This essay is about one such technological intervention—HyFlex—and what happened when two experienced pedagogues adopted it. HyFlex is both a philosophy that prizes maximum adaptability for students as its central ethos, and a mode of course delivery that allows students to choose from week to week (and even session to session) how they want to engage with a course, whether in person, synchronous, or fully remote. Like Zoom, HyFlex promises “flexible” learning (Lehman College n.d.), more student engagement, and greater classroom accessibility. But when we placed our faith in HyFlex, we failed to honor a concrete tenet of good pedagogy cultivated from a cumulative forty years of teaching: flexibility needs to be felt in real time, and access to learning is not the same as engaging in learning. We now reckon with the long shadow this failed experiment has cast on us and the academy.
We came by our faith in HyFlex honestly. Both of us are what one might call “early adopters.” We are committed to digital literacy, student-centered teaching, and increasing access to public higher education. Though from different disciplines—Alyshia in Anthropology and Jessica in English—we met through our work in professional development projects, especially as leaders in our college’s Writing Across the Curriculum program and in antiracist curricular initiatives. Lehman College, where we teach, is the only public, four-year college located in the poorest borough of New York City, the Bronx. We have long advocated that Lehman students, before and certainly during the pandemic (Freytas-Tamura et. al. 2020), deserve multiple and innovative paths to pursue education.
Which is why, in the fall of 2021, we were among the few who volunteered to teach HyFlex courses when CUNY was still largely on lockdown. We took seriously the claim that HyFlex—which, at our campus, used Zoom in conjunction with in-person classrooms beefed up with additional internet connectivity, microphones, and screens—could enhance teaching and learning, “from anywhere” (Zoom n.d.).
We realized that “anyone from anywhere at anytime learning” was a myth when we tried to implement HyFlex with best practices and philosophies drawn from our pre-pandemic pedagogy. The core features of our in-person courses were class discussion and collaborative learning which, as we see it, happen under two necessary conditions. First, every student participates. When every single voice is heard, students discover they are not alone and that the academy ought not to be an isolating or exclusive place. Full participation in class discussion proves that knowledge is something to take in but also to take up, by the very persons who animate our classrooms. Second, every undergraduate is responsible for contributing to the content of a course. For this to happen, the instructor takes responsibility for an expansive definition of “content.” That means she provides diverse learning materials and creates multimodal ways to engage with them, offering ample time and space to write, listen, reflect, and talk about learning. In these discussions, the instructor talks the least, identifying conflicts, concerns, and shared views, directing but not delivering learning.
This pedagogical method was not new. We drew on the now decades-old idea of the “flipped classroom” approach to education, which emphasizes class time spent on creative interaction and application of content (Ramírez 2021). We relied on scholarship that reveals how reflective, genre-aware, public-facing pedagogies that connect to students’ lived experiences make learning relevant and transferable across contexts (Nowacek 2011). And we followed other critics of diversity initiatives (Ahmed 2012) who argue that combatting racism, classism, and sexism in the academy requires a lot more than additive measures, such as simply adding more students to class rosters or increasing the number of “marginalized” texts represented on reading lists.
Our in-person classrooms were infused with practices that tried to live out these pedagogical visions. One example is Jessica’s “student-made syllabus” assignment. Once per week, her undergraduates spent class time engaging in an ethnography of the course: recording and evaluating their engagement with and reception of course material and discussion. At the end of the week, the whole class, including the instructor, voted on changes to assignments and lesson plans. In this example, the syllabus, usually a single-authored, unidirectional course contract, turned into an “adventure”: a living curricula that evolves with the students present at that time, in that space (Overmeire 2018). In Alyshia’s courses, students used class time to investigate and intervene in academic scholarship. They created collectively authored resource guides of important terms and concepts, designed the metrics of evaluation for each assignment and the course as a whole, and sometimes published together (Gálvez et al. 2020). Diversity and access are not just ideals here. They are activated and produced by our students who are agents of change through their publications.
These practices proved impossible in the HyFlex setting. HyFlex prizes flexibility in modality of student attendance by enabling remote and in-person groups to attend. These hybrid classrooms, held together by enabling technologies like Zoom, limit flexibility in educational activities, however, and are best suited to allowing the professor to fairly directly deliver information to two sets of students: those in the classroom and those who are on Zoom. Prizing content-delivery flexibility over all else assumes information goes one way only: from professor to students. Ensuring that both sets of students—those in the room and those online—were available to one another for collaborative work was a specialized and technically complicated request. Specifically, the technology available did not facilitate the group or whole-class classroom conversation that occurred with in-person teaching. With HyFlex, some students could talk to each other in person, others could write to each other via chat functions in Zoom, but we could not easily have everyone across the HyFlex divide to collaborate on the same thing at the same time with lively and spontaneous verbal interchanges.
Further, it’s “easy” on Zoom and in a HyFlex classroom for the professor to share her screen and use slides or other projected information as a primary form of content delivery; it’s difficult to use the information shared as a launching pad for a discussion and in-the-moment coproduction of knowledge. To give just a small example: if the professor shares visuals on the screen on Zoom, it becomes more difficult to see the online participants in the Zoom room, making it a challenge to identify online participants that wish to contribute to class discussions. It is also challenging to find an appropriate balance for one’s attention: pay too much attention to students in the classroom and Zoom participants become essentially invisible. Likewise, sometimes we found ourselves paying attention to and coaxing participation from Zoom attendees and forgetting temporarily that we had living people in the room with us. Even for the rather “tech savvy” teachers we consider ourselves to be, the level of agility to foster participation among separate groups of students, manage complex technological and technical concerns, and attend to the ideas and learning objectives we had for each session made us feel like a wind-up toy playing three kinds of instruments. Instead of getting easier over time, we felt our students and ourselves losing stamina, and that our slowly earned familiarity with the technology was outpaced by the rapid loss of connection and interaction.
At first, we tried to work with the technology, to listen to our well-meaning IT colleagues who told us we simply needed to use the technology more, to let it “reach” students. But this was the platform’s central problem: we were reaching more but connecting less. Eventually our IT colleagues threw up their hands, explaining that our pedagogy could not be accommodated, that our teaching techniques were “intense,” “unique,” and “a bit much.”
We never thought about our teaching methods as particularly excessive or revolutionary. Yet in the rear-view mirror of our post-pandemic world, that is how they appear. After a few months of HyFlex teaching, we gave up. We allowed our voice alone to bridge the in-person and virtual spaces and settled for mass, convenient content delivery (lectures illustrated by slides) over meaningful interaction. Jessica’s syllabus assignment, which had been a richly textured, collaboratively built narrative of the course, became a flat, individualistic task when attempted via HyFlex mode. It’s near impossible to do an ethnographic study of classrooms that are varied across multiple times and modalities. Students commented on, reacted to, and reported on the syllabus. They did not transform it.
This past spring, we returned to classroom teaching. But these are “in-person” classes in name only. Attendance is down and demand for online classes is up as COVID spread continues and students’ work and care responsibilities increase. We still share the view that our students need, and deserve, maximal flexibility. Therefore, we have each incorporated a few modifications drawn from HyFlex, such as making videos of class available to students who have to be absent and removing the requirement that students justify an absence. We did not want our students to feel so compelled to attend class that they would see it as incompatible with their caregiving commitments or that they would come to school while sick. We are trying to build our own model of flexibility, accountability, and caring pedagogical spaces in our classrooms.
We think it’s necessary to make these shifts in this uncertain educational climate. But we need to name what has been lost. We long ago realized that in an age of social media, none of us have an edge on content delivery. Just about any data point we wish to deliver to our students has already been the subject of a catchy and engaging explainer TikTok or YouTube video. Our value added to the educational experience is not, and probably never was, what we know, but rather our excitement about how we know it, and our invitation to our students to join us in a journey of shared inquiry. It was never easy to make this happen. In-person, collaborative, critical, student-centered learning was always a heavy lift for students at our commuter college. Yet when we managed to make it happen, students were agents of learning, jumping out of their seats and cultivating a classroom of electrifying, infectious, and incredibly necessary, “lightbulb moments.”
We miss those lightbulb moments, and we fear that they may not be coming back. This essay documents a HyFlex teaching fail but also addresses a primary concern about the future: classrooms may no longer be the site where this kind of intellectual commons can come into being. If we remain committed to the basic premise that learning should be liberatory, we have to ask, where and how will that happen? If we desire to generate the possibility of that kind of learning in online or hybrid spaces then improvements in technology are a must, but we also need higher education administrators, curriculum and technology experts, and students to acknowledge that dynamic engagement is vital.
Ahmed, Sara. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Gálvez, Alyshia, Lizbeth Bravo, Edith Carrasco, Kathryn Chuber, and Daisy Flores. 2020. “Reading Alex E. Chávez’s Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño (Duke University Press, 2017), a Pedagogical Lesson.” Teaching and Learning Anthropology 3, no. 1. http://dx.doi.org/10.5070/T33143605.
Freytas-Tamura, Kimiko de, Winnie Hu, and Lindsey Rogers Cook. 2020. “‘It’s the Death Towers’: How the Bronx Became New York’s Virus Hot Spot.” New York Times, May 26, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/26/nyregion/bronx-coronavirus-outbreak.html.
Lehman College. n.d. “About HyFlex”, Accessed May 10, 2022, https://www.lehman.edu/lehman-online/hyflex/about-hyflex/.
Nowacek, Rebecca S. 2011. Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.
Overmeire, Ben Van. 2018. “Opening the Classroom: Ownership and Engagement.” Accessed May 10, 2022. Hybrid Pedagogy, 20 March 2018. https://hybridpedagogy.org/opening-the-classroom-ownership-and-engagement/.
Ramírez, Martha. 2021. “Designing a Hybrid In-Class Flip.” Martha Ramírez, Accessed May 10, 2022, https://martharamirez.com.co/blog/hybrid-in-class-flip/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=hybrid-in-class-flip.
Zoom. n.d. “Zoom for Education.” Accessed May 10, 2022, https://explore.zoom.us/docs/en-us/education.html.