Feeling Disconnected in a HyFlex Classroom

Course(s): EDC201 Foundations of Education

Department: School of Education

Institution: Lake Erie College

Instructor: Dr. Katharine Delavan

Syllabus: Submitted as PDF

Number and Level of Students: 33 undergraduate; first time freshmen and transfers; and 3 post-baccalaureate students.

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Google Meet, Google Forms, and NearPod

Author Bio: Katharine Delavan is the Dean of the School of Education and Professor of Early Childhood Education at Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio. She has an M.Ed. and PhD in Early Childhood from Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and a BA in History/Psychology from the University of Michigan.

As the dean of a teacher preparation program, I try to model the use of self-reflection and student and peer evaluation to guide continuous improvement in my teaching and interactions with students. This year is no exception, in fact, a deeper reflection was necessary this year to gauge our response to the crisis and to examine the effectiveness of the practices intended to ensure the continuation of classes and learning experiences with as little disruption as possible. During the spring 2020 state-mandated shutdown it was obvious that asynchronous learning and teaching was not the most effective approach for our student population. As a result, during this unprecedented fall 2020 semester I adopted the HyFlex Course Model (Educause, 2020) to accommodate students who might need to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure or a positive test, or because they are not comfortable coming to class due to the rate of COVID-19 infections. The intention was to be ready for anything, traditional face-to-face, in-class session, live streaming Google Meet sessions for some or all students, fully online class session, and hybrid combination. These options were available to make learning accessible for all students. “The HyFlex approach requires faculty to reconceptualize the learning experience and rethink how students engage with the instructor, content, and peers. All participants-irrespective of how they choose to join- must have equitable access to the learning resources, the instructor, and one another” (Educause, July 2020).

With the use of Google Meet students were able to join the face to face class and participate in class discussions, I was able to simultaneously share the live presentation with the students online and in the class. I could even record the session for students who could not attend in either format. This option required me to upload any needed documents to the Google Meet invitation, if not already posted in our LMS. Google Meet made presentations possible for students in quarantine, allowing them to remain current in class and submit their assignments without tweaking them.

The challenges with the HyFlex Course Model presented themselves quickly when the first students in quarantine had to attend class through Google Meet and find a way to join small group work and discussions. My students suggested the best option which was to join through Facetime on their individual smartphones or simply call classmates to chat while working in small groups. Students were virtually present and could not interact with actual materials used in the small group experiences, which often moved outside when the weather conditions were good. This option worked well to continue collaborative learning, at least groups were still able to talk to each other and collaborate on ideas, and virtual students could at least see the materials used in class.

At the end of the semester, I asked students to share what they liked or did not like about our use of the HyFlex approach this year, and they overwhelmingly agreed that they did not like it. The theme of their open responses related to how virtual learning “feels” different. Students stated any online assignments felt like busywork, even if it was not. The virtual environment did not feel like going to class, even though the content and interaction was available. They preferred being in class, talking to a real person, not their image on a screen. While they were able to receive and discuss content, they did not feel they were as engaged as they are in an in-person class. Students felt “talking to a screen was dehumanizing, even though we were talking to a human.” They also admitted when they join class virtually they get distracted easily by people and things at home; such as, snacking, cell phones, television; and because they often wear their pajamas they do not “feel” like they are learning in class. My students reported that they felt disconnected despite our efforts to stay connected. Students missed the interaction and social aspect of being in the same room with everyone. The mask requirement contributed to the feeling of being disconnected as well. It was difficult to get to know each other when you can’t see their entire face. It was difficult to put a name with a face and build relationships. It is important to consider that our students enroll because they do not want to take online courses, they want a true classroom experience with in-person discussion, hands-on experiences, and time for quick discussions before and after class and feeling that they belong. A virtual or hybrid environment allows for continued delivery of content, but it cannot replace the aesthetic human experience of interacting with others in a shared space. We cannot discount the value of place and space.

In an effort to create the same environment for virtual and in-class students, and increase participation, I used NearPod for the lecture portion of some classes. NearPod is a platform that allows a teacher to present a slideshow with embedded interactive tasks for students to complete through the course of the lesson. The most important feature of NearPod is the inability for students to move the slides forward, when placed on that setting, a live lesson. Only the presenter can move slides forward. NearPod also shows live participation rate on each task slide so the teacher knows who has completed the task NearPod allows for a shared experience in a virtual and in-person setting, it is easy to bring the same content to students in either format. Following the completion of the lesson, the teacher is provided with reports which can be used as formative assessment of what students are thinking, how students are understanding content, and help to identify gaps or patterns among the group.

Image 1: Screenshot of an Open-Ended question activity. You can see the teacher can set a timer, hide student names to allow for anonymity, and the participation rate so the teacher knows when all students have submitted an answer.

Image 2: Screenshot of the session reports available for the teacher to evaluate following the lesson. These reports allows teachers to see all students responses to the open-ended questions, polls, collaborative slides and quizzes, among other activities.

Even with the highest of intentions to provide equal content to students sitting in the classroom and to students joining virtually, the outcome showed that equal content delivery is not central to learning. The human element of feeling like you are learning, feeling that you are part of a class and feeling connected to others while learning is paramount to how the content is delivered. The course I am writing about, EDC201 Foundations of Education was unique in many ways this semester. First, the course had 33 students which exceeded our COVID-19 classroom capacity. So, the class was divided into 1/3’s to meet one day a week and complete the weekly online module to fulfill the remaining hour requirement. The class was divided into groups of 11 students (alphabetical order). While this met our COVID-19 guidelines, it did limit my ability to create a cohort culture. Instead of one group establishing relationships, sharing ideas, and finding their place in the program, we had 3 separate groups that had trouble connecting within the group. It was challenging to respond to posts in the online discussion forum to names you could not connect with a face or know them as a personality. Social distancing prohibited collaborative learning situations, such as, sitting close together in small groups or in partner work. While everyone understood why this had to happen, it did not eliminate the feeling of being disconnected.

While it is critical to deliver equal content to students in all formats, online or in person, the most important aspect of the college classroom learning environment is human interaction. We cannot replicate social interaction in a meaningful way, or at least in a way that provides a feeling of a shared experience that is supported and validated with in-person discussion and acknowledgment. I believe the technology used to support the HyFlex Model is effective and beneficial to enhance student learning and provide for interactive learning experiences, and I also believe it has to be used in conjunction with in-person, live discussion and interaction to validate the experience. Especially in a teacher preparation program, interaction and building relationships is critical to the success of our students now and in their future classrooms.

References

Educause (2020). 7 Things You Should Know About…The HyFlex Course Model. https://library.educause.edu/-/media/files/library/2020/7/eli7173.pdf

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