re-engineering of everything that’s being done,” said Polyakova-Norwood.

According to University of South Carolina spokeswoman Dana Woodward, scope and availability may still remain limited in a post-pandemic landscape.

“While we are making some resources available to our faculty on HyFlex, that’s not a direction our institution is moving at this time,” she said in an email response last week government technology.

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