Let’s Talk About HyFlex: Fall 2020 Classroom Solution and Beyond

virtual learning

Over the past several weeks, the higher ed world has become more widely acquainted with the term “HyFlex.” For some, it’s a vague word that leads to more confusion than clarity. Let’s take an opportunity to think about it and what type of AV installs and equipment would support a HyFlex classroom.

Interestingly enough, this is not a new model of thinking about the classroom. It was introduced as early as 2006 by Brian Beatty of San Francisco State. In May of 2013, three researchers (Miller, Risser and Griffiths) from The Ohio State University expanded upon this model. They defined it very well as “The primary feature of the HyFlex model is to combine synchronous online and face-to-face components (“hybrid”) in a single course and allow students to choose when and how they attend (flexible).”

This is the key as to why it suddenly has become the new catchphrase. As higher ed tries to determine whether to bring students back, most institutions will attempt to create a hybrid model.

  • Hybrid — some students may come to campus and be in the classroom while some students may choose to stay home and learn remotely, and some students may not be able to be present in the class during specific (quarantine) periods.
  • Flexible — students who are home may have other familial responsibilities, be in different time zones, or be ill and have to watch a recording.

This blog is not necessarily about the difficulties that faculty will face in converting their teaching to this format, but more about the technology that will be needed. Faculty will indeed be challenged with this transition. A HyFlex classroom is not, “Let’s turn on Zoom and let the people who could not be here today listen in.” HyFlex means you never know who will be in the class, who will be remote and who will watch a recording later. So, faculty will need to completely redesign how they teach and what they expect from their students. The good news is that just about every school has local experts to train and educate the faculty on how to make those changes. It is our job, as AV technologists, to make sure the technology enhances, not hampers, these changes.

The AV designer has three different audiences to think about when designing a HyFlex classroom, the in-person students, the synchronous remote student and the asynchronous remote student.

Over the past several months, I have written a few times about what I believe the most significant challenge our classrooms will face this fall (audio). HyFlex only highlights that problem. To create a truly equal environment for all three audiences, we will need clear, audible sound coming from the instructor, the in-person students and the remote students. This has to be the designer’s priority. Video, cameras and computer input are all critical, but if the audience is struggling to hear, then this will not be a success. Bear in mind that the instructor and the students will likely be wearing masks for the next year. I am a proponent of “using what people have.” To that end, I think that designing a system that allows all of the students to use their cell phones or computers with a headset (complete with a microphone), is a must. It provides the close mic sound while eliminating passing anything around. Perhaps a product like Crowd Mics from Biamp would be an option when designing the audio system.

I am going to consider content as the second most crucial point. I am placing content over camera views. We will get to cameras in a moment, but we need to think about the point of what we are doing. A classroom is a place where people share thoughts, ideas and content with one another. If you are discussing a model, a math problem or even a passage from text, sharing that content is necessary. Designers will need to partner with experts in schools to talk about how this is accomplished. I believe that this will be the biggest challenge for our faculty: thinking about how they change their instruction from writing on a chalkboard to using technology. Fortunately, there are amazing products like the Solstice Active Learning product from Mersive that allows everyone to share content and join in the active discussion. Other devices like iPads will enable “whiteboard” activities to be incorporated into the system.

Finally, I think the last thing that the designers need to think about is cameras. We have all experienced months of meetings and learning sessions with various quality videos from the people we are meeting with. Therefore, we understand that desire to have a face-to-face meeting, where our eyes are not bouncing around a screen of 24 people trying to figure out which one is speaking. Unfortunately, I also think — to do it well — this is likely the most expensive piece of a HyFlex classroom. Gary Kayye has written quite a bit over the past several days on a product called the Arena from Hypersign. (As a side note, I am always amazed when companies put out a new product, but don’t include much information about what it does and what comes with it. So, there are still many questions to be answered, but the product seems promising.) It is a series of monitors that can display a person, similar to sitting in an arena. The people can even choose where they sit, and they get the perspective from that seat. The presenter — in our case, a faculty member — can clearly see each person’s face. In a classroom, this set of monitors would best be installed in the back of the room, thus giving the remote person the same view of being in the room. There are also displays so that the faculty member could see what they are presenting while facing the entire class, including both the remote and in-person students. I am not sure that this product solves all the video needs, but it does demonstrate the type of installation that would be valuable in a HyFlex classroom. I recommend that designers move away from attempting to record a faculty member who moves around the room or writes on a physical surface (chalkboard, whiteboard) in the room. This will not work well for the synchronous or asynchronous students. The faculty member will need to change to a digital whiteboard.

To that point, one of the last notes that designers need to think about is that HyFlex changes how our faculty will teach. A big mistake when designing these spaces would be to try and put all types of technology in place to mimic precisely what we do today. That is NOT what HyFlex is. Trying to accomplish that with all kinds of technology will simply lead to failure, frustration and valid questions about return on investment. Also, by working with partners in the schools, we can train the faculty to use different technologies. When we do this, we will likely be able to make the technology even simpler. An excellent example of this is not to try to follow a faculty member and record what they are writing on a chalkboard. That technology is clunky, does not provide for a quality recording and involves more interaction by the faculty member.

There are options for this technology outside of the classroom as well. Some students who can not return to campus may miss the on-campus experience. We could set up similar technology in creative places. Think of the dining rooms, where students who live on the same floor of a dorm may be allowed to eat together. By using some of the same HyFlex technology, we could bring in remote students to give them a similar experience. Athletic teams may not be able to practice or compete in person. Still, they could work out, watch videos and have as much of a real experience as possible if we are creative in making this technology available.