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Tag: universal design for learning

The quick pivot to online learning in spring 2020 brought with it a renewed interest in flexible course modalities. At many institutions, BlendFlex (we’ll define this later) has probably become synonymous with pandemic pedagogy. Ironically, as campuses now move to more normalized operations and face-to-face courses, BlendFlex may find itself once again beyond the scope of our university course offerings. Yet, as we consider moving forward in a post-pandemic world, it is appropriate to pause and reflect on the BlendFlex modality and analyze its strengths and weaknesses. For better or worse, some institutions, like ours, will continue to incorporate BlendFlex courses into the normal class rotation—albeit at a much smaller scale. This article serves as an overview of the BlendFlex model from a dual faculty–distance learning administrative perspective.

For those unfamiliar with the BlendFlex approach, its distinguishing feature is überflexibility. Instead of confining students to either face-to-face or online course content, a BlendFlex model provides the best of all worlds, simultaneously allowing face-to-face, synchronous (real-time), and asynchronous student experiences. While we may be tempted to assume BlendFlex was created because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is not the case. The strategy certainly is more prominent today but existed pre-coronavirus.

BlendFlex has two distinguishing positive features: student choice and universal design, especially as it relates to more traditional course delivery: fully face-to-face, fully online, and hybrid or blended.

Student choice

The BlendFlex model truly prioritizes student selection. In our more traditional instructional modes, the instructor would typically distinguish how, where, and in what capacity “class” occurs. As a result, the student would follow along and complete assignments and content in one way. A BlendFlex model allows for synchronicity. Students can attend a face-to-face class, watch live at home, or watch later. This HyFlex versus BlendFlex distinction is important to note. Institutions such as Central Georgia Technical College have designed BlendFlex courses for years to allow their students to take classes at different campuses across their university system. As originally conceived the concept was distinguished as HyFlex. Brian Beatty, who is credited with coining the phrase and the approach itself, believes choice is and will always remain the determining factor of a HyFlex or BlendFlex course. Without choice, it ceases to be BlendFlex.

Universal design

BlendFlex has the potential to meet learners “where they are” and engage different preferences. Some students, because of COVID-related safety concerns or because of other situations, may prefer virtual content. Other students continue to thrive in a face-to-face setting and, after increased virtual offerings, may crave (and need) that in-person interaction again. The BlendFlex model has four distinguishing features, all of which have the ability to expand universal design in our courses. For Beatty (2019), student choice (as we already discussed) is the first distinguishing feature of the HyFlex or BlendFlex model. The other three differentiating features include equivalency (i.e., equivalent learning activities in all participation modes), reusability (i.e., using artifacts from activities in each participation mode as learning objects for all), and accessibility (i.e., equipping students with skills, technology and otherwise, to appropriately access any of the participation modes). Ultimately, BlendFlex courses must use an equitable learning context for students, no matter their participation mode (face-to-face, online synchronous, or asynchronous).

Increased choice for students and flexibility as well as the potential for universal design are wonderful benefits of BlendFlex. But because the modality relies heavily on digital technology, there is a potential for limitations because of access, bandwidth, or connectivity issues. As we all know, a heavy reliance on technology can create problems if the technology is not working correctly.

Now that we are on this side of the pandemic, resuming relatively “normal” operations, how can we move forward? What questions should we ask about the BlendFlex modality and about teaching in general?

It is important to note, first, that as administrators you can help faculty members deal with a significant feeling of a loss of control. The pandemic forced all faculty members outside their teaching comfort zones in some capacity. This diminished control and deep sense of fear of the unknown created a perfect storm. The power dynamics shifted in individual courses, yet again, from faculty to student and even from faculty to institution. This creates, as you can imagine, consistent anxiety.

We believe it is helpful, then, when considering whether to continue to use the BlendFlex modality, that administrators consider a few big picture ideas.

The decision to continue using BlendFlex goes beyond these considerations and every institution will be different and will have unique concerns. As we navigate a post-pandemic university system, however, we need to consider the applicability of the BlendFlex modality moving forward. It has wonderful capabilities and potential, but we need to recover from mistakes made during the quick online pivot and think strategically about the modality moving forward.

Reference

Beatty, B. J. (Ed.). (2019).  Hybrid-flexible course design: Implementing student directed-hybrid classes. EdTech Books. https://edtechbooks.org/hyflex


Michael G. Strawser, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Nicholson School of Communication and Media at the University of Central Florida. He is also the managing editor for the Journal of Faculty Development.

Patsy Moskal, EdD, is the director of digital learning impact evaluation at the University of Central Florida.