“Educator” is used throughout this paper to represent professor, instructor, teacher, or any person or team that leads learning sessions.
Scheduling and delivery of courses offered in various modalities can be problematic for colleges and universities. These various delivery modes may be referred to as asynchronous online, synchronous online, synchronous in the classroom, HyFlex (three modes of delivery at one time), hybrid, blended, or flexible. Each delivery mode has inherent challenges for educators, students, and/or institutions. This paper details some of those challenges and proposes a solution.
The solution is to offer all courses as bi-modal flexible courses. Essentially, bi-modal flexible learning offers two modalities for delivery:
- Synchronous online delivery with an asynchronous option for learning
- Synchronous on campus delivery with an asynchronous option for learning
With either option, educators are scheduled for synchronous delivery. With either option, students may select their preferred learning method for each session and may attend in person for some sessions (or none at all) while working asynchronously for other sessions. Students participate as they choose to and are accountable for meeting course demands regardless of the delivery mode they select. Educators are available to students and are responsible for designing bi-modal content. Content should incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and offer choices to students. Institutions provide educators with asynchronous courses designed within the Learning Management System (LMS), which supports both groups of student learners (synchronous and asynchronous) as well as educators.
Bi-modal flexible learning is similar to HyFlex delivery but less costly, easier to instantiate, requires less IT setup and support, and has less of a demand on educators. Bi-modal flexible courses offer two modes for learning, while HyFlex offers three. Of course, HyFlex delivery mode is the most flexible learning mode for students (presently).
Bi-modal flexible learning offers students control over how they attend classes and allows them to select a course mode of delivery that works best for them.
A case for bi-modal flexible learning
The hybrid flexible, or HyFlex, course format is an instructional approach that combines face-to-face (F2F) and online learning. Each class session and learning activity is offered in-person, synchronously online, and asynchronously online. Students can decide how to participate. The flexibility of the HyFlex model demonstrates a commitment to student success, and that flexibility can also enable institutions to maintain educational and research activities during a disruption (Educause Learning Initiative, 2020).
Working as a college educator for more than 20 years and having designed and taught many courses in the classroom and online, I have noticed that HyFlex delivery may have some inherent setbacks. I have had many conversations with colleagues, managers, and students and gathered feedback supporting my conclusion that HyFlex delivery may be more work than it is worth (presently). Research also tells us that HyFlex can be expensive and difficult to manage.
HyFlex courses can be deceptively difficult to do well. The technology and the curriculum must align, and the technology needs to work consistently for everyone, which requires testing and possibly new installations or upgrades. The learning must be equivalent for all students, guaranteeing that no student is at a disadvantage due to the learning pathway chosen. Instructors must be comfortable and effective with asynchronous teaching; those who are not can easily underestimate the amount of effort and interaction necessary to engage with online students (Educause Learning Initiative, 2020).
I propose offering students control over their learning by providing two delivery options, not three, for each course. For example, in one course students might have an option to study on campus in the classroom or asynchronously online, while in another course the options might include studying online synchronously or studying online asynchronously. Students would be able to select their preferred option and change it at any time. Bi-modal flexible learning allows students to choose when and how they will study by personalizing the course to meet their own needs. It is student-focused and does not make students choose either synchronous or asynchronous classes, but rather offers both within the same course, and students choose how they prefer to participate from session to session based on what works best for them. Compared to HyFlex delivery mode, bi-modal delivery reduces costs, the demand for technology support, and pressure on educators.
Let us review the challenges associated with various course delivery modes and end the discussion by listing the ways in which bi-modal flexible delivery can be implemented to help address some of these challenges.
Challenges with various delivery modes
Challenges with HyFlex delivery:
- Three delivery modes. Educators need to manage three delivery modes at the same time (in-person, online asynchronous, and online synchronous), which can be stressful. Additionally, the skillset to do this may not be there quite yet. For example, educators may not adapt content for the online synchronous learner, and instead, may merely post lecture slides online as asynchronous content.
- IT expense and support. HyFlex requires a lot of IT support in setup and maintenance. There may be issues with synchronous chat, video freezing, audio problems, etc. IT-ready classrooms may not be available for all courses.
- Daunting for educators. HyFlex considerations in assignment design, groupwork, and lesson planning for inclusion, equity, and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) may be viewed by educators as daunting. Creating flexible assignments may mean redesigning current assignments to meet the needs of three different learning groups. Synchronous online groupwork may require an assistant in the classroom to manage the conferencing system and live chat while the educator provides an in-classroom lesson.
- Low synchronous attendance. In HyFlex courses, student attendance may decline in synchronous sessions. As students get more familiar with the course content and course expectations, they may switch to the asynchronous delivery option. Lack of attendance may demotivate the educator or make them feel they are not doing a good job, and may also demotivate the students who do attend synchronously. Varying synchronous attendance from session to session means that the educator must be flexible, open-minded, and able to adapt synchronous activities from session to session as needed.
Challenges with asynchronous online delivery
Asynchronous course delivery refers to delivering course material in a way that is not bound to a particular time or place and usually does not include live sessions with an educator. Students determine where and when they will study.
- Student skills and perception. Students may feel isolated, lose motivation, cannot self-direct or self-motivate, may be struggling to learn English, may be new to Canadian (or other country) education systems, and thus, may end up withdrawing from or failing courses. Students may complain that the educator was not there, there was little interaction, and they did not learn because they were not taught.
- Educator mindset. Educators feel asynchronous online delivery is a “set it and forget it” situation where they are not required to provide live sessions because students are expected to follow the Learning Management System (LMS) course flow in order to complete learning tasks and assessments. This can lead to poor student satisfaction. This mindset also creates a situation whereby educators feel they are competing for asynchronous course assignments. During COVID, many educators gained an understanding of the perks of teaching online courses (e.g., flexible time, no commute, no parking fees) and now prefer this delivery mode. This may pit educator against educator for what is perceived as the “best” delivery modes. Those who are assigned an asynchronous online course feel lucky or special and those who are not may feel jilted or left out.
- Educator skillset and experience. Some educators are not guided on how to best deliver asynchronous courses. In the past, asynchronous courses were not viewed as equivalent to synchronous courses, therefore, not many were offered and few educators gained experience with this delivery mode. Educators may not realize that with asynchronous delivery they still need to engage students in meaningful ways, and asynchronous courses require daily/weekly interactions with students. For example, educators may not realize they should record and post a video providing assignment instructions (along with a written copy), or even record and post an explanation of the answers of a previous assignment. They may not feel the need to send regular email updates on what is happening in the course, post regular announcements in the LMS, use a discussion board or activity feed, provide weekly recaps on lessons via self-check quizzes or provide short presentations (e.g., Adobe Spark, H5P, Prezi, etc.), demonstrate in a video how to use a software or perform a task, share collaboration documents in Google or Office 365, or utilize Kahoot, Nearpod or similar learning tools. They may not be familiar with, or have the skills to use, these teaching and learning tools.
Challenges with synchronous online and/or in-person classroom delivery
Synchronous delivery is learning that is delivered at a specific time and place. Students are expected to attend sessions guided by an educator. Sessions usually occur online or on campus.
- Low attendance. Students are expected to attend sessions in real time, which may conflict with other obligations or situations such as work, family, illness, travel time, vacation, appointments, child care, etc., thus students may not attend regularly. Lower attendance in the class may demotivate educators and students who do attend. Educators historically believe that with lower attendance in synchronous classes, sessions will be less engaging or difficult to do group activities. Many students (and educators) would prefer not to commute to the institution as they may view this as a waste of time and money. These preferences could reduce on-campus attendance. These are not challenges associated with online courses. To combat lower attendance rates, some educators have tried assigning in-class quizzes or grading participation/attendance. This may not promote better attendance and instead leave students dissatisfied, stressed, and angry.
- Schedule rooms and faculty. Scheduling classrooms or labs for in-person classroom delivery can be difficult (lack of available labs and enrollment continue to grow). Some courses meet more than once per week which may exacerbate the problem. Scheduling educators for in-person or synchronous online courses may be difficult because many part-time or contract faculty also teach at other colleges or universities, or have full-time careers elsewhere. When students have many courses scheduled in online synchronous delivery, they may stop attending regularly due to online conferencing fatigue.
- Timetable delivery mode unclear. Students may be confused as to which course delivery type they are registering for if the student timetables are not specific. For example, ODL on the timetable might represent Online Delivery for Learning, which represents either synchronous or asynchronous mode, but the student cannot be certain. Students enroll with the assumption that ODL represents asynchronous online delivery, but later discover they are in a synchronous online course. The students inform the educator that they assumed they would not have to attend classes because the timetable shows ODL and they thought the course work could be done asynchronously. Students may have thought they could schedule work shifts during this time believing that the course was asynchronous. This may leave students dissatisfied, stressed, or angry.
- Provide course materials. Often, educators who are assigned to teach synchronously (in person or online) request a copy of the LMS master course design. These master courses contain all of the course materials needed by the educator and the students. When there is no master course created for synchronous courses, educators will ask to have the asynchronous master course copied into their specific sections on the LMS. Usually, this request comes from the fact that educators require most of the teaching and learning materials such as ebooks, data files, instructor files, videos, handouts, etc., regardless of course delivery mode, and these materials are already posted in the asynchronous course design. Without a copy from the asynchronous master shell, educators would be left on their own to locate materials and upload them to the LMS in order to share materials with their students. This may lead to inconsistency and inequity across sections. Some students may receive more, fewer, or different learning materials than others, and while some variance is expected and welcomed across sections, too much variance may hinder student success. Embedding the asynchronous course master materials into a synchronous course in the LMS may result in lower attendance because as the course progresses, students may prefer to follow the asynchronous course design, although not officially offered, essentially switching from synchronous to asynchronous learning.
In part 2, I will discuss the bi-modal flexible course delivery and how bi-modal flexible delivery can be implemented to help address some of these challenges.
Kerri Shields has been a college professor for 20+ years and has taught many courses in business, management, marketing, and information systems. She has designed courses for hybrid, in-classroom, and online delivery, and has observed the pros and cons of each delivery method. She enjoys learning as much as she does teaching and understands that students have varied learning styles and needs.
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