Last month I got an inside look at the future of higher education as an attendee at HyFlex ReAction: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, a BC Campus Event. As a recent graduate I am still tied to the world of higher education in both my personal and professional life, so it was very interesting to learn about what may be the future of education: HyFlex Learning.
For those who don’t know, HyFlex Learning is generally defined as a learning format that integrates both in-person and remote learning to create a hybrid experience that is extremely flexible for students. At the event I attended, we discussed HyFlex learning environments as a class where an in-person instructor taught both in-person students and synchronous remote students.
As the three sessions went on and we examined different elements of HyFlex learning, three questions began to appear again and again:
What is your reason for creating a HyFlex environment?
How will institutions support training for faculty and staff?
What quality of learning will students receive?
If you missed the conference and want to catch up, BC Campus has posted videos for each session here.
Session 1: Logistics and Technology
If you bring up HyFlex learning in a conversation, the first thing people often think of is the technology and logistics of such an endeavor. “How does that even work?” we think to ourselves. While the specifics vary from institution to institution, this image from Columbia University shows the core concepts:
In this example, the professor and their slides are captured by Camera A. The professor wears a personal microphone so that remote learners can hear the lecture clearly. If an in-person student asks a question, they are captured by Camera B and the Podium microphone. Typically, HyFlex classrooms are also fitted with a TV near the blackboard, where in-class students can see the webcam footage of their remote counterparts.
To teach and learn in such an environment does require both students and instructors to develop some degree of self-efficacy with their tools. As a student who attended classes remotely during the pandemic, I personally saw a very wide range of tech competencies among the instructors (and students) in my program. Ensuring that both instructors and students are given the training and support they need to perform in a HyFlex environment is a key responsibility of the institution.
Presenters Lisa Corak and Keith Webster from Royal Roads University did a great job of showing how they had implemented HyFlex learning. Before the pandemic, Royal Roads already did 70% of their teaching online, making them uniquely prepared to test a HyFlex model. The university has two types of HyFlex environments on campus. Most are like the room pictured above, but they also have one full-service room, with plans for two more. In the full-service environments instructors are assisted by media support staff from a control room. From the control room staff can manage audio levels, camera angles, and solve technical problems as they arise. This HyFlex format is supremely instructor-friendly, and perfect for guest speakers.
Most HyFlex learning will not take place in full-service auditoriums. For the average HyFlex environment, the most common solution is to simply have a TA assist the instructor by monitoring audio and camera angles and bringing questions from remote students to their attention.
Session 2: Considerations for HyFlex: What problem are you trying to solve?
For learners like myself, HyFlex and remote learning allowed us to continue our education during a global pandemic. For many, HyFlex allowed them to continue their education while caring for family members, or after returning home to save money.
HyFlex learning environments undoubtedly increase learner equity in higher education. They allow students who otherwise couldn’t travel to a campus to receive the same education as their more privileged peers. HyFlex continues to give students greater flexibility in their learning, enabling them to better balance work and school.
But for many students who thrived in the structure of higher education, remote learning brought on new challenges as they were isolated from their peers and more responsible for managing deadlines.
As we enter a post pandemic world, there is a push to continue to reap the benefits of HyFlex learning environments. But, as speakers Dr. Paula Hayden, Dave Lampron, Grace Dyck, and Mike Ray from the College of New Caledonia point out, what problem are you trying to solve by adopting HyFlex learning? What are you trying to achieve?
It's easy to get excited by the technology of HyFlex. I certainly am. But that technology comes with a cost, and it’s important to have a good idea of how HyFlex addresses a real problem at institutions before making an investment. Otherwise, HyFlex environments risk becoming an expensive financial burden on institutions.
Session 3: The Human Elements of HyFlex
As the earlier sessions illustrated, adopting HyFlex means big changes for instructors and students alike. In session 3, panelists from the University of the Fraser Valley explored the realities of HyFlex for students and professors.
Students spoke about the advantages of HyFlex, especially the flexibility it offered during the floods that ripped through the Fraser Valley late last year. Chloe Johnson pointed out how HyFlex learning helped her continue her studies when she had to take on more responsibilities at work.
Instructors Chris Campbell and Stefania Pizzirani discussed how teaching is different in a HyFlex environment. One of the main differences is that HyFlex teaching requires a lot more preparation before the first day of class. The nature of HyFlex means that courses must largely be planned beforehand without much flexibility for changes partway through. However, the benefit of this is that once the preparation has been done, and the materials uploaded to the cloud, the course can easily be repeated in later semesters without much need for preparation.
During a period of audience participation, the panel was asked about what participation, or presence, looks like in a HyFlex environment. For example, how do you measure the participation of a typically quiet student who is attending remotely? According to the panel, this is something for the instructor to decide based on their course. Cameras off may be fine for large, lecture style courses; but for a more intimate tutorial style, keeping cameras on can have a big impact on learner participation.
I think that my biggest takeaway from HyFlex ReAction was that as interesting as the technologies are, and as enticing as the future may be, any move towards HyFlex needs to begin and end with the humans involved. Both learners and instructors will need support as they learn new technical and organizational skills, instructors will need to change how they design courses, and learners will need to learn new ways to manage their time and connect with their peers.
I really enjoyed this event, and I want to thank the team at BC Campus, and all the presenters and moderators, for the tremendous job they did planning and facilitating this event.
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