WEST LAFAYETTE — Weeks before Purdue University made the shift to remote learning last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nathan Mentzer, an associate professor in Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute and College of Education, started blending both face-to-face and online instruction in his classrooms for 680 students.
As he watched the world respond to the pandemic in anticipation of how it would soon affect his own students, Mentzer wanted to give his students the option to stay home and participate in class in real-time online or physically attend on any given day.
That “hybrid-flexible” model — also known as HyFlex — has proved to be successful.
“Before spring break, I could see that we were headed in the direction of online learning,” Mentzer said. “I wanted to help my students make that transition, knowing that the pandemic was likely going to have a long-lasting impact on how we approach teaching.”
Over the summer, Mentzer, graduate student Lakshmy Mohandas and Shawn Farrington, a continuing lecturer and course coordinator, used the HyFlex model in their courses. Included was Design Thinking in Technology, known as Tech120, a course that combines lectures and small group work and project-based learning.
In the Tech120 course, Mohandas was in the classroom teaching face-to-face while Mentzer was observing online via Microsoft Teams.
Mentzer will continue this model throughout the fall semester through courses such as Integrated STEM Education Methods (secondary education majors) and Engineering by Design for elementary.
“This is something our students need to be prepared for, not only because of how the pandemic is changing the world we live in, but because major global companies our graduates might work for one day often use asynchronous communication like this,” Mentzer said. “I think this is setting up students for success for their future careers, and it’s helping them develop the right attitudes to help them be successful.”
Farrington says all of the Tech120 face-to-face courses in the Polytechnic Institute this fall are incorporating the HyFlex model, allowing 680 students to safely attend and participate in class regardless of their location.
“In a time of great uncertainty, we’re providing a quality educational experience where students can participate in a manner that allows them to be comfortable and not fall behind,” Farrington said. “The global marketplace operates on people working together remotely to keep the world connected and moving. Education should be no different.”
Chantal Levesque-Bristol, director of teaching success at Purdue, says the model is both flexible and versatile – allowing both students and instructors to achieve their teaching and educational goals regardless of their location.
“If students are unable to come to class for a period of time because they are in isolation or quarantined, they can complete the requirements online and continue progressing in the course,” Levesque-Bristol said. “When students are able to come back to the face-to-face class, they have not been delayed in the course progression. This also allows flexibility to the members of the instructional staff (instructors and teacher assistants) who need to teach remotely if needed.”
Mentzer said the success of his HyFlex model has caught the attention of his colleagues.
“Faculty across the university are requesting the support materials we created, including student ‘how-to videos’ and procedures for setting up the blended environment integrating Microsoft Teams for video/audio interaction at the whole- and small-group level (during and after class) and Brightspace (for course content),” Mentzer said. “We invested a significant effort this spring and summer in preparation for the fall, and students tell us it works for them. We are happy to share with others across campus and globally.”
The HyFlex teaching model has been used in various ways across the country since the mid-2000s, with the intention of making higher education more accessible to students who might not always be able to attend class in-person. The model was designed to make sure students can move back and forth between in-person and online instruction while having the same learning outcomes in both.
Now, with virtual learning increasingly becoming a necessity because of the pandemic, Mentzer predicts the model is going to become more of an educational necessity around the country.
“This is a model that has been proven to work before the pandemic came into existence,” he said.
A typical day in the classroom looks like this: Mohandas meets and greets students in person and online by wearing a wireless headset. Behind her, a screen projects to all students, remote and face to face, in real time.
The students who are physically in class also are wearing headsets so they can talk to Mohandas and their peers who are attending remotely.
“It really does feel like everyone is in the room together,” Mohandas said. “Having that webcam was so important to the students who are both physically there and online.”
Making the transition to a HyFlex model comes with its own learning curve, Mentzer said – especially because there isn’t one true definition of a HyFlex classroom.
“If you are combining in-person and online learning, you’re doing some version of HyFlex,” Mentzer said. “Remote learning isn’t just a consolation prize if you land in isolation; instead, teamwork is one of our learning outcomes, and we’re expanding the definition of teamwork to align with the workplace of the future.”