HyFlex education is the black mirror of higher education (review)

I was recently in a high profile meeting at my university where a colleague of mine gave a sober and candid presentation on the challenges and lessons learned from teaching HyFlex over the past year. For those outside the inner circle of educational jargon, “HyFlex” is a portmanteau of hybrid and soft-or it is sometimes interpreted as very flexible. For some, the term is simply synonymous with the future.

HyFlex is meant to concisely describe a method of teaching some students in person, in a traditional classroom setting, while simultaneously teaching other students remotely via Zoom or other remote video streaming apps. Often these two different groups of students may overlap or switch places throughout the term. It’s a style of teaching that involves carefully choreographing cameras, speakers, and microphones in addition to navigating a traditional classroom layout with students in attendance. The instructor becomes a performer, a master of ceremonies and a technologist (often a clumsy, at that).

HyFlex teaching effectively means teaching of them iterations of the same class, simultaneously: 1) a version taught more or less the old-fashioned way, and 2) a version mediated and modulated to distant students whom the instructor may never meet in person.

One of the main takeaways from my colleague’s presentation was that it was just plain exhausting: the learning curve, adapting to the different needs of students on both platforms, adjusting the curriculum and assignments to accommodate such a wide and changing range of learners. Another more positive lesson learned was to trust students to get what they could, however they could, from courses – to soften regulatory and surveillance impulses, and to let knowledge creation happen more irregularly. and individual.

For me, sitting a few seats away from my colleague during his presentation, the message was clear: while we had Survived HyFlex education for the long duration of the pandemic, we wouldn’t wish it on anyone, because it posed so many challenges that inevitably interfered with the fundamental goals of mastering a subject. On campus, the consensus was pretty clear: everyone lost something in the HyFlex courses. The in-class students, the distance students, and the instructor each felt they had been overlooked.

However, after my colleague’s presentation, a few members of the steering committee began to question the increase in our HyFlex offerings. “It looks like we can reach more students this way. Can we attract even more diverse enrollment if we do more of our HyFlex classes? Isn’t this the future?

At a time when universities seem to operate on a grow-or-die calculation, anything that can spur expansion or reach becomes enticing.

Some caveats were raised: even though we give all our students laptops, we cannot predict, let alone control, whether or not they will have a stable internet connection. Plus, as many of us discovered during our first forays into Zoom learning, students’ life situations were just as variable, with very real implications. Some students had to join the class from their car or walk around their neighborhood if they didn’t have a private place in their house where they could connect. The infamous Zoom grid black boxes had real histories. (It wasn’t just the students who were lazy.)

It occurred to me that regardless of the other implications of the experience, regardless of the complexities of the curriculum and the degree programs taken by a student, college is also a place . It offers students all kinds of sites and places where learning can take place: library alcoves, dormitories, Adirondack chairs and quad picnic tables, dining halls and cafes. Of course, a student’s time on campus isn’t all about studying; these spaces also host a number of social gatherings, spontaneous get-togethers, energy siestas, and zoning.

It is the physical location of the university that allows all of this to happen, to permeate and surround appropriate learning. And all that HyFlex has gotten us through the pandemic – stay on track, complete classes, complete terms – we may lose our bearings when it comes to not having the physical location of l ‘Higher Education.

I felt this viscerally the last semester, as my students and I tried to regain a sense of normalcy: sitting together, reading texts aloud, commenting and questioning, articulating complex ideas. Everything seemed incredibly tentative, almost surreal. As one of my students described it, “It’s like a black mirror episode.” I took that to mean that even though everything seemed normal, there were all these impending risk factors – a feeling that campus life was on the verge of a shocking distortion. It was as if all the activity on campus could suddenly turn out to be a shaky performance — and we’d all be back on Zoom, tinkering with our classes from afar. And indeed, to begin the spring semester – with Omicron spreading aggressively – we are back in the vague ontology of remote learning.

The “flex” in HyFlex is meant to suggest the flexibility that our technologies allow: the ability to join a class from home or the time management options made possible through asynchronous teaching. The wish picture consists of recorded lectures that can be absorbed at the most convenient time, quizzes and discussion forums that can flow organically and at the whim of motivated students, and an agile instructor that can appear online and track learning progress… anytime.

The reality is something much darker. This means that students and instructors seem to have endless tasks: a constant barrage of boxes to check, videos to watch, assessments to correct. They pile up in the timeless void of the phone screen or the computer desk. The midnight deadlines become an infinite regress. And while the courses seem to be neatly organized in our learning management apps, in files, folders, and subfolders, it all takes everyone involved away from the college experience.

Don DeLillo’s classic 1985 postmodern novel (yes, we can use those terms together now), White noise, opens with what read like a brilliant parody of a small liberal arts campus at the start of the fall semester:

The breaks arrived at noon, a long, shiny line running through West Campus. In single file, they walked around the orange I-beam sculpture and headed for the dormitories. The roofs of station wagons were laden with carefully secured suitcases filled with light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, duvets; with rolled up mats and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, backpacks, English and western saddles, inflatable rafts. As the cars slowed and stopped, the students rushed and ran to the back doors to begin removing the items inside; stereos, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table stoves; boxes of phonograph records and cassettes; hair dryers and styling irons; tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; controlled substances, oral contraceptive pills and devices; the junk food still in the shopping bags – onion and garlic chips, nachos, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and caramel popcorn; Dum-Dum pops, mystical mints.

This used read as a parody; now it reads like an elegy. College is no longer such a place. There is hardly a shared feeling of coming together to learn. On the contrary, higher education is advertised as a grid of applications delivered to everyone’s personal phones. Instructors are encouraged to “deliver” their courses in separate blocks and units. Each student gets a path to graduation—an “academic journey,” in parlance, but an adventure detached from any real terrain.

HyFlex is a synecdoche of this reality: a fantasized notion of the future of higher education that, in truth, is a haunted shell of itself.