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Universities Expand HyFlex Learning to Meet Student Demands

Universities are looking to expand courses hosting asynchronous and synchronous lectures both online and in person to meet student demands for flexible schedules in a post-pandemic landscape.

Lehman College website image.
Credit: Lehman College website
According to a study last year from Barnes and Noble Education, 69 percent of higher-ed students cited flexibility as a key need for completing their courses. As universities and colleges grow more comfortable with expanding online learning options, schools like Lehman College in New York City are modernizing facilities to meet students’ needs for flexibility via courses that offer both online and in-person options.

According to a news release, the college has recently started testing the feasibility of offering “HyFlex” — short for “hybrid and flexible” — courses en masse, which can be taken in-person and online, as well as together or asynchronously, to work with students’ changing schedules.

Lehman is spearheading much of the City University of New York’s efforts to expand HyFlex learning, joining 13 other CUNY colleges piloting the model since last fall. The college’s CIO Ron Bergmann said the $5 million CUNY project aims to outfit 172 of about 200 classrooms with the technology needed to make HyFlex learning a new norm.

“Many of our students are working, and they’re parents. Many of our students have been or are essential employees. Depending on what the courses offer, it may not always be easy to attend class in person,” he said. “We’ve gone through the response and recovery during the pandemic, but now we are in a period of renewal as we get to — at least right now — some semblance of ‘normalcy’ and knowing that may change. We are all worried thinking there may be an uptick in the fall with COVID, and we just don’t know.”

Along with funding for technology needs, he said, the college has placed an emphasis on professional development for professors to “get them up to speed” with the tools at their disposal.

“Our classrooms have been, in some ways, not always modernized, so the equipment tends to be older. This [initiative] allows us to upgrade the equipment in the classroom and add on HyFlex capabilities ... Sometime in the fall, we will have 172 classrooms and four lecture halls outfitted with HyFlex capabilities,” he said. “Upgrades will include laser projectors that are much higher-definition and can be viewed very easily in sunlight, for example during the day. It’s an overall upgrade in computers, the projectors, the screens and wireless capability.”

Those capabilities, he said, are important to expanding access to higher education among underserved populations sometimes unable to afford or even attend traditional courses in the Bronx, where the college is located. With accessibility in mind, he said, the college has also worked to tackle digital equity during the pandemic, and has loaned Chromebooks, laptops and connectivity devices to students in need of tech.

Over the pandemic, he noted, over 3,000 of the school’s students have reached out to apply for devices.

“The need for devices, we’ve found, is something that’s important for our students, and we’ve made a strategic decision to try to ensure any student needing a device, during but also after COVID, has access to one,” he said.

Bergmann noted that the recent push toward HyFlex learning has been a long time coming. He said the model was first pioneered in the mid-2000s at San Francisco State University to attract and retain graduate students juggling work schedules with classes, among other needs.

Among the nearly 35 percent of courses — mostly arts and humanities — using the model at Lehman since last semester, faculty noted improvements in attendance and engagement.

Professor Sherry Deckman, a social studies education professor at Lehman, commented in a news release that the emerging model expanded her students’ ability to access classes and course materials.

“I offer my class in the evenings, and having a HyFlex format that allows both asynchronous students and students who Zoom-in means we not only get students who work nine to five, but also students who work service jobs and might work in the evenings,” Dowling said in a public statement.

Daveisha Augustin, a senior biology education major, mother and full-time teacher’s assistant, said she needed classes that could work with her schedule and were less rigid than traditional courses, given the demands that come with being a working parent. Like many students taking classes that require more hands-on learning, she chose to take most of her courses in person, barring moments such as when she recently had to take care of her 12-year-old son in quarantine.

“I would choose HyFlex over solely online or in-person classes,” she said. “It’s the best of both worlds, especially when you’re juggling multiple responsibilities.”

CUNY’s move to HyFlex learning is part of a wider trend taking place across the higher-ed sector, according to a survey of college presidents conducted earlier this year by the American Council on Education, cited by CUNY officials. The study said 41 percent of respondents noted future plans to expand or add similar HyFlex learning offerings at their institutions, while 40 percent were still considering it.

Bergmann expects HyFlex learning to expand across the higher-ed sector soon in the years ahead, as universities and colleges aim to “meet the needs of the times.”

“I think the model is at a point where it’s becoming practical and workable, and it’s something that adds value for students and faculty alike,” he said. “But there’s a transition to get there. We’re sort of in the process of managing that transition.”

Officials at other large universities like Northern Illinois are also increasingly embracing the new model.

While only a handful of courses at NIU are using the HyFlex model now, about half of its classrooms and lecture halls have been outfitted with similar technology to record and stream lectures, according to NIU’s Jason Rhode, director of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning.

Among other tech needs, he said classrooms must have advanced audio equipment similar to that at Lehman to capture lessons with minimal background noise.

“Schools doing this at scale need to be very intentional about having strong technology infrastructure in the classroom, combined with a [new] pedagogical approach to instruction,” he said. “There’s a technology piece there, and then there’s the pedagogy of, ‘How do you structure your classes so students can all participate?’

“When the pandemic hit, we had classrooms with streaming technology, and these courses were prime candidates for trying this approach,” he said. “We’ve also equipped classrooms with [additional] technology needed for students to participate remotely.”

Rhode expects NIU and others will expand their HyFlex offerings in the years ahead, as students continue to grow more accustomed to online learning options that fit with their schedules. He said student demand for flexibility could continue to act as a driving force for such trends.

“There’s certainly an expectation on behalf of students,” he said. “I think we’re also going to see faculty across higher ed become even more willing to try these emerging technologies and pedagogies through some of these new tools.”

Noting new pedagogical approaches, instructional experts at the University of South Carolina have developed a guide for HyFlex learning. It said HyFlex courses must provide clear, regular guidance on course objectives and assignment expectations, as well as access to instructional content that’s easy to navigate.

Vera Polyakova-Norwood, director of distributed learning at the University of South Carolina’s College of Nursing, said the emerging model could better prepare schools for drastic shifts to remote learning, similar to what they did in 2020, in case campuses need to close again in the future.

“If we say, in the middle of the semester, ‘faculty have to switch to fully online delivery,’ then they are already there. They don’t have to do any additional planning or reconceptualization of everything that’s being done,” Polyakova-Norwood said.

The scope and availability may still remain limited in a post-pandemic landscape, according to University of South Carolina spokeswoman Dana Woodward.

“While we do have some resources on HyFlex available for our faculty, that’s not a direction that our institution is currently moving in,” she said in an emailed response last week to Government Technology.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.