How HyFlex Courses are Gaining Popularity in Higher Ed

Teens studying on campus grass
(Image credit: iStock/leaf)

HyFlex, or Hybrid-Flexible, courses have gotten a lot of attention recently, particularly in light of the pandemic. The basic premise is that HyFlex combines face-to-face (F2F) with online learning in a flexible structure that lets students choose which type of class(es) to attend each week. Instructors develop course content for both versions.

“HyFlex has been an educational philosophy to give students options, but now it’s becoming a way to serve all students without designing multiple versions of every course,” says Dr. Brian Beatty, associate professor of instructional technologies at San Francisco State University. Beatty, who many consider the “godfather” of HyFlex, wrote the e-book Hybrid-Flexible Course Design.  

According to Beatty, the biggest challenges for faculty are building the online version, managing the course from week to week while trying to interact with both groups of students, and making sure all the necessary technology, such as reliable audio and video capture in the classroom, is available. Sometimes you have to just make do, he says. “I’ve recorded sessions on my phone. It’s not ideal but it works in a pinch. If you’re willing to experiment and students are gracious, it can be a backup to a backup to a backup.”

Focus on Flexibility 

“I jumped at the chance to do HyFlex,” says Dr. Susan Balter-Reitz, professor of communication at Montana State University (MSU) Billings. “Our students are balancing classes, jobs, athletics, families, and other obligations; HyFlex gives them access to courses they might not be able to take otherwise.”

Balter-Reitz’s department offers three HyFlex courses, including Public Advocacy. For a recent lesson on audience analysis, students watched mini lectures and read additional materials. The F2F students brought ads for the same product that targeted different audiences and discussed demographic-related changes. Online students uploaded ads and discussed demographics that way. Next time, Balter-Reitz may ask the online students to post videos of their examples and analysis.  

In her last HyFlex class, 10 students were fully F2F, seven were online, and two would go back and forth. Although students say that building relationships can be more challenging, they really appreciate the flexibility and say it removes the stress and guilt for not getting to class.

Joy Crissey Honea, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at MSU Billings, conducted a pilot study of HyFlex in Spring 2019, surveying 61 students from three HyFlex courses ranging from freshmen to Master’s level. Fifty-one percent had participated fully online, 31 percent did both online and F2F, and 18 percent were fully F2F. The top reasons for choosing the participation mode were that work or family schedule conflicted with on-campus requirements or they learned better in person. 

When asked which aspects of HyFlex worked best, the top answers were flexibility of moving back and forth between participation modes and the option to participate fully online. When asked what did not work, students responded that “Everything worked great,” although they sometimes got confused by the schedule.

Ninety-five percent said they were very likely or likely to take another HyFlex course and five percent were unsure. No one said they were unlikely.

“Overall, it was incredibly positive feedback,” says Honea.

Since that survey, the number of HyFlex instructors increased from six to 21. “Those of us who’ve taught HyFlex are serving as mentors and helping them get set up,” says Honea. 

A Focus on Equity

At the University of Michigan (UM), Rebecca M. Quintana, Ph.D., a lecturer and learning 

experience design lead, taught a modified version of HyFlex in Fall 2019 without realizing it. One week before her 80-student Video Games and Learning course began, she learned that the large lecture room violated fire-code regulations and could hold only 40 students. With no time to find an equivalent space, they live streamed into another classroom that had video and audio capture. Students alternated between classrooms. 

“To make sure that the students in the remote room felt like they were part of the F2F experience, I had them use Slido to ask questions,” says Quintana. She also conducted classroom polls to combine input from both classes. 

Students used Google Docs for small group activities, which Quintana used to guide future lectures. She asked volunteers from the remote room to come to the F2F room and share with the whole group. “My goal was to make each group feel equally valuable,” she says.

Another Quintana idea for creating an equitable experience is pairing a F2F student with an online student and having them communicate regularly. 

One of Quintana’s colleagues, Jack Miller, started using HyFlex in 2011 at Ohio State. Now a lecturer at UM, he introduced HyFlex to Stats 250 in 2014 and extended it to Stats 412 in 2017. This fall, he’ll do HyFlex for both Stats courses.

“For me, it’s about creating equitable experiences for the students,” Miller says. “A colleague at Villanova did a study on the power of student choice. With COVID, so much is out of our control; allowing a little bit of choice is helpful.”

Miller also focuses on building community and relies on technology to help. He appreciates how Zoom lets him see who is signed in so that he can address students by name, and he also likes using the back channel to elicit feedback and questions.  

“My students really appreciate not having to choose between taking a shower after ROTC training or going to an 8:30 class,” he says. “Having the choice of how to attend class gives them so many more possibilities.”

5 Best Practices for Hyflex Courses

  1. Design for an asynchronous experience
    Many working students have difficulties attending multiple classes per week, and with COVID, some international students may never come back. If your HyFlex is asynchronous, international students don’t have to be up at 2 AM. 
  2. Reuse, don’t recreate
    “I never do it twice if I don’t have to,” says Beatty. “I had all my materials digital in 2005 and changed the content to fit online. I just had to add interaction for asynchronous learning, such as online discussions.”
  3. Build your social presence online
    Instead of a 20-word email, try a 30-second video that has your voice, your face, your smile—your cat, says Beatty. It lets students know you care about them.
  4. Create strong discussions
    Lots of instructors dislike online discussions, and with good reason: Many students just type “I agree” and conversations fall flat or are dominated by one or two people. Beatty recommends making it low stakes, asking students to help frame discussions or come up with discussion topics, and using students as rotating facilitators. 
  5. Keep online lectures short
    Recording an hour-long lecture is not good pedagogy. Aim for 10 minutes at the most. Use videos for introductions and quick explanations; “canned” intros can be used repeatedly.

Additional Resources:

7 Things You Should Know About the HyFlex Course Model

Hybrid-Flexible Course Design