Online, Remote, Hyflex, or, uh, Blendflex? Why college courses this fall may fail to be truly “hybrid”

As colleges and universities in the northern hemisphere prepare for fall semester during the ongoing covid-19/novel coronavirus pandemic,  we are starting to get a picture of how institutions are ensuring that their faculty can teach and their students can learn despite physical distancing. By the latest count, most US institutions are planning a hybrid approach, where students will have at least some amount of in-person attendance as an option. I’m still gathering information and anecdotes from across higher ed segments, but thus far I’ve seen just a few distinct instructional models emerging that will fit the context of this pandemic:

  • Online – students learn from web-based content, activities, and interactions, often on their own schedule (primarily asynchronous; no in-person attendance).

  • Remote instruction –  students and teachers meet at the same time via video conferencing (primarily synchronous; no in-person attendance).

  • Hybrid-F2F – aka blendflex or blended synchronous, students and teachers meet at the same time via video conferencing or face-to-face attendance (primarily synchronous; limited in-person attendance.

  • Hyflex – students choose to learn entirely or partially online, attending any live sessions they want (primarily asynchronous with optional synchronous; limited in-person attendance).

(For a great visualization on different modes of instruction, check out Jenae Cohn’s infographic on Course Models at a Glance.)

Why isn’t “blended” or “hybrid” in this list? “Blended” typically refers to any instructional approach that purposefully blends online and onsite learning experiences. “Hybrid” is certainly a term that describes the general approach most institutions are taking this fall with regards to in-person attendance, but it’s less apt at describing what instructors are actually planning to do in their courses.

I don’t think I’m splitting hairs to say that hybrid courses depend on in-person environments as much as traditional face-to-face courses do. In Essentials for Blended Learning (now in 2nd edition!), I wrote that blending, in general, and hybrid courses, in particular, are most valuable in that these models empower the instructor to design learning activities specifically for onsite or online environments, according to the strengths or limitations of each. I’m not the only one who focuses on this aspect of blending; Garrison and Vaugh write:

Blended learning combines the properties and possibilities of both [onsite and online learning] to go beyond the capabilities of each separately. It recognizes the strengths of integrating verbal and text-based communication and creates a unique fusion of synchronous and asynchronous, direct and mediated modes of communication in that the proportion of face-to-face and online learning activities may vary considerably.

Purposeful blending focuses the course designer on the differences and affordances of each environment (or mode) and encourages the instructor to re-think existing learning activities in terms of what’s possible — hopefully by way of desired learning outcomes. The idea here is that we can improve student outcomes or experiences when a course is intentionally designed to deliver learning outcomes using activities that leverage the best of both worlds. This factor may partly explain why, in some studies, blended course outcomes are better than a course that is limited to using just one mode. As my co-author Charles R. Graham might say, instructors who blend may start by thinking about technology as enabling their existing instructional practices at a distance, but are best steered toward thinking about how blending can enhance and even transform the student experience.

Instructors with little experience in online or hybrid teaching may end up delivering “enabling” blends this fall, due to lack of time, experience, or training. But just as important is the limiting factor of what’s actually feasible for a hybrid course with social distancing requirements in place.

Because of the reduction in onsite time and the focus on the affordances of face-to-face environments, blended or hybrid courses are often designed to maximize the limited, available onsite sessions by expecting full student participation. Indeed, many hybrid courses look a lot like flipped classrooms, where in-person sessions are re-designed to center on learners by maximizing the time for hands-on practice, peer collaboration, or direct observation. Hybrid courses just have fewer in-person sessions. In contrast, many institutions that will provide students with limited in-person attendance this fall are likely to make attendance an option, not a requirement, allowing students to participate virtually if they prefer. Instructors and students may find this easy to manage if the live sessions are primarily lecture-based with light discussion. More interactive or collaborative live sessions will require greater planning and adept management when some students are in-person (and a minimum number of feet apart) while others are remote. It’s not impossible; it’s just more difficult.

Kevin Kelly is developing some useful examples for instructors who are planning more interactive class sessions under pandemic conditions. His guidance is notable because it goes beyond hybridizing under pandemic conditions, as Kevin is a proponent and early pioneer of the hyflex course model. Hyflex is basically three modes of instruction — online, blended, and face-to-face — rolled into one, where students choose between the modes throughout the semester, based on their personal preference. With hyflex a student could attend the same number of in-person class sessions as a regular semester course, or no in-person sessions at all and still achieve the same learning outcomes.

So what’s the difference between “hyflex” and this thing called “blendflex”? I had a colleague ask me this a few weeks ago and my honest response was, “I don’t know.”

But it was easy to figure this out, thanks to University of Central Florida’s description of blendflex. It was no surprise to me that UCF delineated blendflex from blended, hybrid, or hyflex as their CDL is full of experts in blending. In short, blendflex is primarily synchronous with fractional, assigned in-person attendance, whereas hyflex is primarily asynchronous with optional in-person attendance. In my experience, creating a hyflex course is easiest to achieve when you can start with an intentionally designed, fully online asynchronous course, as hyflex requires all the capabilities of an online course plus aligned and synchronized in-class learning. A blendflex course, on the other hand, will be easier to achieve for courses moving from a traditional face-to-face mode — which is what the majority of fall courses will be.

Creating true hyflex experiences that realize the unique value of the model will be much more difficult this fall, in part due to the limited time available to instructional staff, but largely due to physical distancing requirements. Limiting students’ ability to choose in-person attendance diminishes two of Brian Beatty’s four core principles of hyflex design: Learner choice, and by relation, Accessibility. A hyflex course is intentionally designed to let students choose to complete it fully online and asynchronously; most faculty won’t be prepared to offer t this according to their own preference or schedule; this remains a key differentiator. By contrast, I expect most courses this fall (whether we call them remote or blendflex) to be fairly direct adaptations of traditional face-to-face instruction.

The term blendflex is relatively new, but the concept isn’t really. We used to offer these at Utah State University in the very early days of the web, pioneering point-multipoint video. At Utah Valley State College (later UVU) we offered these via the state’s fiber network relying on video conferencing hardware and supported by online web sites; we called these “live interactive”.

By the way, USU is referring to this mode as Hybrid-F2F. A number of Australian universities have referred to this kind of course design as “blended synchronous learning”. While I don’t love the term “blendflex” itself, there is value in disambiguating it from a hyflex course, most importantly because I believe each represents different goals for instructional development and lead to different outcomes for students and teachers.

I think it’s possible that “blendflex” becomes conflated with “hyflex”. Hyflex has the greater momentum in public discourse but blendflex will be the dominant prototype for pandemic instruction. Will term hyflex undergo a semantic shift, much as MOOC did in the early 2010s — remember when we tried to use “xMOOC” vs “cMOOC” with a straight face consistently? Blendflex feels like a similar distinction — absolutely meaningful, but possibly too nuanced for broad adoption.