The Hy-Flex Semester: Six Weeks In

It’s hard to believe we’re already finishing week 6 of the fall semester, especially since August 24 feels like it was simultaneously ten minutes and thirty years ago. Time is a flat circle this semester, apparently.

Since we’re about a third of the way through, though, it does seem like an opportune time to assess and reflect on where we are, and where we’re hoping to go, with HyFlex learning. We figured designing and teaching HyFlex courses would be difficult, and that assumption has proven true. We worried about technical difficulties interfering with teaching and learning and, unfortunately, those worries became real on several occasions, too. Yet we also believed that HyFlex courses could help us be as flexible as possible when it came to in-person classes during a pandemic, and allow students to continue their academic journeys with us whether or not they were physically on campus. And that belief has proven true as well. So a mixed bag of results, but trending positive rather than negative. Difficulties, yes, but not disasters.

But we now have some student data to inform our reflections as well. We surveyed our own students (and received over 400 responses), and there is also a growing amount of national data, given the high number of colleges and universities who have adopted HyFlex learning for this semester. To some extent, this student feedback (both our own and others’) can help us zero in on particular issues that may seem larger to students than they might from our perspective. That feedback can also tell us about larger issues, too, however. We can get a snapshot of how our students are adjusting to HyFlex (and see if their experiences echo our own, perhaps), and we can get a sense of what students think the net gains and costs have been in our move to this mode of teaching and learning.

So what are students saying? The following items are things that appear in both GV and national data, and where appropriate, I’ll use a GV student’s own words (gathered from our survey feedback) to illustrate the point. I’ll also offer potential solutions to the rough spots students have identified thus far in our collective HyFlex experience.

I can’t hear you!

This is one of the most common refrains from GV’s own survey; many facutly have reported that students attending via Zoom cannot hear them, or what’s happening in the physical classroom. While a more universal solution is in the works, we’re offering conference mics and a 10-foot USB extender cable to instructors and departments who are experiencing this issue; these microphones have a 10-foot radius and should improve on the existing microphone’s capabilities. BUT…there may not be one perfect way for students attending via Zoom to hear, say, a student from the back row of the classroom answer a question. No matter how loud our own voices are, or how good a microphone we’re using, we still need to repeat in-person students’ comments and questions for the benefit of students attending via Zoom (as well as for clarity on the Zoom recording). Yes, it’s awkward and unwieldy. But given the circumstances, it’s a habit worth developing in order to assist our students who have to attend remotely.

I want do face-to-face learning. I want to be completely online.

This summer, there was a lot of talk about “what our students want.” The consensus seemed to be that students wanted in-person learning, and we planned accordingly to maximize the opportunities for exactly that. As it turns out, however, many of our students meant they wanted to be on campus, but “in-person learning” in itself hasn’t been a priority for many of them. A good number of our on-campus students are attending class remotely, both synchronously and asynchronously, and it’s not been the optimal choice for some of them, if the high number of early alerts this semester is any indication. Lest we think those students who are attending via Zoom are simply dorm-dwellers too lazy to walk across campus, there’s this sampling of student feedback, too:

I like to do online or Zoom meetings especially because of COVID and the fact that I have kids.

It has been very beneficial to have the access to Zoom, as I believe it has helped keep students who are feeling ill to still complete their work

I think classes through zoom work best for me just to keep my family a bit more safe. As well as my daughter she is only one year old.

Yet, other students are less enamored of Zoom:

Zoom is not fun

I am not a fan of classes where some people are in class and some in zoom. Feels very disjointed and chaotic at times.

I really need to be in person to succeed and pass. I need to be in a classroom setting, so as many classes as possible in person would be amazing.

And the breakdown is fairly even, at least in the body of comments we have from our survey. That’s a reflection of both the complicated situation in which we find ourselves during this time of Covid and the fact that teaching and learning are themselves complex endeavors that don’t have “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

What seems clear, though, is that for some of our students, in-person learning is simply not possible with the public health situation the way it currently is. For some other students, online learning is not their preference. The challenge for us is to be able to serve both groups to the best of our abilities, while bearing in mind that there is no perfect answer to this dilemma.

Online learning is too much extra work. What the hell?

Professors shouldn’t be giving more assignments for students who choose to do asynchronous learning – we are doing the same work as all other students, but have to do more work for no extra credit, which isn’t how it should be offered. I chose asynchronous learning so I would have an open work schedule from home, not because I don’t want to attend classes live.

This was a fairly common refrain among GV students, and national data also suggests that students who are less familiar with asynchronous online learning tend to see assignments in this format as “busy work” if their purpose isn’t clearly stated.

We know that the HyFlex model depends upon equivalence; that is, no matter what track the student is attending within, the workload and learning activities are equivalent. “Equivalent,” however, is not completely synonymous with “equal,” and that’s a conversation worth having with students. For those who are watching a class recording after the fact, that may not be the equivalent of what the in-person experience was; there isn’t a chance to retroactively participate in activities or discussions, for example. That’s why many faculty have chosen to add a discussion board assignment, or something akin to it, to the asynchronous track–to at least try and get at something equivalent to the discussion-interactive element of the actual class meeting. But if we’re not explaining that to our students clearly and repeatedly, that message may not be getting through. In that space created by lack of understanding, students can easily perceive this type of equivalency work as “extra” stuff, or busy work.

Where’s my stuff? When is it due? HELP ME.

Probably the most prevalent complaint students have at both GV and at HyFlex institutions in general is the frustration they feel when they can’t find what they need in the online course space–in our case, their Blackboard course site. As a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article observed [emphasis added]:

Many students are juggling four or more courses, each with its own structure when it comes to methods of communication, where assignments are posted, deadlines, and grading. That can lead to cognitive overload. What students want from their professors is not necessarily uniformity across courses, which is probably impossible, but consistency within them.

Our own students have expressed similar concerns. “What would be really helpful,” one of them tells us, “is if ALL of the teachers used the calendar feature on Blackboard so that we see what assignments we have due each day and are better aware to plan accordingly and have the assignment on time.”

The Course Calendar feature can help students keep track of work across their courses, but we have to do certain things as instructors to enable the calendar to work. First, any item we create in Blackboard that has a due date is automatically displayed on the student’s calendar view. So if you create an assignment, or test, or even a discussion forum or other low-stakes assignment, selecting a due date when you create the assignment is essential. Even if the due date is listed elsewhere (on your syllabus or coruse calendar), setting the due date in Blackboard is the easiest way to make sure the task shows up for students in their Blackboard calendars.

One thing that surprised my in these survey results was just how much students use the calendar feature of Blackboard; I knew some of them did, but was unaware just how widespread its use was. That’s good news for us, if we’re looking for ways to communicate more effectively with students about not just deadlines for assignments, but time frames for other coursework, too. As an instructor, you can create “events” for your course calendar, which will in turn populate into your students’ calendars. Click here for an overview of the Calendar feature and instructions on how to add calendar events in your Blackboard courses.

These are the most prevalent sentiments that show up in both national and GV-centric data about HyFlex learning and how students see it going. Future CETL blog posts will continue to explore some of the challenges associated with HyFlex, with an eye towards the Spring semester as well. But to wrap up this discussion, here’s a quick checklist for a HyFlex tune-up:

  • Are your asynchronous assignments clearly explained to students who are attending via this track? Do those students understand that the assignments aren’t “busy work” but rather a way to maintain equivalence with the other tracks in your course? One way to ensure your goals and requirements are transparent and understandable for students is to adopt the TILT framework for your assignments; you can find much more information on that HERE.
  • Are your Blackboard courses easy for students to navigate? Are your course materials and assignments organized so that students can find what they’re looking for? One easy way to gauge your course’s navigability is to go into your course, enter Student Preview mode, then ask a colleague to look for specific items. Or you can also contact CETL and one of us would be happy to do an ease-of-navigation check in your course space and offer feedback and suggestions. If you’re interested in this, email Kevin to request a check-up.
  • Are you taking advantage of the Calendar features in Blackboard? Ensure that all of your assignments have due dates attached to them, and consider creating other “events” for your course calendar as well, in order to have those reminders show up in your students’ calendar views.
  • Worried about your volume in Zoom? Not sure if your students can hear you adequately? You may want to consider checking out one of our external microphones (which are easy to use; just plug them in the USB port of whatever computer you’re using). If you wish to check one out from CETL, email Kevin to make arrangements. If you teach in Jensen, there is already a mic available to check out from Linda MacKinnon; if you’re in the Nursing department, y’all have two mic setups available now as well.

Remember that CETL is here to help! It’s been an…interesting…semester thus far, but remember that we’re all in this together–and our students get that, too. I’ll close with two more comments from GV students that I think sum things up well:

I just want to say that the teachers have been amazing, with their valiant efforts to navigate the new system and persevere through the frustrations.

I agree. Y’all are amazing.

I want things back to normal!

So say we all.


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