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The very name of HyFlex teaching—hybrid flexible—implies that this type of teaching enables extra flexibility. While the embrace of HyFlex was initially driven by public health considerations, there remain endless reasons why today’s students may need extra flexibility: most work for pay, many commute to campus and some are parents of young children. Unprecedented mental health crises, in addition to quarantines due to COVID-19, mean that college students face struggles to attend in-person courses every day.
Could HyFlex—which typically involves professors teaching students in person in the classroom while others join remotely—be the solution?
Unfortunately, while instructors can make HyFlex work, it should not become the new normal in higher education. I conducted research comparing student learning, barriers and perceptions in my HyFlex and online courses. Based on that evidence, below are six reasons why HyFlex should not become the default course structure.
Reason 1: Optimizing Multimodal Lesson Plans Is Nearly Impossible
Teaching well is hard work in a single modality. It takes training, resources and adjustments based on student needs. Teaching well in multiple modalities at the same time does not simply require having the necessary technology to include students remotely (e.g., video camera, microphone, document camera). Lesson plans must optimize remote student learning needs and in-person student learning needs—and sometimes those are opposite of each other.
While compromises can be made, the extra time by the instructor to prep those multiple modalities is generally not compensated. Plus, the compromise on quality in both modalities leaves everyone learning less than they might otherwise.
Reason 2: Real-World Barriers Prevent HyFlex Goal Realization
In an ideal world in which HyFlex is implemented, all classrooms would be equipped with the technology needed to let remote students hear what’s going on in the classroom, a speaker to let in-person students hear when remote students speak and a document camera so that remote students can see what the professor writes “on the board” (actually a piece of paper below the camera). However, considering many colleges may have implemented HyFlex not because they believe in its instructional value, but instead to save money by overenrolling courses, the ideal technology investments are not always the reality. A friend of mine at a different university had to teach a HyFlex course with no classroom microphone or speaker, making it impossible for the remote students to hear their peers or for the instructor to hear remote students’ questions.
Even with all the necessary technology, students will encounter barriers trying to engage with HyFlex remotely due to technological or social barriers in their lives. HyFlex assumes consistent access to stable, high-speed internet and well-functioning technology that is always available during class time. It assumes that a student has access to a suitable quiet, private learning environment in which to join class. Technical issues can arise, as well as problems of roommates or family members making too much background noise for students to unmute themselves and participate.
Clearly, relying on idealized notions of perfect technology access is entirely unrealistic.
Reason 3: HyFlex Limits Student Engagement and Community Building
Effective teaching requires active learning, community building and student-to-student interactions. However, my research found that the divide between remote and in-person students was an insurmountable challenge to creating true community. In-person students did not want to use technology to talk with their remote peers. The in-person students spoke less in small group discussions and activities even when these were added with intentionality to combat the divide.
Worse still, having the option to join remotely enabled poor decisions by students, such as attempting to multitask while attending class. I had students attend class while on public transportation or in a car, while at appointments, or while otherwise doing tasks that required their attention.
In an active learning classroom, students need to be in environments in which they can actively process and respond to the course content and their peers. Enabling an option to join remotely while multitasking not only hurt that student’s ability to learn but also harmed the experience for the peers in their small group, who would often wait in silence to see if anyone was going to respond in the discussion.
Reason 4: HyFlex Reproduces Many of the Inequalities It Seeks to Lessen
HyFlex ideally would decrease inequalities. Students with fewer financial resources are more likely to miss class due to transportation or paid-work conflicts. Students with physical or mental health disabilities are more likely to face barriers to their attendance in class. Thus, increasing access for these groups should lessen those inequalities.
Instead, I found the opposite.
No matter how many strategies I used, students who spent most or all of the semester attending class remotely felt they had an inferior education. As the instructor, I agreed. They missed the ability to ask private questions, to make small talk and otherwise build a connection with me or their peers. I would feel better prepared to write a letter of recommendation for a decent in-person student compared to one of the best remote students.
More troubling, no matter how many times I told students to not attend class if they were sick (whether it was a physical or mental health crisis), students consistently tried to join remotely. The ableist assumption that they had a duty to try to attend regardless of their personal circumstances made them try to attend when it would have been much better for their recovery to miss class. I even had a student email asking if I thought he should try to join class remotely from his hospital bed.
By enabling flexibility to attend from anywhere, there is a real threat that students and faculty alike will reproduce ableist or classist assumptions that now there is no reason a student ever needs to miss class.
Reason 5: HyFlex Is Trying to Solve Structural Problems With Individual-Level Technology Solutions
The reasons students are struggling—lack of childcare, inaccessible transportation, limited access to health care—cannot be solved by technology in the classroom. By looking to technology to solve these problems, we detract from the meaningful work universities need to do in addressing the basic needs of their student populations.
Additionally, universities themselves face budgetary challenges. Investing money in HyFlex technology (and training so that instructors maximize that technology) means diverting money away from other pressing concerns.
Reason 6: HyFlex Does Not Add Meaningful Benefits Beyond 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 shows about my own remote pandemic course, students were able to learn effectively and establish meaningful connections with me and their peers. By being able to focus all my attention on optimizing that remote course for remote learning—or my in-person courses for in-person learning—students got a better education and I felt like a more capable instructor.
While flexibility, engagement and accessibility of all students must be central guiding principles for higher education moving forward, widespread implementation of HyFlex is not the solution. HyFlex may be useful in some limited circumstances. However, higher education would be better served by helping instructors adjust other modalities to meet student needs—for the betterment of students and faculty alike.