During the 2020 global pandemic, Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCUs) were challenged with maintaining access to learning and student attendance. HBCUs are rich in diversity and often consist of more disadvantaged and underrepresented populations (NCES, 2020). The rise of the HyFlex model could attract more students who may benefit from this format (Samayoa et al., 2016); however, the model should be accompanied by a course design that applies the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework to augment accessibility.
When all academic communities changed to virtual (synchronous) education, it was a shift to an alternative educational format from traditional face-to-face to virtual. Students met with instructors online via web conference platforms such as Webex or Zoom, working towards preset schedules, mandatory participation, and attendance according to required structures. This shift allowed the academic community and students to better understand virtual education. Additionally, the academic community realized the advantages of the HyFlex model—where students could choose their preferred educational mode, whether it was face-to-face or virtual.
HyFlex has been around since 2005, designed to increase enrollment (Beatty, 2019). Using the HyFlex model can motivate students to become accustomed to the benefits available, such as the convenience of attendance from any location. Additionally, all of the course materials are available on the school Learning Management System (LMS) (Binnewies, 2019; Wang, 2019). This mode of instruction provides promising accessibility with increased flexibility and the location does not affect the student’s attendance. In turn, student attendance increases learning (Abdelmalak & Parra, 2016).
Integrating UDL within a HyFlex model
The Hyflex model becomes more effective when accompanied by a course design that uses the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework. UDL is an educational framework designed to improve teaching and learning for students. The framework guides the design according to learning goals, materials, methods, and assessments. The framework was developed in the United States by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), according to research in the field of neuroscience to enhance education. UDL has three core principles: engagement, representation, and action and expression (CAST, 2018). UDL guides the design of learning experiences to proactively meet the needs of learners, thus societal barriers in learning are broken down (CAST, 2018). When using UDL in designing HyFlex courses, the focus is to develop instructions and assessments that develop the student’s knowledge to a higher educational level while supporting the learning process (Harris et al., 2020).
As a faculty member [Hill] at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), I use the UDC LMS [Blackboard Ultra] course site as the center hub for student learning and access to materials. Representation is one of the UDL core principles. It is the process of collecting and presenting information to students in a way from which students can understand, engage, and learn (CAST, 2018). In a HyFlex learning modality, I design my courses using the Blackboard Ultra course site to house course materials and activities. I use a standard weekly structure using learning modules. Each has an introduction video with closed captioning, written text, and a variety of engaging activities for the week. The course structure overview video, syllabus, and course map are provided in the “Start Here” module to give clear information about the objectives, assignments, assessments, and materials for student learning. This helps my face-to-face and virtual students focus on their learning process using various modes of presentation.
Student engagement in the HyFlex mode requires a planned activity that can engage all learners to foster collaboration and community (CAST, 2018). According to the UDL core principle of engagement, instructors should provide different means of participation. I [Hill] use a Mentimeter (Menti.com) activity which gives students a chance to view their responses with real time illustrations represented by memes/pictures, text, or audio for peer review and discussion. Moreover, I use the breakout session tool in the video conferencing service to facilitate in-person and virtual communication on the given topic. Students can chat or use video and emojis to share ideas. Students also enjoy using Hypothesis, a Web 2.0 social annotation tool integrated into the UDC LMS [Blackboard Ultra]. Students can comment on readings in the margins or type answers to questions using text, audio, videos, website links, or pictures during class for everyone to review and reply. Students can access all activities in the LMS course site at any time to revisit the material or continue the conversation.
3. Action and expression
At UDC, faculty focus on diversifying learning assessment through the core principle of action and expression. This principle is concerned with how faculty plan, organize, create, and demonstrate understanding of the materials to increase students’ learning and retention (CAST, 2018; Harris et al., 2012). The discussion tool is useful to assess students’ understanding of course specific materials. It promotes a multimodal approach using audio, video, or text to demonstrate their learning (Overton, 2021). Later in the semester, students create PowerPoint presentations based on their readings and applied learning. The HyFlex mode gives them an option to present either in the classroom or virtually using the video conferencing service to address classmates’ questions through the chat. This assesses students’ ability to demonstrate their knowledge of the course material and gives them a chance to present information to their peers using different modes. UDL allows HyFlex courses to adjust to the student’s variability as a stronghold in the planning process of instructions.
A HyFlex learning modality provides access and flexibility in HBCUs that admit students from underserved areas and non-traditional learners. Learners can obtain access to learning despite work schedules or other challenges. Observed findings have demonstrated that the advantages of HyFlex course design, enhanced by the UDL principles, can increase learning and accessibility in HBCUs. There is a need found for inclusion, maximizing learning, and providing various learning methods (Dell et al., 2015). The UDL framework guides HyFlex course design to embrace inclusion which produces a broad-spectrum of learning environments. In short, student-centered course designs focused on the education process and methods can encourage and stimulate the ultimate learning experience using the HyFlex format.
Learners at HBCUs are provided more accessibility to engage in inclusive resources integrated into the HyFlex format. This combination could close the achievement gap in STEM at HBCUs, which will encourage more learners to engage in research and measurement tools requiring advanced technology for experiential learning in the classroom going forward (Schwartz, 2012). The HyFlex format may be a new trend that surfaced because of COVID-19; however, academia understands the importance of continuing to provide access to learning through non-traditional methods. Despite the format of delivery, the commitment to equity and inclusion must be addressed in course design to allow students to be active learners in an adaptive environment.
Fatma Elshobokshy is lead director, Center for the Advancement of Learning (CAL), as well as director of Learning Technology. She supports the Office of the Chief Academic Officer’s implementation of an institution-wide digital learning strategy that relies heavily upon leveraging technology to advance teaching and learning. Elshobokshy focuses on using learning technologies to increase student engagement and retention.
Kelli Hill, PhD, is an assistant professor in psychology and human development at the University of the District of Columbia. Dr. Hill’s current research in the Social Development and Identity (SDI) Formation lab centers around the social impacts on child development, which includes a broad study of parent—child communication, self-efficacy, and learning outcomes to provide more insight into children and young adults’ social and academic well-being.
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Binnewies, S., & Wang, Z. (2019). Challenges of student equity and engagement in a HyFlex Course. In Blended learning designs in STEM higher education (pp. 209-230). Springer, Singapore.
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Harris, B. N., McCarthy, P. C., Wright, A. M., Schutz, H., Boersma, K. S., Shepherd, S. L., … & Ellington, R. M. (2020). From panic to pedagogy: Using online active learning to promote inclusive instruction in ecology and evolutionary biology courses and beyond. Ecology and evolution, 10(22), 12581-12612.
National Center for Education Statistics (2020). Fast Facts: Historically Black Colleges and Universities. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=667
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