In Defence of “Good Enough” in HyFlex Teaching

Photo by Ammar Devedžić on Unsplash

For many teachers at Sydney diving into HyFlex teaching this semester for the first time, it has been like learning to drive; how do we manage the clutch, break, and accelerator, all while paying attention to the road, remembering who has right of way at intersections, and responding to unexpected occurrences? As we are about halfway through the first semester of 2021, as a University we are accumulating more and more HyFlex teaching experience. For many, there is a clear sense of deja vu from 2020 in having to learn yet another unfamiliar way to teach during COVID. This “HyFlex” teaching happens when students are simultaneously face-to-face and online. The cognitive load for us as teachers is enormous, as we juggle Zoom settings, microphones, classroom furniture, social distancing and, of course, our lovely students and their compelling curiosity. We are all trying our very best and occasionally we may need to forgive ourselves for doing what is “good enough” on our way to achieving “amazing” HyFlex. In other words, it’s OK just to get this HyFlex car from A to B without any major accidents. Also, those in the car with us and other drivers will forgive the odd stall on a hill or an unintended mounting of the curb.

To find out how we’re all finding driving in HyFlex, we asked colleagues about their experiences so far this semester and received a wonderfully diverse set of responses. Here’s what teachers from various parts of the University had to say.

Getting from A to B

Since we’re being honest here, we need to acknowledge that there have been very few 100% glowing commendations for HyFlex teaching. We’re hearing HyFlex being described as “difficult”, “cognitively overloading”, “frustrating”, “demanding”, “stressful”, “awkward”. Despite these clear challenges, we are also simultaneously seeing the passion and commitment of our teachers continuing to shine through to give all students the ability to connect and learn. Collectively, we are seeing that for many parts of the University, HyFlex is necessary for now and while the ride may be quite bumpy, we are still getting from point A to point B. Many of our students cannot get to campus (yet) but we are keen to keep them included and connected with those who can. So we persevere with HyFlex teaching, much like we once persevered with learning to use the clutch in Dad’s car while looking forward to buying our first car that would definitely have an automatic transmission.

…it promotes flexible learning which is terrific but the level of technical materials necessary (screens, microphones, laptops, mobile devices, etc) and the mental capacity to keep on top of all the modes of interaction on those multiple devices is a challenge.

So how do our students feel about our collective attempts at HyFlex teaching? We are hearing that on-campus students have responded “empathetically to the situation and are happy to support their remote peers”, and that the benefit for students unable to attend on-campus is clear – allowing them to join in live and connect with the rest of the cohort. One teacher commented that they “noticed that online students are more willing to spontaneously engage in conversation in class – perhaps prompted by the [on-campus] students talking”. In the COVID-normal teaching context, students on campus are enjoying being back to face-to-face teaching, while their online counterparts are “grateful for the opportunity to study with us despite being prevented from joining us”, such as when there are local lockdowns.

It’s also not all negative from the teacher perspective. We are hearing that there is a definite learning curve but once this is conquered, HyFlex can be a positive experience. Part of this is around being able to include more voices from both remote and on-campus students and the opportunity to improve teaching designs: “This seemed to work quite well and we got positive feedback from both online and face to face students about feeling engaged. Adapting activities to have an opportunity for both online students and [on-campus] students feeding back their participation in the group work in the same way was not always easy, but I think it improved the activities.”

It’s taken me a few weeks to get the setup right and to feel comfortable with it. But it’s definitely worth it….

Dings and scratches

There is certainly room for improvement and we are hearing about a myriad of issues that HyFlex teachers are all working through this semester. These include issues with teaching spaces, students on Zoom not being able to hear on-campus conversations, classes being scheduled too close together making set-up and pack-down difficult, rooms that don’t have enough microphones, desire for wide-angle cameras, or not having enough projectors. In some parts of the University, students are taking the flexibility a bit further and on any given day may swap from on-campus to remote, making numbers entirely unpredictable. Some faculties, schools, or departments have mandated that students cannot swap between modes, whilst others are permitting this – ensure you check with the relevant Head in your area for clarification. Interestingly, there were a few comments which suggested that the delicate dance that needs to happen to pass around the wireless microphone to capture on-campus voices led to discussions feeling overly formal and stilted – but more on the audio issue soon. Sometimes this all gets a bit much, and we are hearing that students can become overwhelmed with complexity extraneous to their learning: “they have voiced that it is a large cognitive and sensory load to manage the tech/AV while also processing their own learning”.

Feeling like my attention is really divided during teaching. I’m trying to make sure [on-campus] students and online students are getting enough time and attention from me, as well as managing the physical technology in the room… and the online technology like Zoom and mentimeter and Google Docs etc

In a similar way for us as teachers, HyFlex comes with a high cognitive load that leaves us “exhausted”, “drained”, and “stressed”, feeling like our attention is split across too many places and spaces. These can definitely feel insurmountable and some have indeed reverted back to separating students into on-campus and remote groups that have dedicated sessions, but this is not possible for many. Apart from the audiovisual issues (which we promise we’ll get to soon), we are hearing that HyFlex classes need even more preparation time. This extra time is needed to prepare ‘online-first‘ activities, modify the structure of the class, and practice with the teaching space and technology. HyFlex teaching was never going to be easy, but it is providing the flexibility that many of our students are needing in the COVID context. As we’ve seen, students are appreciating being able to sit with us in the car as we get from A to B, so we’d like to encourage everyone trying HyFlex that what you are doing is good and is for good.

Aids and supports

What are some of the things that help? More than anything, we are hearing that throwing resources at HyFlex is the best solution – resources in terms of people, time, and technology.

People

Many are saying that an additional “helper” teacher can be a great benefit, particularly when a large proportion of students are online and/or when there are larger classes. Some schools and departments are providing an extra teacher for HyFlex classes where needed, who can help support the main teacher and focus on engaging the remote (Zoom) students.Acknowledging that the second pair of hands was not always available, we have found that asking a colleague to help in at least the first session has been able to relieve some of the load. In addition to teaching help, many mentioned that they would appreciate some once-off technical support to help build confidence in setting up the necessary technology.

Stressful, but helped by having a tutor as online facilitator.

Speaking to colleagues and taking opportunities to practice setting up equipment with some at-elbow support has been useful to reduce some of the first time ‘jitters’ that often comes with the novelty of the experience. It’s not just about staff though – it’s important to bring our students along for the ride as well, such as spending time “at the start practising all the things we’d needed to be able to do in order to make it work – break out rooms, Google Docs, using chat, etc. I took it slow and sportscasted what I was doing to fill transition points. I checked in a lot. And acknowledged when I slipped into an in room focus.” Indeed, this suggestion of running commentary to students about what is happening and why can be helpful, and it certainly helps them be more aware of the care and effort taken to make the most of the time together.

Time

Careful preparation for HyFlex teaching has been crucial. Taking the time to visit each teaching space before the first class has been a valuable time investment for many, as each room seems to come with an idiosyncratic set of equipment. The materials used in a HyFlex class have also been more complicated to prepare than either traditional face-to-face classes or online classes, and so many have said that there is a significantly longer time spent preparing materials. Google Docs and Padlet have often come up as two tools that have successfully supported HyFlex teaching. Both tools can provide remote and face-to-face students with a shared space in which to solve problems, share ideas and collaborate.

It took a lot more prep than face to face or online teaching (like *really a lot*, I had to run each workshop in advance to identify for each activity what tech I would need at each moment, what I would be asking in room/Zoom students to do at each point of interaction, what docs I would need or what links I would need and how I would access them in the moment).

Technology: the elephant in the room

Perhaps not surprisingly, technology has played a key role in enabling HyFlex teaching (when it works) and, unfortunately, undermining HyFlex teaching when it doesn’t. Audio has been the overwhelming challenge in HyFlex classrooms: the ability to keep remote and on-campus students connected and audible to each other. If an on-campus student speaks, those on Zoom can only hear them if they are speaking into a microphone. While a small number of newer teaching spaces have excellent audio equipment, most of what we are hearing  is around the availability (or not…) of microphones in rooms. Some teachers or departments have purchased their own equipment (such as Bluetooth meeting microphones) to connect to laptops. Some have tried a mute-unmute dance, where students’ laptops are used momentarily to pick up audio away from the lectern – but these have all ended up with terrible audio feedback issues.

Many rooms only have one lapel mic so you have to wander around poking this in people’s faces otherwise Zoom students cannot hear.

Most of us are relying on the microphones provided in the rooms, where available. With the wireless microphones, however, some are finding that it introduces perceptible barriers to class discussions: “students feel like unless it’s wait-for-the-mic-and-be-recorded worthy, they don’t contribute as fluidly”. Even so, some are reporting that students have adapted very quickly to hold on while the microphone arrives before speak, and we have seen some HyFlex teachers leave the microphone (with some sanitising wipes) near the middle of a room which students are free to grab at any time.

Screens and projectors are also presenting a challenge for some HyFlex teachers. Most of the time this has been because of connection and set-up difficulties, such as missing adapter cables and getting the right thing showing on the screen(s). Because of the cognitive overload, we are hearing that it can be tricky to remember to show the right thing on the right screen at the right time.

Sorting out the technology is a major concern [but] even when everything in the room works, it is still a large pedagogical challenge to teach in HyFlex and requires very good preparation and high levels of energy to maintain.

In defence of ‘good enough’ HyFlex

Two messages that we have received from HyFlex teachers have stuck with us for their apt summary of this teaching experiment that many of us seem to be finding ourselves in: “I think it is here to stay. I am sure students value the flexibility”, and “It was actually easier than I had feared, although I think it was probably ‘good enough’ rather than an ‘amazing’ experience for students”. Without a doubt, HyFlex is a difficult form of teaching to execute well but it has allowed our students the choice to attend class in person (if they are able) or online remotely, and it has reinvigorated us as teachers because we are seeing our students face-to-face after such a long time away while supporting access to education for those who can’t be there in person. We need to acknowledge though that many of us are running on empty after 2020, and needing to develop new skills and approaches for HyFlex have drawn on a lot of our reserves. We’re not quite there yet with optimising HyFlex, and there is a lot that can be done (especially in terms of technology availability) that could improve the teaching and learning experience. In the meantime, perhaps we need to be OK with ‘good enough’, partly-Macgyvered HyFlex, in the knowledge that it is giving us (yet another) set of new skills and providing our students with education and connection in a pandemic. As one HyFlex teacher put it:

So it is a lot more work. But hopefully worth it. We love a good challenge right?

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