Many campuses saw the HyFlex modality as a panacea that could resolve the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, Kevin Gannon joins us to discuss his campus’ experiments with HyFlex during the Fall 2020 semester.
- Gannon, K.M. (2020). Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press.
- Beatty, B. (2014). Hybrid courses with flexible participation: The HyFlex course design. In Practical applications and experiences in K-20 blended learning environments (pp. 153-177). IGI Global.
- Beatty, B. J. (2010). Hybrid courses with flexible participation-the hyflex design. Unpublished manuscript. Retrieved from http://itec. sfsu. edu/hyflex/hyflex_course_design_theory_2, 2.
- Gannon, Kevin, (2020). “Our Hyflex Experiment: What’s Worked and What Hasn’t.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 26.
John: Many campuses saw the HyFlex modality as a panacea that could resolve the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, we discuss one campus’ experiments with HyFlex during the Fall 2020 semester.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Kevin Gannon. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grandview University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Welcome back, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks. It’s great to be here again with y’all.
John: It’s good to talk to you again. Our teas today are:
Kevin: I am actually just drinking water today, I am on a goal to stay a little more hydrated. I was sick over the break, so I’ve just got a big old cup of water.
Rebecca: I had a nice pot of golden monkey prepared, but I drank it all. So now I’m drinking [LAUGHTER] Scottish breakfast tea.
John: I’m drinking ginger peach green tea. I had four or five different types of tea today, and I’ve moved to a lower caffeine green tea so I can maybe sleep tonight. We’ve invited you here to follow up with our discussion earlier about the plans for the fall. You were planning to use the hyflex modality there, and we wanted to just check back and see how things went, what worked and what perhaps didn’t work as well as everyone had hoped. I think most people know what a hyflex course is now, but maybe just a quick statement of what hyflex is might be helpful.
Kevin: Sure. So hyflex stands for hybrid flexible. And as it was developed as a modality by Brian Beatty and some of his colleagues at San Francisco State University in graduate ed tech program, they envision classes where students would basically have three pathways to attend, defined broadly: one could attend in person, one could attend the class synchronously but via a video conferencing service online, or one could attend that is engaged with the class asynchronously and online. And the flex part of it is that students have the choice of which of these three modalities that they will use and the expectation and reality is that they will shift back and forth between those three, maybe landing on one that they adopt consistently or maybe staying in a sort of state of variation or flux throughout the term.
John: Why was this so popular with so many campuses this fall?
Kevin: I think for a few reasons. One, we all knew that, in-person traditional college experience was not going to be a thing. Despite the best efforts of a few institutions to put in place a magical thinking strategy [LAUGHTER] and assume that it was. But we also had varying degrees of what in-person might look like in mind. The California State Systems said we’re going to be fully online, period, and they made that decision very early. Other institutions like mine knew, as in our case as a small liberal arts college, that a lot of our students really wanted and needed that in-person experience. But we also knew we couldn’t do that normally and still be safe. Hyflex offered a way to sort of do both, and in our case, have students attend in person, but at a reduced number in socially distant classrooms, for example. But, I think the other big reason that it was so appealing was the flexibility it had for both students, and then faculty and staff. So for students who could not travel back to campus, for example, they might be in several time zones away. So is there a way for them to attend online asynchronously? And then also for us. What if we had to go fully online again. Hyflex, as you build classes that have an online modality already, and I think the thinking was that what we did in March was more emergency remote teaching than it was actual online teaching and learning. We were probably not going to be able to get away with that again, and our students will hold us to a higher standard. And so I think what hyflex offered a lot of institutions… I know this is true for Grandview, my institution… was that it would have us preparing for that eventuality well ahead of time, so if we did need to go full remote, it wouldn’t be the sort of abrupt lurching around off of some cyber cliff that it would be a much smoother transition.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how it worked at Grandview University and whether or not this modality ended up actually being helpful to both faculty and students?
Kevin: Yeah, so I think it worked well-ish. [LAUGHTER] And what I mean by that is it did give us the flexibility we needed. And that did a lot to help for folks. We did not have a large outbreak of COVID on my campus, which I feel very fortunate to say. Our dorms were occupied, for example, but the students who did have to go to quarantine were able to still maintain their presence in classes in ways that they would not have been able to without hyflex. We also had some students who did choose to do all remote learning this semester… that they, because of a prior condition or something else, did not want to come to campus. And that included both international students but also students here in the Des Moines area who attended either synchronously or asynchronously online. So it did give us that flexibility. It did give us that online component. We learned a lot of things. We knew, I think, intellectually going into the session. That’s when it was gonna take a lot of kind of bandwidth and energy to be able to manage everything that goes into, actually run a hyflex class session. Having students on Zoom at the same time as students in a classroom, how are you going to foster and sustain a discussion? What happens when the tech doesn’t work? Or the screenshare doesn’t work? What about the asynchronous people? Are they just somewhere out there? So all of those things we knew, they would be hard, but actually experiencing it was really, really hard. And I know just from my own… I taught two courses, one of them fully online, asynchronous that was born that way, but a new student seminar in the hyflex model. And I’m good with technology, I think, and it was really hard for me to do. It took a lot of focus and energy. And my colleagues would always say, “You know, we were just exhausted after class sessions.” We also learned that the same was true for students, in many ways, [LAUGHTER] that it did require a lot more for them to attend class. But, on the other side of that coin, there were also students who elected to do the online asynchronous option, who in retrospect, that might not have been the choice they were best served by. Now, the reasons they did it were absolutely compelling and understandable. We had student athletes living on campus, for example, but remaining in isolation, so they could play their sport without testing positive. So they attended all their classes either synchronously or asynchronously online. What we found out was that without more guardrails around that, and without more learning how to be an online learner… stuff that we should have put in front of students… we did some but we didn’t do enough… the students who made that decision were the ones who struggled the most. And then we also learned that there are some classes in which this mode of teaching and learning is very well suited, and then there are some classes where it didn’t work very well at all. And in this, I’m thinking of mostly the classic upper-level humanities type seminars that are almost completely reliant on student discussion where instructors and students both really had trouble doing a seminar type thing where everybody’s sort of collectively in and immersed in the same text and conversation with people in these different spaces, and tried to move back and forth between. It was just, for lack of a better term, it was just weird, and clunky. And so we had faculty who moved into doing them all synchronously online, because at least people were in the same figurative space, so to speak. And that actually worked a lot better for some of those classes that were running into roadblocks. So we did have to shift on the fly a little bit. So I would say that successful for what we needed it to be over the fall. But there were some definite roadblocks that folks ran into, there were technology hiccups, as well, of course, and we were really tired after it was done. But we learned a lot to inform our spring practice. And in conversations I’ve had with peers and colleagues, I think the way it went for us didn’t vary too much from the way that it went in a lot of places.
John: That’s very similar to our experience here. We encouraged preparation for hyflex. I was pretty careful to try to not call it hyflex, because we knew that wouldn’t really be that much flexibility. But preparing for any eventuality gave faculty a little bit of comfort in knowing that no matter what happened, they’re going to be able to provide their classes in whatever formats happened to be possible. I chose synchronous online for my courses, and Rebecca chose the same. One of the reasons I did it was just because I didn’t think I could effectively manage a classroom with students in it at the same time, especially a classroom of masked and distanced students while I was wearing a mask and trying to also engage with students online. The way I saw it is, hyflex works really well, when you have classrooms that are set up for it with good sound systems, when people are mobile, when it’s easier to have communications going back and forth. And our classrooms here just are not generally set up for that. And the challenges of doing that in the current environment just seemed a little bit much to me. I probably wouldn’t have done it anyway, because of my age and other health concerns. But what were some of the specific challenges you faced while trying to engage with students face to face while also maintaining engagement with the online students?
Kevin: I think you bring up a lot of really important points. We committed to this hyflex thing with the intent of putting the flex in hyflex, so to speak. We really wanted students to have the choice of flexibility, even though we do that would be a lot more on the back end. For us. That made a big difference in terms of faculty workload and bandwidth. It’s really hard to build a hyflex course in a couple of months over the summer, because you’re basically doing three different courses that you’re braiding together. And yes, there’s overlap, but as anybody who’s taught online before knows, it’s a different animal trying to build an online course. So not only did we learn the added layers of complexity, building a hyflex course, but again, trying to experience that bandwidth of managing all of these other things that I wrote in one point that I felt like what are those circus performers who spins the plates and the cups and all of the saucers with all this sticks, and I let so many of them drop. I think the hardest part for me and for my students… students say they wanted that in person college experience. Well, what they wanted was to be in the dorms, to be in college, so to speak. Once they figured out that in person meant you’re having a small seminar class, but it’s held in a lecture hall that seats 110, and your all sitting way away from one another you’re masked up and yelling at each other, and half of y’all are coming in on Zoom. That’s not the face-to-face experience. That’s just weird, and kind of sucky. And so what we discovered, what I discovered and most of my colleagues is that our in-person attendance dropped off precipitously by about the end of the second week. And I would go past classrooms… my teaching Center is located at our main classroom building in a high traffic area. And I felt so bad for some of my colleagues, because we wanted to have as many of our first-year classes be fully in person, to have students have that… So there would be these classes scheduled in these large rooms, and so I was right across the hall from one of these large rooms, and one of my colleagues is in there teaching introductory algebra. And every time I walked by, it just felt like there were fewer and fewer students in there. And then one day, about three weeks into the semester, I walked in and there was nobody but him in a room that had been outfitted to seat fifty. So, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie, Real Genius, where there’s the lecture hall, and there the professor’s lecturing on the board, and students are in there taking notes, and it’s this montage of scenes. And every so often, there’s fewer students and more tape recorders on the desk and then there’s a scene where it’s just the professor and all the desks have tape recorders on them. to have the final cue is there’s a reel-to-reel tape recorder playing the professor’s voice. With things that are like that, I felt like that’s where we were by about the middle of October. So students very quickly readjusted what they thought they wanted to do. And that made it even harder for us as instructors to sort of recalibrate there. So, again, there’s something different about experiencing something, even if you know it’s coming intellectually. And I think that was the thing that I struggled with most personally, but my colleagues did too, is we pride ourselves on being a small high-touch institution and the things that we do that we think make us good, we were really hampered in doing those. And so it’s frustrating. You know what you need to be doing? You know you can’t do it. You certainly know you aren’t doing it. And it’s just a tough situation, and I think our frustration was evident to students too on some cases. And then of course, they get frustrated by the same sorts of things. So there were no great options, just the least-worst option. And that’s still better than the worst-worst option. But that’s kind of where we were by the end of the fall, I think.
John: That sounded very much like the experience that faculty here were reporting, that people who were teaching face-to-face or some type of a hybrid environment or a hyflex-like environment kept seeing the number of students in the classroom dwindle until they’d often be the only one in this big lecture hall by the end of the term. You mentioned that some classes such as upper-level humanities classes weren’t really very well suited for this type of instruction, what classes worked relatively better.
Kevin: So, from what I understand, some of my colleagues in the STEM fields actually were able to really build and conduct really effective hyflex classes. Our intro to bio courses, our intro to chemistry and organic chemistry. And these were departments where faculty were already doing a lot of really interesting things and innovative things pedagogically, anyway. So they really, I think, kind of took up the challenge and jury rigged the tech when they needed it. My colleagues in her genetics class was recording using a lecture capture tool. She was trying to find a digital whiteboard to use for all the diagrams and nomenclature because it’s easier just to draw it by hand, and none of the, were really working or picking up right when you were trying to do it through Zoom. So she just tilted her webcam on her office desk down to show a piece of paper where she was writing, and did a split screen. So sometimes those are the solutions that we find. And I think the faculty who approached it as this really interesting set of problems to solve, sometimes creatively, and building upon things that they were already doing had, I think, an easier time making hyflex work. And I think the course material and the course objectives and pedagogical style also fit into that where you had some parts of the class where it was exposition, but then we can do think-pair-share… that’s a little more easy to do, even if you’ve got students in person and on Zoom. So things like that. You know, we have people who are really successful with that. I have colleagues in athletic training, and in particular, they have a graduate program that’s almost fully online anyway. So they adapted some hyflex elements into that and actually thought improved the student experience in what had previously been seen as an exclusively online program. So I think there were faculty out there who really found it, at least most of hyflex, were able to adopt it into ways that work organically with how they approach their courses anyway. And that’s not to say you can’t do it in a humanities seminar course, I absolutely think you can. But I also think experience and time are vital parts of that equation. And those are two things that we just didn’t have available to us.
Rebecca: And given all those challenges that you faced, and hindsight’s 20-20, what does the spring look like for you? You mentioned earlier that you’re already in classes now. So how was the approach different for the spring and how’s it looking so far?
Kevin: Well, the main change that we made institutionally for the spring was with the online asynchronous option. ‘Cause we sort of knew right away in the fall that that was going to be a problem. We do early alerts. We’re pretty high touch when it comes, especially tor first-year student success. And so the third week of the semester, we do early alerts. And my wife is our Registrar in Institutional Research Associates, so I get to hear some of the numbers, and the number of low early-alert grades and the number of low midterm grades reported in week six was something like 270% of our previous semester high. And we also had a significant amount of students who were getting multiple low grades, not just in one class or the other, but that it was endemic across their schedule. And that really correlated pretty strongly to students, especially first-year or new transfer students who had chosen the online asynchronous options of attendance. So this semester, that has a lot more guardrails around it. Students could attend class all semester, asynchronously online, but they have to come to an understanding with their instructor. They have to talk to their instructor, the instructor has to talk to them talk, about how that’s going to look, what they’re going to commit to doing it, what the things are going to need to really be. And it’s not just going to be a student who’s like, “I don’t want to come from the dorm.” So the online asynchronous is really being kind of de-emphasized except for cases. Now for a student who has a temporary absence, who travels with an athletic team, or who does have to go into quarantine because of contact tracing, that option is available to them on a temporary basis. But in terms of doing the class that way, we are trying to steer students away from that option and it nvolve much more. It’s basically an instructor approval mechanism, is what it comes down to. But what it does is it really gets students into the conversation about what are the most effective choices about how I could learn and how I might be most successful, not how I want to learn, but how I’m better at learning. The other thing that we learned is that we didn’t think enough about if online learning is different for students too. And being a successful online learner requires some skills and some competencies that students might not necessarily have had the chance to build, especially in high school coming straight into college. The first year is hard enough without all that layered on top. I wish we had done more. We did some… about here are some things you can do to be a successful online learner, here’s what hyflex looks like, here are the resources we can out in front of you, here are some tutorials, but we needed to do more. And I don’t even think we do knew much more we needed to do until we realized that, especially for many of our first-year students, when high schools what remote in March, for a lot of them, that was it, they just stopped. So these are students who we said “Oh, well, they’ll have some experience online learning from what happened in the spring.” [LAUGHTER] And for about 95% of them that was not the case. So we really were reckoning with completely novice online learners. So the decision- making process about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to attend and what’s going to work, that didn’t go so well for a lot of our students.
John: Under normal circumstances, when students select online courses, when they have many more options to drop, fail, and withdrawal rate is much higher, especially for, as you said, first-year students and students who are not as well established in the college environment. But in these circumstances where people had less choice about whether they were online or not, the problem becomes a little bit more severe. Were all students equally affected, or were some groups of students more adversely affected by some of the challenges they faced this fall.
Kevin: Oh, I think clearly the results of hyflex mirror the larger inequities that we all sort of intellectually knew were there. But again, experiencing that in such an, I think ,visceral way… My own institution, we serve a lot of students from groups that have not been traditionally well served by higher education in the United States. Access to internet and technology was a significant issue even more so at my institution than I would have expected, and I’ve been here 18 years or so. You don’t know what’s happening in some of these students lives. But, of course, with people losing their jobs and all these other things, it becomes even more tenuous. We have an emergency grant program, we had CARES Act money, we invested a lot in technology, not just for faculty in classrooms, but for students as well. But even then, again, that’s half the story, because now I have something to access, but if I don’t have the high-speed internet bandwidth with which to access it, then there’s a problem as well. And then layered on top and all around that is, of course, which students have had in school districts or school buildings that were resourced enough to provide that sort of familiarity and ease with the technology or to get students thinking about metacognitively how they are learners, think about what it means to learn. Basically, what hyflex showed us, and I think what the pivot to online has showed us in higher education is that we could no longer ignore the inequities, the very profound inequities that exist. And a lot of us say that, right? Like we’ve been saying this for a while, but basically what that pivot to online learning did in March and what hyflex is continuing to exacerbate in many ways is we are basically rewarding the students who already have cultural capital, and real capital, but cultural capital in particular, who are able to manage that transition to: A) college learning but, B) college learning at a time of COVID much better than students who have not been in places that have equipped them to do that. And that is through no fault of the students or their ability. It is the structural problems that we face. And what COVID has done has laid those completely bare, and we continue to ignore them at our peril.
John: One nice thing, though, is that I think more faculty are aware of that, because it was pretty easy to ignore those things when all the students have some type of a computing device, (or nearly all) on campus, they certainly have computer labs, high-speed Wi Fi, they have meal plans, and so forth that provide support, but all those things disappeared for those students who were attending remotely and any faculty member who taught any number of students would have seen students encountering some really significant challenges during the past 10 months or so.
Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. And access does not mean the same thing as ready availability, and that was a lesson that we learned as well, because as you point out, so many of our students, their high speed internet access is in a computer lab that also closed down in mid March, or in the library, or a public library, which here in Des Moines, all those closed as well. We had students sitting in the parking lot of McDonald’s using the WiFi on their smartphone or tablet in a car uploading work to Blackboard, for example. So yeah, this is not going away. We may be seeing it more evident than we have before. But, if we’re going to have any sort of conversation at higher ed about what hyflex does and what this online learning is going to do to shape the way we do teaching and learning going forward, which is a conversation we absolutely should be having… But if this isn’t part of it, that we’re not having the right conversation.
Rebecca: As a design faculty member, we have a lot of students that need software, expensive software…
Rebecca: …often and expensive computers to run said software. We had a lot of really hard conversations about “What software do we really need to use? Do we need to use software? How are we going to get students computers? Because having just the internet access wasn’t even the beginning of our problem. [LAUGHTER].
Rebecca: …to even enter into the field. What can you do? So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about… I’m teaching a new class in this spring, that’s an introductory class on theories of motion and interaction. But I’m actually working on a lot of things that don’t require any software so that the students can be included, because I am teaching online synchronously, and we were trying to figure out what classes could we teach in that modality and which ones really need to have access to our labs, so they have access to equipment, so that students can attend at least some of our classes in the modality that they need to. So the inequities just became so, so, so, prevalent, and so obvious to all of us that we had really hard discussions, and knowing that I’m teaching this class, and I know that there are some students that just can’t take it.
Kevin: Yeah, your breaking out software is so essential. Our students in communications and new media, our students in our graphic design program, students who are using Minitab or SPSS… Our IT department… I want them all canonized into sainthood, because what they did was they set up what they called a virtual software lab, so students could telnet into machines, which is obviously not the ideal solution, but it was a solution. That was one of those things, again, we’ll be talking about like we knew that might be a thing, but then experiencing it being a thing at the scale and scope with which we experienced that, really stretched us and we weren’t able to beat those needs. So again, yeah, as you talk about, even if we’re talking about using OER, or low-cost stuff that normally we say, “Oh, this is very accessible.” Well, if you could get in the door, but if you don’t have a door, that’s a problem. And so here we are. I think that’s one of the most important things we need to be working on.
John: One of the things you mentioned is how faculty are in general, exhausted. Faculty workload has gone up quite a bit since March of last year. Are there any things that faculty can do to help keep that workload under control so that we’re not all as exhausted at the end of the spring semester as we were at the end of the fall semester?
Kevin: Well, I don’t know. [LAUGHTER] It’s just we are being asked to do so much more, abd there’s no two ways about it. Not to get oversharing or anything, but over Christmas break before the Christmas holiday, I had to go to the emergency room with an attack of colitis. Certainly stress and being burnt out didn’t help anything. There’s now 15 pounds less of me than there was before,and I wanted to lose weight, but that was certainly not the way I want to do it. I think the end-of-the-semester crash was a really big part of that. And there are things that we could do, but we can’t do them alone. So when I see faculty who are navigating this at least modestly successfully, are faculty who have found their people and are able to have these networks where they could collaborate with one another, share ideas and help each other with the kind of tips and tricks stuff. I also think that we as faculty, this is a really good opportunity for us to be very intentional about focusing in on what it is we do in terms of assessments and is much time the best way for us to do those kind of assessments and is that time the best way we could be spending it. The other thing I think that we could also be doing is we don’t have to learn every new tool. I know the temptation, and I am the worst at this. I am such a dork when it comes to technology, I want all the devices, I want to learn all the things. I want all the cool tricks and toys and apps. But that’s so much bandwidth that I could be using on something else. You don’t need a whole suite of digital tools to teach online or hybrid effectively. You could use two or three Google Docs and a learning management system and your cell phone, then you could do a really great dynamic hyflex course. So being very mindful about how we’re allocating our energy and also being okay with the fact that sometimes we’re not okay, there’s still a global pandemic going on. The republic teeters, and I wish I was being hyperbolic when I say that, but I’m a historian who’s traced race and racism in US history. I’m writing a chapter right now for a project on the election of 1860 and the secession crisis. It’s been a weird week, you know? And I got to be okay with that. I have not been able to do the things that I wanted to do. Last week’s plan went up in smoke, but I can’t kill myself about that. And so just communicating effectively with students, being present with students and one another in an honest, authentic way, and realizing that we’re all trying to navigate this together. I know, that sounds very hippie and Kumbaya-ish, but if we’re not honest and authentic about this, we’re gonna kill ourselves. And it’s like a cliche says, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Our students deserve better, we deserve better, there are ways to be better, but we have to be willing to be very intentionally reflective, and adaptive about where we are.
John: One thing we should note is that we’re recording this in mid January, right after an insurrection tried to take over the government a few days ago. We’ll be releasing this a little bit later. And who knows what might have happened between now and then. We’re hoping that the world has returned to something closer to the instability that we’ve been observing in recent years, and we don’t see a further acceleration of crises. But it’s been challenging. I know, when the attack on the capital took place, I was trying to do some preparation for some workshops, and for some classes, and I spent the whole time doomscrolling, going through and watching CNN, reading news reports, checking the Times, the Washington Post, and it’s been a scary time.
Kevin: It has been.
Rebecca: it really makes me want to ask the question about radical hope.
Rebecca: But I don’t know if I should. [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: Well, so I was doing a workshop for another university that morning and again the next day. So it’s like, “Okay, hey, you know, we’re teetering on the brink of total civil and political collapse, but let’s take three hours and talk about hyflex learning…” like it just felt like this out of body experience. And so I centered that right in front, I put a picture up of it, and I said, “Look, here’s where we’re at, and we’re in the space and we’re doing faculty development stuff, but we’re gonna have to be doing this in the ways that work for us right now.” And so, engage with this, however, works best for you, though I can tell you, I’m not bringing my full self to this right now. Because this is just kind of where we are. And so I think part of acting from a place of hope is to be unflinchingly honest about where you are in the present. And so one of the things that perversely I draw hope from is you have to work harder than you would have ever had to work before to hide from the realities that we now have to confront. And have we finally lanced the boil? …to use a really gross metaphor. Have we finally gotten to a place where we’ve done that. I think there are signs that that may be the case. So that gives me hope, because the fewer places you have to hide from the work that needs to be done, the better and more sustained that work will end up being. So if we’re at that kind of place, it may seem perverse, and maybe even Pollyannaish, but I do think that that is occasion for hope. And I do think that being in places like higher education, this affirms are important and what we need to fight for, because higher education has failed in many ways and that’s why we are where we are in a lot of ways. We have work to do at our own communities. So we can’t hide from that anymore. Or if you could, I guess, but it would evolve way more mental contortions that I think is humanly possible. So is that a hinge moment? Is it that kind of inflection point? I think it might be. And so that adds urgency to what we’re doing. It affirms the work that some of us have been doing. It opens up opportunities to break more into that work. It also reminds us to communicate the larger importance of that work to external audiences. And those are all things that ultimately make the work go better and go further. So that’s kind of where I think we are, at this point, at least, when we’re not doomscrolling eternally. [LAUGHTER] But there’s places for that, again, unflinching honesty. And it’s okay to kind of sit with that for a little bit, but we can’t sit there forever in despair. So when folks are ready, you know, Rebecca Solnit says “hope is the axe with which you break down the door in an emergency.” If you can’t pick up the axe right now, that’s okay. Other people have got it. They’ll hold it for you. And when you’re ready, come and help us with it. And then we’ll break down that door and move into a better future. And that’s where I hope we are as a community.
Rebecca: The emphasis on that brutal honesty about no matter where we’re at in the moment, I think, for me actually, brought a lot of hope in the fall because it helped me connect really well with all my students, despite being apart, I didn’t actually feel like I had any less connection to my students than I would in person. And it almost seems blasphemous to say that out loud.
Kevin: Yeah, I think so, and there’s that weird feeling like, wait a minute, we’re actually more authentic in this weird hybrid online space that maybe we would have been if things were “normal.” And I’d also say this, so I had substance in the past, and I’ve been in recovery for well over a decade. But this is one of those moments where you reach that point of clarity like, okay, things could get worse from here. But you don’t want them to get worse from where we’re at right now. So what are you going to do. And so, having experienced that in my own personal journey, and recovered and walked away from that, if we could do that, as a society, island say, “We could continue this, there’s no bottom to a hole, you can keep digging.” But when you decide to stop digging, and do something else, and maybe that takes a shock, maybe that takes what the therapists call hitting your bottom. So your bottom is where you decide it is. There’s always a lower bottom. But as a society, we could go lower. But if we collectively decide that that’s as low as we want to go, and we want to climb back out, we could do that. And some of the things I’m seeing just within higher ed, but also in the broader public are making me think and hope and I think, not in a Pollyanna way that we are starting to climb out. Even if it seems counterintuitive to think that way so few days after what’s happened.
John: Yeah, I see a lot of signs of that with people who had been supporting much of what we had been seeing that was so traumatic, backing away and saying, “No, this is just one step too far. We’re cutting off any funding to your party or anyone who encouraged any of these activities.” And that’s a sign of progress.
Kevin: Yeah, if you’d have told me some of these companies would stop donating to Republicans, 10 days ago, I would have looked at you like you had three heads. Sometimes historical change happens when we don’t realize it’s happening until a year later, we look back and say, “Wow, point B where we’re at now is so radically different than point A.” And I wonder if that will be our experience, that we will look to the before times here, and then a year down the road, when we look back at where we are now and realize that the tectonic plates did indeed shift. And they shifted the way that we might not have felt every shift every day. But we’re at a much different place for the long run than we were before. And I think that there’s a pretty realistic shot of us having that kind of realization, a little bit down the road. And that keeps me hopeful. And that keeps me energized to do the work that we’re trying to do in times like this, and to have our students in community with us in times like this, while we’re trying to do this work, it takes a lot from everybody. So is it worth it? And I would say absolutely, yes, and our students, they’re doing this because they want to learn, because they want to succeed. And that takes a lot of effort, and a lot of bandwidth and resources from them. And we should honor that choice as well.
Rebecca: Every time I think about that idea, though, there’s always the few that couldn’t make that choice. I feel like just in the way that we’re having this conversation honoring those who couldn’t make that choice because they wanted to but can’t. I think it’s also important to because there’s definitely a number of potential students that are having to wait.
Kevin: Yes, I like the saying goes, when we’re sitting at the table, it’s important not just to look at who’s at the table with us, but who couldn’t be at the table with us. And I think as we talk about coming out of COVID, what is the future of higher education? What is the future of student learning? What is the future of teaching and learning? What is the future of hyflex? We have to be very mindful, of who hasn’t been in those conversations, because they couldn’t be, because we need to be paying attention to that too. Otherwise, our work is incomplete. Absolutely.
John: While we’re thinking about the future more optimistically, what are some of the gains that we might take away from what we’ve learned since March of 2020, in terms of how we offer our courses, and we deliver education, perhaps more effectively,
Kevin: I do think the flex part of hylex is an important thing to take with us. This openness to thinking about how students attend class, and I’m using the word attend in a very sort of elastic way. Because you could say, look, the traditional way we do face-to-face instruction hasn’t changed for the better part of a century, in terms of the physical setting and the constraints and the affordances that it has. So maybe we’re at a point where we don’t so much talk about attendance, as we talked about engagement. How are students engaging and being in community with us in this class. Maybe a lot of it is synchronous, but maybe some of it isn’t. That maybe some of it is face to face, but maybe some of it is online. And so I think these are conversations that are: A) worth having, B) that are ongoing, and C) gonna be with us, and I think changed the way that we do this teaching and learning thing, not wholesale, but in places. I think there are programs who are going to say. you know what? …hyflex works really well for us, or for these particular classes that are classes where we need to offer more seats or more access, hyflex is a way for us to scale out these offerings, even if we can’t hire 40 faculty members. What I’m afraid of is that hyflex becomes another way that faculty labor gets devalued in efficiency death. And so that’s where we need to be vigilant in these conversations. But I do think when we think about how our students engaging in learning? What does that really look like? Do they need to be physically present with us in the same room for that to occur? More and more of us have had to really ask that question. So now let’s take the answers that we’ve gotten and do some work with that and reimagine, or rethink or modify, or maybe even just subtly tweak some of our course offerings. I can see myself and the history department that we have at my institution, our survey classes, maybe we have some traditional face-to-face sessions, which is what most of our students would want, I think, and that we have a fully online section or two to to serve our adult and evening programs that are fully online, but maybe we offer a section that’s hyflex, as well. And our student athletes, who at my institution represent a large percentage of our student population, have a way that they could take courses and still travel and not “miss class.” So that’s one of the ways that I think we’re going to be thinking about what this all means. And I think the other thing that’s really salutary here, and I say this as a humanities guy working in a liberal arts college, I think we’ve realized technology isn’t the answer to everything?.So this technofabulism this. “Yeah, we could just put it online. How hard could it be like this teaching is nothing but content delivery, of course online makes everything more efficient?” Well, we have ample evidence that that is not the case. So we need to really be keeping that centered as well. And teaching matters, learning matters, and it’s not something you just throw on the LMS and expect to have happen. And so this sort of techno-utopianism, this “there’s an app for that” kind of thing. Technology is a tool. It’s not the only tool, and it’s not the best tool. And I think we have more than enough evidence that we’ve taken from our experience this academic year, to focus conversations that way. And I think that that’s really important.
John: We always end with the question. What’s next?
Kevin: What’s next for me, is,again, talking about where do we go with hyflex. Or at least the sort of ethos or the ethic that informs hyflex. The rethinking of what learning looks like on the collegiate level, on the higher ed level, and where one needs to be located both figuratively and literally for learning to happen. What’s next for me is that conversation, but I think that conversation is also gonna have a very powerful element of there’s a lot to be said, for the traditional face-to-face method of instruction. And that not everything is an efficiency or a scale up and that in fact, there are things that work worse when we do that. So what’s next for me is what is learning look like? It’s going to be different. But that doesn’t mean completely exclusive from what we would believe learning looks like now. And I think that those conversations are going to be a lot more student-centered as well, because the student experience with hyflex is really important. It mirrors a lot of what the faculty experience has been. And I think listening to student voice with this is not only important for the hyflex conversation, but now brings us back into a place where we realize that’s the most important voice when we’re talking about teaching and learning in general. And so if institutions have these conversations and do the strategic planning and think about the role of technology in terms of the work that they’re doing with their students, I think the incentive to have students involved in those conversations in a really meaningful way has never been more apparent. And so for me, what I see as being next is student voice becoming an even more powerful part of the equation, which I think is essential.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us today and sparking a little bit of hope in what feels like a dark time.
John: It’s great talking to you again, and we’re hoping that everything goes well on all of our campuses this spring.
Kevin: Yes. Thanks for having me and always glad to join you and we are in hopeful times and the work we do matters. And if we don’t like what we see now, we have the luck and the fortune to be involved in creating something different, and that should energize us.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.