Hybrid Flexible Course and Program Design: Models for Student-Directed Hybrids

On April 21, 2016, I will be joined by six colleagues on a panel presentation describing the hybrid flexible (HyFlex, in my terms) approaches our respective institutions are implementing to meet the specific needs and desires of our constituents. Here I provide a brief summary from the panel presentation extended abstract. If you are attending OLC Innovate 2016 in New Orleans April 20-22, I invite you to attend. This session is also being streamed for remote participants. Session details and extended abstract.

picture of three story french provincial building in New Orleans LA

Classic New Orleans

Panel Presenters:
Brian Beatty, SF State University
Cathy M. Littlefield, Peirce College
Jackie Bryce Miller, University of Michigan
David Rhoads, San Diego Christian College
Mike Shurance, Concordia University
Dean Shaffer, Penn State University Lehigh Valley and World Campus
Maggie Beers, SF State University

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Analyzing the Feasibility of HyFlex

If you are considering using the HyFlex approach in courses or programs, you are probably completing some sort of feasibility analysis before moving forward with detailed design, development or implementation.

A careful analysis of needs, benefits, and costs

A careful analysis of needs, benefits, and costs is important.

What questions should your feasibility analysis answer? (see the assess_need_hyflex (linked PDF) for a worksheet that may help)

First, you should clearly establish or validate the need to use both types of delivery – online and f2f – in the same class sections. If you find that there is no good justification for delivering instruction in both modes at the same time, with the same general set of resources, then perhaps HyFlex isn’t a good choice.

Why might an organization (or person) want to deliver both modes at once? Here are five common reasons for moving forward with HyFlex (ok, a few more are mixed in here):

  1. Extend instruction to online students with existing f2f classes. (Expand market? Access?)
  2. Provide a socially interactive ‘real’ instructional option for online students.
  3. Allow students the flexibility to attend class in person or online, depending on THEIR needs and wants (schedule, personality, work/family requirements, etc.)
  4. Leverage online resources (archived lectures and other activities) to support unlimited student review of content. Enhance access to various learning styles or language levels through recording and multiple modes of presentation and interaction.
  5. Build in capability and capacity for online delivery within an existing traditional instruction environment.
    1. Business continuity and/or disaster recovery plans
    2. Respond to changing needs of students and key stakeholder groups

Of course, considering the value that you can expect from HyFlex is only one side of the analysis. You also need to determine how much implementing HyFlex is going to cost various stakeholders. A few key “costs” to consider:

  1. Design and development time to create HyFlex courses, or adapt existing f2f or online courses. (Faculty, instructional designers)
  2. In the atypical case of wanting to implement a f2f component in an existing online course (or program), providing physical meeting facilities.
  3. Managing faculty issues
    1. Workload (development time/delivery time/possible enrollment cap changes)
    2. Training faculty to teach online (or in class – faculty might benefit from teaching support in both delivery modes).
  4. Determining the administration of enrollment and participation requirements (residency, seat-time, etc.).
    1. Will students be “online”, “regular”, or be labeled in some new way?
    2. How will classes be scheduled into rooms? (typically they won’t need space for full enrollment)
    3. How will students be scheduled into classes? Will students be allowed to schedule two classes at once, if one or both is delivered in HyFlex mode? (you might classify HyFlex classes as “online” in your scheduling system for student enrollment, but as regular classes for room scheduling)
  5. Supporting student success through preparation and support in HyFlex
    1. Time management (scheduling time/place to “attend” class – anytime, anywhere)
    2. Technology mediated instructional environments (LMS, email, etc.) may require additional technical support (24/7?)
    3. Self-regulation (“Am I a good online (or classroom) learner? Should I change modes?”)

Once you’ve looked at both sides of this comparison, you may need to weight various factors to help you decide if and how to proceed with HyFlex. Every situation will have its own set of context factors and weighted variables to consider. In the end, most cases of HyFlex implementation are also cases of organization change and require effective change management strategies. See posts like this summary of messaging to various HyFlex adoption groups for more along this line.

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Life changes plans sometimes…

We recently surveyed students in the Instructional Technologies MA program at San Francisco State University, and found that students once again report that they appreciate the flexibility offered by the HyFlex course design. No surprise there; its the most consistent “finding” in surveys, end of class evaluations and anecdotal reports we receive.

We did find out a few things that are interesting to note. I’ll talk about two of them here, and more in later posts.

1. Students who planned on completing the class fully in person often found themselves completing some of their coursework online because their participation desires just didn’t work out. Many more ended up attending class online instead of their stated desire to be in class in person than those who attended class in person more than they had planned. This isn’t a surprise to us, since we know that most of these students (graduate) prefer to attend class in person, but it was confirmed by the survey data. The flexibility of having the online option consistently available made a difference to many.

2. Female graduate students, on average, reported that it was more important to them to feel connected to the people involved in the class (teacher, peers) than it was to feel connected to the content or activities. Male graduate students, on average, reported that it was more important to them to feel connected to the content or activities being studied than it was to feel connected to the people involved in the class (teacher, peers). This is also not surprising, but it was interesting to see it confirmed in our survey data.

More later …

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What would a HyFlex program have meant to you?

Continuing on with the thread about student experience…

I was reflecting on my own path through education the other day and I started thinking about what my experience may have been like if I had the HyFlex course option as an undergrad, credential student, masters student, or PhD student.

One thing that I appreciated immediately was that I did experience elements of what eventually became HyFlex course design in different places along the way./ Whenever a faculty member would combine classroom and online activities, resources, and learning processes, I experienced HyFlex – without the Flex. (I guess that would be “Hybrid”, then :)  Whenever a teacher would say, “This is an optional resource [or activity].” I experienced a bit of HyFlex – without the Hy. (Flexibility to participate or not)

HyFlex delivery is often similar to the ways some faculty have taught some students in some courses (and programs) over the years, but tends to make a stronger commitment to full hybridization and full flexibility, turning over more control over learning to the student. (And, one could argue, better preparing students for the rest of their lives as worker-learners.)

If I had HyFlex courses in my past, I wouldn’t have dropped a few letter grades in classes because I couldn’t drag myself to 8:00 AM Physics or Freshman Composition class, and I may have been able to create a more customized schedule at various times… who knows?

How about you? How would have the HyFlex course design impacted your experience as a student?

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Addressing student support needs – General Needs

What supports do students need when beginning a HyFlex course experience? As with most, if not all, instructional delivery/course modes, there are several general supports needed, and specific supports depending on the exact implementation approach being used. This post describes a few of the general supports. A follow-on post will describe specific posts needed for several varied HyFlex course modes in use at SF State.

Generally speaking… to begin with, students need basic information about their participation options. Do they have to attend class live and in-person? When? For what purpose? Which online participation options are available to them? How do they access those? We have also found it useful to explain the various modes and highlight reasons why someone might choose one or another, and – just importantly – why someone should NOT choose one or another (especially various online options). Helping students decide which mode to use for a given session may be more important for those with little or no HyFlex experience, or those who have been unable to choose wisely in previous experiences.

Another general student support needed is the ability to identify courses available in HyFlex mode and what special arrangements are needed to enroll and participate. On our campus, for large HyFlex sections scheduled for rooms that cannot meet the full enrollment capacity, students must choose either in-person or online evaluation. If they choose in-person evaluation, they are expected to show up on campus during a scheduled exam time. If they choose online evaluation, they must complete all exams online. If they show up in person, they will not be allowed to take the exam in the scheduled classroom. This allows the university to manage larger enrollments that exceed room capacity, realizing one of the key organizational value returns enabled by HyFlex.

Related to participation decisions students must make is clearly identifying the technology required to participate in various modes. Do students need “clickers” if they attend in person? Other personal technology (laptops, etc.)? Do students need headsets to participate in live online mode? Or are speakers alone good enough? (If the synchronous technology used doesn’t allow for student audio input, or they aren’t expected to speak in class – as in many larger lecture classes – students won’t need a working mic.) Do students need special plugins, browsers, or other software applications? Do bandwidth specifications matter? (In synchronous modes, especially when video and audio channels are used, bandwidth may be a limiting factor.)  For a simple example, see the technical specifications needed to use the “Coursestream” system at SF State, used for lecture capture that supports lecture-based HyFlex (and other) courses.

You may also have special access or instructions for using other instructional resources that vary from mode to mode. If you are providing hard copies of readings or handouts in class and you expect online students to access these as well (synchronously in session or asynchrnously at any other time), how will they do that? (consider copyright concerns, digitizing media, etc.) Clearly, the more consistent the use of resources across all modes, the simpler this will be – both for your students and for you as an instructor/designer.

There may be other important general factors I haven’t addressed here. I welcome your comments and questions… if you have any, you can drop them off here and I will engage you in the conversation. Next time I’ll address a few ways we address specific student needs in a variety of our classes.

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Assessing the Need for Support – Faculty

As faculty consider using hybrid approaches in their teaching, especially more complex approaches like HyFlex, what support do they need?

We’ve seen common needs in several areas, here are four:

  1. Learning how to teach online students
  2. Preparing (or adapting) instructional materials for online learners
  3. Facilitating live online students (if web conferences are used)
  4. Designing a learning environment that connects traditional and online students and activities

Because the faculty isn’t giving up the traditional teaching environment (in the classroom, normally), s/he can continue to work in that context – normally a strength. The main challenge in learning to teach online is developing skills in interacting with online learners through various communication technologies (ICT). Presenting information is not normally a new challenge, especially with lecture capture solutions that become easier to use each year (we use echo360on our campus).

Faculty Support Center at Hofstra University

An example Faculty Support Center; this one is at Hofstra University

Many universities have developed robust training programs for faculty who want to transition to teaching online or in hybrid class. Two I have been impressed with recently are those at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and the University of Central Florida. A key component of any effective program, it seems, is to have the faculty experience learning as an online (or hybrid) student as they learn how to teach in that environment. Since many faculty still have no experience learning in an online class, or have had only poor (non-interactive) experiences in online classes, this is an important step. Interaction makes the biggest difference in offering quality online experiences to students. As open courseware becomes more widespread and expands in scope, quality information is even easier to find than before. Interaction with qualified faculty remains the real “value-add” of a university class.

Connecting online and in-class students in a live session with a Cisco Telepresence system

With a HyFlex course, when both online and traditional students are engaged in the same learning environment, the faculty has an opportunity to leverage the efforts and interactions of students in both modes to support and enhance the learning of all students. Online forum participation can become an opportunity for traditional student interaction as well. Interactions in the classroom can be made immediately available to live online students or can be archived for review by asynchronous online students and connected to a forum discussion for ongoing engaged learning. Common forum assignmentsfor all students can be used to draw students together in shared discussions throughout a course. With new and emerging technologies designed to support ubiquitous social connection and interaction, the opportunities for learning interactions are limited primarily by the creativity and the amount of time available of the faculty.

If motivated and engaged faculty are provided with good design ideas, usable technology, positive experiences both learning and teaching online, and an ongoing community to support their development as HyFlex instructors, anyone can do this successfully.

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Assessing Needs for Support – Students

We’re starting a project within the ITEC program at SFSU to assess the needs of students who enroll in HyFlex courses. We plan to look at multiple levels of students enrolled in a variety of class levels and formats. For example, we’ll assess the needs of graduate students enrolled in seminar (discussion) classes, technology lab classes, and project-based practicum classes. We’ll also assess the needs of undergraduate students enrolled in lecture classes, where lecture capture technologies are primarily used to provide materials for online students.

A variety of graduate students working on laptops in various environments

HyFlex allows students to work when and where they want to - including in a real classroom!

If you’d like to read more about several models that describe what students need for success in an online course (part of the HyFlex experience…), see: http://www.onlinestudentsupport.org/Monograph/readiness.php

We plan to have preliminary results available in late August 2012, so check back then!

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HyFlex Design Enables a Quick Flip


The term “flipping the classroom” has been used more and more in discussions around using technology to change classroom practice.

Flipped Classroom

A "flipped" classroom?

The term seems to have been coined as “Inverting the Classroom” in a 2000 Journal of Economic Education article by Lage, Platt & Treglia. (See http://mindshift.kqed.org/2011/09/the-flipped-classroom-defined/ for more on flipping a classroom and http://interacc.typepad.com/synthesis/2009/09/inversions.html for more about “inversions” in classroom pedagogy.)

I’ve found that using a HyFlex course design enables the instructor to effectively “flip” his or her own classroom with less effort than it would be if starting from scratch with a fully online or classroom-only design. Here’s why.

Boring Lecture

A boring lecture - typical?

In a well-designed HyFlex course, the basic informational materials needed by online students to learn course content are provided ahead of time, typically in assigned readings and other resources (files, links, media) posted to a course website. These same resources should be available to students who choose to attend class in person, of course, since the HyFlex course design allows all students to make their participation choice each session.


Interactive Classroom

An interactive classroom

When learning complex content, however, most effective instruction also requires some type of interaction among learners and between learners and an instructor. This interaction cannot be facilitated with just informational resources. That is where the flipped classroom approach is powerful. If the information access function is complete before students arrive in class (or in the online classroom interaction space – forums, for example), then the time allotted for the “post information delivery” segment of instruction can be taken up by meaningful interaction.

Meaningful interaction will usually implement some form of generative learning activity to help students apply new information in meaningful ways, perhaps by discussing topics to develop and shape understanding or by applying new approaches to solving domain-specific problems with guidance from peers and an instructor. (For more on generative learning, see this Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology chapter – http://www.aect.org/edtech/ed1/31/index.html) When a classroom is flipped, the instructor’s talent, energy, and focus is on facilitating meaningful interaction that leads to deeper learning, rather than on simply delivering the right information.

In a HyFlex course, the instructor won’t have to take the time to develop all those informational resources that students need in a flipped classroom. That work should be largely completed already. Informational resources should be readily available and when “used as directed,” can prepare students for a more powerful interactive experience in the classroom session – whether live in-person, live online, or asynchronous online.

Of course, this means that the HyFlex instructor is newly challenged to make sure all of her students are engaged in interactive, generative learning activities no matter which participation mode they choose. That’s another significant challenge, and I’ll address that in my next post.

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Relationship-Driven – Customer-centric Principle Four

4. Relationship-Driven – “With Me, Along the Way: I have an ongoing relationship with the company; there is a clear focus on relationship-building versus transaction-processing, they manage for the long term value in our relationship.”

HyFlex courses implement this principle when the instructor creates opportunities for all students in the course to collaborate and communicate in meaningful ways as they work to achieve learning outcomes. Is this desire/intent any different in a HyFlex course than any other course (fully online or classroom-based)? Of course not. But there is a big difference between having all students online or all students in class each session and having students participating in different modes, sometimes changing modes on a frequent basis. The consistency of interpersonal interactions we are used to when everyone is participating in the same mode is not an experience that all share in a HyFlex course.

Some students participate in the classroom all the time – they have a considerable amount of consistency of interaction, though their fellow “interactors” may not always be the same. In a similar way, students who participate online (either synchronously or asynchronously) all the time also have a considerable amount of consistency of interaction, though their fellow “interactors” may not always be the same either. This can lead to students feeling disconnected from their peers, from the instructor, and from the class/program/institution.

We know that feelings of disconnection (weak feelings of connection) are a contributing factor to low student persistence in online learning; students who do not feel well-connected drop out of classes and programs/institutions. So in a HyFlex class, the instructor should develop ways to encourage connection among students, between students and instructor, and between the students and the larger program/institution.

Since there are typically some students participating in each mode, re-using material generated by students in one mode with students in the other mode(s) is one effective way to increase connection. Recording class sessions, requiring in-class students to generate forum posts (even in class) for online students to interact with later, and developing a class culture that values and supports peer review of coursework among students in all participation modes all help. Encouraging and supporting student participation “churn” (flexing their participation choice options) may also lead to more connections among all students.

Opening all online forums for participation by all students without regard to their participation choice and providing daily forum digests sent to all students is another effective way to facilitate connection. Some in-class students who may not be required to participate in the topical forum discussion (typically required of online students) may be attracted into the discussion as they see forum posts happening throughout the week (and sent to them by the LMS in a daily digest).

Bottom line – just as establishing a relationship with a customer is important to keep that customer with a company, establishing and maintaining interpersonal connections among students and instructors as they work together to achieve learning outcomes is important to the success of any course – including a HyFlex course. HyFlex instructors should develop specific strategies to connect students who may be participating in varied modes, separated by time, place, and even activity. The challenge may be difficult, but it is not impossible.

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Delight the Customer – Customer-centric Principle Three

3. Delight the Customer – “Anticipates My Needs: My interactions with the company are excellent; they are solution-focused versus product-centric.”

HyFlex courses implement this principle when the focus of faculty and student effort is on achieving important learning outcomes, not on the simple completion of detailed activities themselves. When the focus on an activity such as an online discussion is primarily on completing the activity (instructor – “I’ve got to make sure they post three times” or student – “I’ve got to make sure my post is 100-200 words”) rather than on the desired outcome (Demonstrate understanding of [discussion topic here] through interactive discussion with peers), then the students’ needs may not be met.

This could be implemented through providing a range of alternative methods to reach the outcome. Could students be allowed to participate in an online discussion in alternate ways such as text, audio, or video? Could students be assigned activities that clearly restate learning outcomes and connect the activity to outcome(s), focusing on the purpose of the activity rather than on the “checklist” of to-do’s?

An instructor could manage this by treating each student as an individual, and allowing a customized path through course content that meets specific and individual student needs. Though this is certainly possibly and is often practiced to some degree in small classes and graduate programs, it can quickly become overwhelming for the instructor. A better approach may be to provide a limited variety of acceptable alternatives ways to achieve (and demonstrate) learning outcomes. Keep in mind that we are looking for equivalence in outcome, not in process or activity.

HyFlex courses provide a natural meta-environment for alternative ways to achieve outcomes, but the instructor should still consider ways to keep the focus of activity on meeting real and valued needs – the student learning outcomes.

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