HyFlex, Hybrid and Online…Oh My!

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Online Learning
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Shawn Orr is faculty in the Department of Communication Studies and the Director of the Center for Innovation and Teaching Excellence at Ashland University.


As college administrators continue their planning and preparing for the fall semester’s influx of students (in whatever modality that might look like), faculty are equally busy.

Tasked with figuring out how to best deliver course curriculum, help students meet learning outcomes and find ways for students to make meaningful connections with the course content and each other—there are a lot of intimidating (and frankly, overwhelming) terms floating around to describe innovative course designs.

My guess is most of us have already used elements of these course design philosophies, even if we do not all call them the same thing. I hope this quick review will keep the flying monkeys of despair from carrying you away.

Synchronous Learning

This means the course meets face-to-face for all or most of the class sessions. Most of us think of this as a traditional course with a faculty member teaching and a group of engaged students participating in the learning experiences together in a classroom. Most synchronous courses still utilize some digital tools to help deliver the content and assess student learning, but much of the learning happens within the classroom on set days and times.

Ironically, even with a fully synchronous course, there are still several modifications that might make the course more flexible. For example, this fall some faculty are using an Alternating Face-to-Face Course Model.

In this model, a portion of the students in a class attends the first class session of the week in person while the rest of the class is streamed live via a tool like Zoom and then the next class session of the week the groups switch and those that attended virtually during the first session attend in person and those that attended in person join virtually. All students still meet all class sessions, but the physical classroom space is de-densified.

One of the advantages of this model for fall is that if a student is no longer able to attend classes due to health or other reasons, there is no disruption to learning. Another modification of the traditional synchronous model is the completely virtual face-to-face course where a course meets the entire semester for every class period but meets virtually through technologies like Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, Google Meet or other digital tool.

It takes a lot of effort to keep students engaged during synchronous remote teaching (or when some students are live remote and others are sitting in the classroom) and mitigate the technology/connectivity issues that can have a negative impact on the learning experience.

However, in my experience, a well-designed virtually synchronous course can afford deep learning experiences and create meaningful peer-to-peer connections, while providing significant flexibility. A bonus is that students also get direct instruction on how to be successful in a remote learning/work environment—a very marketable 21st-century skill to develop!

Asynchronous Learning

A completely asynchronous course—or ONLINE course as most of us refer to it—has no face-to-face class sessions, but allows students to learn when and where they want via deep integration of a Learning Management System, utilization of digital resources, ebooks, recorded lectures, discussion boards, adaptive courseware and other digital active learning activities.

Online courses should also include significant interactions between the student and the instructor and between other students in the course. To help students succeed in a fully online course, the course needs to be well-designed taking into consideration adult learning theory, accessibility, inclusivity and have clear and consistent communication and structure throughout, detailed deadlines for projects and assignments and assessment strategies that ensure students master the learning objectives of the course.

This model of course design really does allow for maximum flexibility in learning, but it takes considerable time and effort to develop a strong online course.

Hybrid Learning

This model, which might also be called BLENDED, FLIPPED or PARTIALLY ONLINE reduces the synchronous seat-time of a course (often by up to 74%) and utilizes other direct instructional methods and technologies to deliver the curriculum and learning experiences.

Students still have required synchronous class sessions, but the number of those class sessions and/or the number of hours you meet together as a class is significantly reduced. The FLIPPED classroom is one of my favorite hybrid models. I create video recordings of my lectures for students to watch before class so students come into class with the basic knowledge-level thinking about the week’s content and objectives complete. This opens up the synchronous class sessions for engaging discussions, group projects, case study reviews, guest speakers, gamification and other active learning activities like Changing Charts or Expert Groups.

These Hybrid models do take significant time to develop as you have elements of both a synchronous course and elements of an online course. As these models are officially considered distance education, they usually rely heavily on a good learning management system, integration of robust digital resources and strong learning design principles.

HyFlex Learning

A HyFlex course model is sometimes referred to as BLENDFLEX and is not actually a new model of course design, though for many of us the term is new. In this model, students are able to jump between a completely online version of a class and a completely synchronous version of the same class as they meet their individual learning needs. Students attend class sessions face-to-face if they need additional help or are struggling with a concept, or they work through the course asynchronously in the online version if they are feeling confident.

There is tremendous flexibility in this type of design as the learner moves seamlessly from one modality of learning to another as their individual learning needs demand. In order for this design to work well, the faculty member is usually teaching two sections of the same course (one synchronous and the other online) and both versions of the class must stay at the same pace and cover the same material each week for the entire semester so students can jump back and forth as needed.

It also requires strong course management and deep integration of communication throughout the semester. In my opinion, when designed well, this extremely flexible model of teaching has exceptional learning benefits for students, but also requires considerable professional development for the faculty member and significant time to create and implement well.

You may already be using elements of HyFlex in your courses if you have weeks built into the course where you have considerable content available online in your LMS and students can opt to attend class in person if they want additional help or “skip” the face-to-face meeting if they are on track. We do this so we can provide more 1-1 or small group help and support to students that might be struggling in our courses while allowing students that are excelling to move forward.

HyFlex is the same idea, just on a larger scale. Below are two great articles if you want to learn more about the design and development of this model for your fall courses:

Whatever you decide for the modality of your fall classes, there are consistent themes that we see in each of these models, including the importance of strong, intentional course design, a focus on student mastery of learning outcomes, personalization of the learning experience, greater utilization of technology and digital resources and accessibility for all students.

My best “good-witch” advice is to start the design of your fall courses early, reach out to the experts for training and help (like your instructional design team or colleagues that are already using these models) and don’t be afraid to try something new. No one ever dazzled in the ruby slippers of life by staying in Kansas!

Looking for tips on evaluating an online or hybrid course? Watch our Empowered Educator Session now.