By: Harrison Nelson
February 4th, 2023
This article is part of our Fall 2022 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
Over the past two years, students across the world experienced online courses. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many classes to take place solely online, leaving students and faculty frustrated. In 2022, schools and universities began welcoming students back into the classroom as the amount of COVID cases falls. While those who were upset with online classes rejoiced, others missed the advantages of virtual or hyflex classes.
Even though in-person and online classes have existed long before the pandemic, the belief these two methods were the only options is currently being challenged by education researchers and universities. By combining online and in-person instruction, a new method of teaching has made its way into classrooms, called hyflex.
Hyflex learning puts the control of the learning environment in the hands of the students. Those wishing to come into class in-person can meet in the classroom while those who prefer to stay online can come to class virtually. While this sounds like a great compromise, not everyone feels positively about hyflex.
Dr. Caitlin Kirby, an education researcher at Michigan State University, found that several professors she worked with have said, “I won’t do hyflex… because it is too much work.” While the fact that many professors do not wish to teach using hyflex sounds discouraging, a deeper dive into why they don’t want to is helping researchers like Dr. Kirby find answers.
“You had no support. You tried to do it all on your own and that’s why it was bad for you and your students,” said Casey McCardle, associate chair for undergraduate studies in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures. “There’s a difference between remote teaching and online teaching,” he said. According to Casey, who asked to be referenced by his first name, professors had to restructure their entire classes in an emergency situation. They don’t look back on online learning fondly.
Spring 2020 forced both teachers and students online. Within a week, classes shifted from fully in-person to online. This quick change frustrated many instructors and students alike, leaving them with the opinion in-person learning is superior. As Casey explained, professors were rushed into an emergency situation with limited support. Their chances of success were low due to the circumstances.
Shannon Kelly, doctoral candidate in writing, rhetoric, and american cultures and the graduate assistant for the College of Arts and Letters’ Educational Technology Team, said, “I think a lot of faculty have an idea about what a ‘good’ class looks like and feels like, what a ‘good’ discussion feels like in a class, and that can be hard to replicate with hyflex delivery.” Many professors have years of experience and have developed lesson plans that work in-person. Because of this fact, it can be hard for instructors to adapt what has worked for years to a hyflex model.
Curriculum issues aside, there is another massive hurdle to overcome: technology. The essence of hyflex is that it connects online and in-person learners into one class. A drawback to this is that teachers often have to run a virtual meeting as well as instruct in-person, meaning their attention is divided between the two. The attention invariably ends up on the in-person class because that is what teachers are used to. Balancing class discussions as well as watching the chat and making sure the online students are on the same page is a challenge.
While these issues are being discussed, the general consensus is that the support that teachers need to teach hyflex must come from schools and universities. Select universities such as New Jersey City University, University of Florida and California State University Long Beach, are all offering hyflex courses. They are able to because they have made the necessary technology upgrades to help teachers. These upgrades include speakers, centralized microphones and cameras in the classrooms.
In classes at MSU, students and professors are experiencing hyflex without these enhanced classrooms. This makes teaching and learning much harder. Many of the rooms do not have the necessary cameras and microphones. Professors commonly use their laptops with the volume all the way up and the microphone on. Students that are in-person will often have their laptops logged into Zoom so that they can do group work with online students. Many times, the speaker of one laptop will emit the same sound as the sound going into the microphone of another, producing a high-pitched feedback.
There are many challenges that still need to be addressed to make hyflex more accessible. But some are still asking if the investment in hyflex classes is worth it.
Some students benefit from the hyflex model. “I’ve had some students talk about how they appreciate being able to access the class days when they can’t get there,” said Stuart Blythe, associate professor at MSU. There is a long list of reasons students miss class. As Michiganders know, it can be dangerous commuting to class in the winter. And while cases are decreasing for COVID-19, students are still contracting the virus and other illnesses, leaving them out of the classroom.
This is where hyflex classes become more than just a convenience; they support students. Being sick no longer means you have to miss class. With hyflex, you can still login from home and be a part of class. In cases where attendance is strict, students would often come to class sick so that they would not be penalized. Giving students the option to stay home also reduced the chances of flus, colds and viruses to be passed around on campus. Those who are cautious about contracting the virus from in-person classes also have the option to stay at home.
This spring semester has shown MSU students the advantages of hyflex. “My entire family—my mom, my brothers—all live outside of Michigan. So when I’m in school, it’s really hard for me to travel to see them without missing classes. But with hyflex, I can go home for a few days, whether for holidays or special occasions, without having to miss school,” said MSU senior Bianca Bucholtz.
But these aren’t the only reasons students are attracted to hyflex classes. Social anxiety and depression are being discussed more and more in recent years. Mental health is important, and for some, going to class around others is a stressor. Students with physical disabilities, weak immune systems and autoimmune diseases can also benefit from a hyflex course. As Casey said, “It just makes sense as a state school to create a space to bring as many people to the table as possible.” All of the benefits mentioned previously can be benefits for instructors too.
Even for students who were eager to go back to in-person classes, many recognize the ultimate benefit of offering hyflex classes. This could be a positive change as a result of the pandemic.
“I think the constant push to go back to how things were pre-COVID is such a missed opportunity to actually learn from the experiences of remote teaching and learning and to keep and integrate the ways in which we’ve expanded access and learning opportunities for more students,” said Shannon.
Casey agreed. He said, “Let’s take everything we learn from [hyflex] and create more inclusive spaces.” But people have their doubts about MSU opting to support the hyflex model.
“Although online options are going to continue to increase, I don’t know if hyflex will be a thing that the university itself pushes” said Kirby.
“Unfortunately, I don’t see MSU admin getting more on board with hyflex delivery,” Shannon said. This may seem discouraging, but it does not mean that hyflex cannot happen at MSU. Kirby pointed out that professors have control over their lesson plan and can run a hyflex class.
“I think it will grow slowly in pockets of programs where instructors see their peers are doing it, and students may come to expect that from certain programs,” said Kirby.
Blythe currently teaches hyflex courses and believes the accessible nature of hyflex can benefit students in many different facets. While MSU may not invest in hyflex right now, it might be something future students look for when applying to colleges.
Claire Bahorski, a student at MSU said, “I do think hyflex classes should continue because in this time, after COVID has affected how we do work and school, it is necessary to give students the option to still learn even if they can’t physically be there. Hyflex classes are another adaptation that we have to make.”
The success of hyflex is reliant on support from universities providing the necessary technology and guidance for professors. At the moment, many universities haven’t shown this support yet, so the future of hyflex relies on teachers and students. But as the demand for accessibility increases, hyflex is here to stay, not only in the classroom but also in the workplace. This is an emerging virtual world, so the more technology is added to curriculums, the more ready students will be for the future.
Harrison Nelson is a fourth year undergraduate student with a major in professional and public writing and a minor in entrepreneurship and innovation. He has been playing guitar for twelve years and enjoys classic cars.