In recent years, the HyFlex modality has grown in popularity largely due to enrollment disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally conceived at San Francisco State University in the mid-2000s, the format provided the flexibility students and faculty needed due to the disruptions in everyday life. However, because many universities were forced to implement Hyflex rapidly during the pandemic, their focus was on getting the materials into the hands of students quickly. Unfortunately, this sometimes came at the sacrifice of the overall educational experience, resulting in mixed opinions about the format.
This is unfortunate because the potential of HyFlex is immense. Even in our post-pandemic world, society craves flexibility. The ability to choose how to attend class week-in and week-out without negatively impacting your grade or learning outcomes is a powerful tool. Whether life circumstances require you to attend class in the traditional classroom, synchronously online, or complete your work asynchronously online, a student having the option to adjust to what works best for them based on crazy and chaotic schedules can remove burdens and stress on students which may otherwise push them towards dropping the course. Hyflex offers the solution to many of the challenges students face, but it can only be effective with proper planning and implementation of HyFlex.
At Athens State University, in Fall 2020, like many other institutions, we piloted a HyFlex project. As was the case with other institutions, we had a mix of successes and challenges. However, we adjusted and pivoted and continued to grow our HyFlex program. These adjustments consisted of attempting to gain the benefits of HyFlex without sacrificing the elements shown to keep students actively engaged and enrolled in a course. This is where ActiveFlex was born – a strategy consisting of purposefully embedding active learning principles and student-to-student collaboration using the HyFlex modality.
Today, we have successfully implemented 13 unique ActiveFlex courses at our university. Additionally, our unique student demographics have given us insights on how to better achieve a successful HyFlex / ActiveFlex implementation in the future. Below, we share 7 tips we have learned – three from a faculty perspective and three from an institutional perspective – that will greatly benefit anyone looking at implementing ActiveFlex.
Tip 1: Start with Strong Asynchronous Classes Rather Than Traditional Classes
Faculty Members and Institution
Too many times in ActiveFlex conversations, the primary focus is on the technology to make everything work. Rooms are built, cameras are purchased, and microphones are installed. However, no thought has been given to how to actually teach the concepts to an online audience. This usually leads to a faculty member teaching in a traditional classroom, recording themselves for 90 minutes, and placing that recording online to give access to the students who couldn’t make it live. The problem with this is that it is boring. Watching a 90-minute recording online is not the same as watching it in a live class. In our courses that attempted this method during their ActiveFlex rollouts, the results were negative experiences for both faculty and students.
Fortunately, our institution has primarily online students that are working adults with young families. This allowed our ActiveFlex pilot programs to use courses that were already built for an online audience as well as those taught traditionally in the classroom. What we found is that the classes that were built for an asynchronous online audience were easier to convert to ActiveFlex than those that had only been taught in person. The asynchronous online courses had already been designed with solid instructional materials, activities were appropriate, and guidance and instructions were available so that the immediate need for intervention by a faculty member was minimized. Once these structures were in place, conceptualizing what to talk about in a live session was easy. This was a massive shift from trying to figure out how to get that live classroom activity working on the fly and many times forgetting that the asynchronous students for the week would have to figure it out on their own without direct access to the instructor.
Start with a solidly built online course and then add in the live class materials and interactions rather than the other way around.
Tip 2: Set Adoption Goals and Strategies
If an ActiveFlex initiative is being conducted from the institutional level rather than individual faculty members just testing the waters, a clear adoption and growth strategy must be set. In our case, we were lucky enough to be awarded a federal grant to expand our course offerings using the modality. Doing so forced us to determine how many courses needed to be converted and in what timeframe. This allowed us to begin laying out a semester-by-semester plan for adoption and rollout. Most importantly, it allowed us to accurately plan and allocate resources to ensure the plan could be met. As with many projects, first impressions will determine the overall success of the project. If people have a bad taste in their mouths early, the chances of success drastically decrease. However, successes early on can be contagious. Proper planning and allocation of resources early in the project are essential to making sure it has the best chance of success.
Tip 3: Ensure Proper Support Mechanisms for Faculty
As online education has grown at many institutions, the use of instructional designers in the development of online materials has also grown. Students benefit from online environments created by instructional designers and faculty members who work together to convert course materials into an effective online class. This will also be the case with ActiveFlex instruction. As mentioned in Tip 1, the baseline for course development should be the asynchronous portion of the ActiveFlex course. This means designers and faculty members will need to continue working together to develop a good student experience in this modality. In addition to the normal online course conversion, the instructional designer must also consider and develop methods conducting active learning with peer collaboration during the live sessions. All of this demonstrates a continued need for instructional design support when developing ActiveFlex courses.
Additionally, ActiveFlex requires greater technical capabilities while teaching the live class. Faculty members no longer just turn on a projector and start teaching. With students able to attend synchronously through web conferencing software, multiple pieces of technology are now interacting together simultaneously. This can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned instructor. Thus, we found that in our experience, having a dedicated technical support person for the first few class sessions of each ActiveFlex course was essential. After about three course sessions, most faculty were able to run the ActiveFlex course on their own, but those first three weeks were essential. Having the extra technical person in the room managing the working pieces led to better experiences for our instructors. As mentioned earlier, setting up successes early in the experience were pivotal for continued growth and having the technical person in the class was crucial in creating a positive experience for faculty and students early on.
Tip 4: Follow the Rule of Thirds
Attention spans are shorter these days. This is especially true for individuals attending or watching things online. This is where the “recording a 90-minute class session” philosophy starts to break down. Students, especially online students attending synchronously, tend to get bored. There are many factors that can play into how long a student will pay attention, but one tactic to better ensure they stay engaged with the lesson is to break up the lecture with activities. In many cases, direct instruction is needed to transmit content to students, but rather than talk for 90 minutes, try going for 30 minutes. Then, have an activity that emphasizes and builds off of what the students just learned. Have them work together on a mini- project to apply the information. Then, bring them back together to briefly discuss it. At that point, move into the next portion of direct instruction and repeat it.
When we have developed our lessons using this rule of thirds – direct instruction, reinforcement activity, group discussion, our students have reported higher engagement and enjoyment. Combining this tip with Tip 3 where the instructional designers can help develop some of those reinforcement activities creates the sweet spot of ActiveFlex.
Tip 5: Use the LMS to Automate Class Processes
ActiveFlex takes extra work on the part of the faculty member. Each week, items such as taking attendance, releasing materials to students, and ensuring everyone is on the same page can quickly eat up time. As a solution, we started figuring out ways to automate many of the managerial-style processes in the LMS so that we could focus more on teaching and learning. The use of adaptive release triggers in Blackboard and mastery paths in Canvas can allow this automation. For example, a student can tell us at the beginning of a lesson whether or not they intend to go to a live session that week. If they say no, the system knows to drop them all of the materials needed to complete their work for the week. If they say yes, the system knows to hold back the materials we will use in the live class until they show up. If they end up not showing up for a live class, the system sees that and releases them all of the materials for the week. Rather than the faculty member having to go in and hide and release stuff or have complicated instructions on what to use and when, the LMS automates who sees what based on their actions.
Admittedly, adaptive release and mastery paths can be tricky to set up, so be sure to work with an instructional designer the first couple of times you use them. However, automating portions of your course will be well worth the time it took to learn how to use these tools.
Tip 6: Remain Flexible and Open-Minded
Although the tips above can reduce some problems with an ActiveFlex implementation, always remember that the modality is rapidly expanding and we are learning new things about it daily. Thus, be prepared to make needed improvements. We have found that keeping an open mind about using the tool and communicating well with your students goes a long way into making any problems that arise have a minimal impact overall. In our experience, our students have appreciated that we are trying to give them a class experience that allows them flexibility and have cared more about that than whether or not we set up breakout groups right or forgot to share the screen. Go into this experience with the right heart and mindset and you’ll be an ActiveFlex champion in no time.
To Flex or Not to Flex
When taking on a HyFlex / ActiveFlex initiative, there are a number of factors that play into the success or failure of the project. Although there is no guarantee of success, following best practices of successful implementations increases your chances of creating an ActiveFlex format that keeps students engaged, increases their learnings, and helps instructors make meaningful connections with their students. The tips found in this article have worked well thus far for the ActiveFlex implementation at our university. If you are interested in implementing ActiveFlex or find yourself in the middle of an implementation, using these six tips could be equally beneficial in your instance. The benefits of flexible delivery are immense, so pursue it with an open mind and an adventurous spirit. Good luck on your ActiveFlex journey!