For a number of years,(BVC) in Calgary, Alberta, Canada was involved with eCampusAlberta (no longer in operation) in developing and offering new forms of online and blended learning. Building from this experience, Dr. Russ Wilde, Dean of Research and Innovation, recommended the idea of offering students options on how they engage on a week-to-week basis with their studies to the college executive team. He introduced the possibility of offering individual courses simultaneously in multiple modes, including face-to-face, synchronous online and asynchronous online. Diverse groups of students, including those newly returning to school, recent secondary school graduates, single parents and those in the workforce would choose which format to use to reach their learning objectives. The approach is known as hybrid flexible or HyFlex.
In January 2017, BVC launched a pre-pilot stage of this flexible learning model, offering multiple formats of the same course. In September 2017, the pilot phase of the project launched, with the last term of the pilot starting in January 2019.
The goal of the project is to increase flexibility for students, while maintaining their levels of achievement. The focus of hybrid flexible design is developing specific strategies for student engagement that take advantage of the opportunities offered by each mode of delivery:>
- In class, face-to-face;
- Online synchronous, using Adobe Connect for real-time interaction; and
- Online asynchronous, using D2L’s Brightspace learning management system (LMS).
By September 2018, ten courses with more than 400 students in seven different program areas were delivered using the hybrid flexible model.
On a weekly basis, students chose which format to use for class participation. The LMS is a key part of all delivery modes, providing course resources and requirements, such as readings and videos. Engagement activities vary for each delivery mode and are clearly outlined according to the delivery option.
Research is ongoing throughout the pilot stage. Kaesy Russnak, Academic Innovations Project Officer, describes a key finding as the need for “structured flexibility”. The flexibility offered by three modes of delivery requires clear and detailed explanations for students as to their choices and the implications of those choices for later options. For example, choosing to participate in asynchronous classes in weeks 3 and 4 and complete associated assignments may limit their choices in weeks 5 and 6. Instructors also need support in controlling and limiting variance while still offering flexibility.
To respond to these needs, detailed course mapping was implemented so each block of learning presents possibilities of engagement according to the mode of delivery chosen by students. Alternative pathways of learning are clearly mapped out upfront. The screen shot from a course in the Early Childhood Education and Development program illustrates how course mapping makes expectations for students explicit.
Another example of matching learning activity to mode of delivery is in the Computer Aided Drafting for the Kitchen and Bath Design course in the Kitchen and Bath Design program. One learning outcome is to improve student expertise in client communications. In face-to-face classrooms, students have live practice with the instructor as a mock client; in the synchronous, online session, practice involves the instructor and other students. For this learning objective, there is no asynchronous option.
Benefits and Outcomes
Survey research and interviews are conducted throughout the pilot. Preliminary results of interviews indicate many students use the word “respect” in their feedback – they see the college respecting their needs as people with busy lives by offering flexible delivery and engagement possibilities for courses. Even if they do not often make use of the options, they appreciate having them available.
The current pilot represents a relatively small sample, but thus far student satisfaction as reported in surveys supports the importance of flexibility, as 95% of respondents strongly agree or agree that:>
- Choosing my own mode helped me to better understand the course; and
- Having the option to choose modes provided me with full control of my learning.
In addition, 84% stated they would take another hybrid flexible course.
Survey results also indicate how much time students spent using each delivery mode:
- Classroom – 55%
- Asynchronous with Brightspace LMS – 28%
- Synchronous with Adobe Connect – 17%
Another question asked at what point in courses students fully understood how to use the different modes of delivery:>
- In the first month – 74%
- In the second month – 21%
- In the third or fourth month – 5%
Some instructors adopted the flexible model of delivery with enthusiasm and offer it in multiple courses. This required rethinking their approaches and methods, particularly inclusion of more explicit learning outcomes, expectations and demonstrations of learning.
In addition, using multiple delivery modes shifts the focus from contact hours to learning hours, with new possibilities and restrictions:
- Avoiding a “course and a half” workload for instructors which limits scalability;
- Avoiding a “course and a half” workload for learners in all delivery modes;
- Re-envisioning the time-based requirements attached to each block of course learning; and
- Enabling a focus on competency-based demonstrations of learning.
A program coordinator describes advantages of the model as: “So the HyFlex then kind of marries the two. And we end up with our D2L traditional course shell which is just a lot more robust than our normal traditional courses. So, HyFlex kind of brings them together a bit more than what we traditionally do. Or than we have in the past.”
One instructor appreciates the flexibility of the resources developed: “If I am doing it for HyFlex, and it does alright, I can use the same mini tutorials for my online class.”
Another instructor succinctly expresses the key learning: “There is no one way of doing it.”
Challenges and Enhancements
Structured flexibility of multiple modes of delivery requires both instructors and students to adapt to high levels of complexity, requiring extensive explanations on how the process works, what happens when and where and, especially, requirements and expectations for course completion. Not all students have the skills to navigate these demands.
One key challenge was establishing a mutually understood definition of “flexibility” as offering options for access to courses and reaching learning outcomes. Some students took flexibility to mean optional attendance, engagement, and assignments.
Faculty found HyFlex courses worked in some subjects and not in others, where the face-to-face interaction of a classroom is essential for learning. Students expect lectures, the familiar way of learning for them, and find it hard to adjust.
Developing more structure in courses to support student flexibility and choices requires more work in preparation and design. This focus often means courses can then be offered a second time with only minor revisions required.
Initially, it was hoped the hybrid flexible model could be widely used in courses to offer student options and to lessen the strict separation of delivery modes. Experience shows, matched with the right context, students, content, and instructor, HyFlex can be successful. But the model has limitations and cannot be successfully applied across the college.
Hybrid flexibility continues to be refined, with possible introductions of video assignments applications and virtual classrooms.
Lessons learned, including detailed course mapping and strategies for encouraging and supporting student engagement, can be applied to blended learning and other pedagogical approaches.
For Further Information
Dr. Russ Wilde
Dean, Research and Innovation
Bow Valley College
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Academic Innovations Project Officer
Bow Valley College
Calgary, Alberta, Canada