Heather Thompson-Bahm, DM, Assistant Professor of Management, co-director, MSUB Center for Teaching and Learning
Joy Crissey Honea, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, co-director, MSUB Center for Teaching and Learning
Susan Balter-Reitz, Professor of Communication, Special Assistant to the Provost
“…Flexibility has been key for me, not personally because of COVID-19, but simply because of my busy life. Having the option to skip class some days (usually due to work scheduling) and participate remotely and still feel as though I have command of the material is excellent. COVID-19 aside I hope that some professors remain as flexible and forgiving as they have been. I truly commend the professors on their ability to remain flexible as possible during the pandemic.”
– MSUB student response in November 2020 to a question about what they hope their instructors will keep doing in future semesters.
Montana State University Billings (MSUB) is an open access, regional comprehensive campus that offers certificates through graduate degrees. Our Fall 2021 student headcount was 3.285, including 384 graduate students, 1,991 students in four-year University Campus, and 910 students enrolled in City College, our embedded two-year college. MSUB reflects the increasing diversity among college students; the average age of undergraduate students on the University campus is 25.3, the majority live off campus (88%) and almost all students are employed outside of campus. 41% of MSUB students are first generation, 56% of those seeking a degree or certificate are Pell eligible and 65% of students receive some sort of federal scholarship aid (2021-22 IPEDS Student Financial Aid). MSUB students often mix and match on campus and online courses to better balance work and family obligations; approximately 55% of students are registered for at least one online course.
MSUB’s geographical location and student characteristics prompted the university’s early adoption of distance delivery methods. MSUB began offering Internet enabled classes in 1996 and by 2000, the university grew its online offerings substantially. MSUB currently offers 30 fully online programs and more than 700 online course sections per year. Online programs and courses are primarily offered by full time, tenure track faculty, and most programs are available to students in both online and on-campus modalities.
Student demand for online course sections is significant, and academic departments continue to struggle with balancing staffing for online and on-campus offerings. Faced with staffing issues, departments must often cancel low enrolled on-campus classes to shift resources to better enrolled online sections. As a result, students found themselves forced into online classes when they preferred to be in a classroom, at least when it worked with their schedules. Faculty had similar concerns; while they were comfortable teaching online, they often missed the synchronous live environment.
Faced with the administrative challenges of balancing faculty workload with student demand and the need to allow students and faculty the opportunity to teach and learn in a modality that best suited their style, MSUB was exceptionally well positioned to adopt HyFlex courses. HyFlex, short for hybrid flexible, was first introduced at San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 2005. Brian Beatty, who has become the pied piper of HyFlex, has presented widely on SFSU’s experiences, including at a conference attended by two MSUB faculty in 2015. This chance encounter between Beatty and our faculty set MSUB’s HyFlex journey in motion.
In 2018, MSUB sent a team of four faculty and two administrators to SFSU to meet with Dr. Beatty and several of his faculty. That experience launched MSUB’s focus on developing a quality and sustainable HyFlex development program. We were convinced HyFlex would work well for our institution, especially since faculty were already skilled at delivering high quality online instruction, a prerequisite for the development of the HyFlex modality. We were also committed to launching HyFlex carefully, with an eye toward assessment of both student learning and faculty workload. We worked with the administration and the faculty unions to start a small pilot in the 2018-2019 academic year.
The specific needs of MUSB’s student population were the top priority when we began our HyFlex course design. Our faculty needed to ensure that, in course development, they clearly explained the HyFlex concept, effectively delivered content, and engaged students across the modality. The HyFlex pilot program launched with three HyFlex trained faculty, each teaching one HyFlex course as part of their regular teaching responsibilities. One of the most significant challenges with the launch rested with student understanding of HyFlex delivery. Students were not accustomed to the course material access and schedule freedom that accompanied HyFlex. However, a survey conducted of all students involved in the pilot indicated that, once they understood how HyFlex courses worked, they liked the design. Ninety-five percent of respondents stated that they would take another HyFlex course in the future.
Additional concerns that arose during the pilot included the added faculty workload for the development and delivery of HyFlex courses. It quickly became clear to the pilot faculty that the development of HyFlex courses required an increased workload on the front end of course development. The Faculty Administrative Collaborative Committee (FACC), which consists of members of the Faculty Association (who represent MSUB’s university campus faculty union) and administrators, agreed to prioritize HyFlex development and this group established the expectations for HyFlex. In 2020, the FACC voted to approve an implementation approach that would require faculty to be trained before they were eligible to teach HyFlex classes and would offer compensation to instructors for the development of at least the first HyFlex course they taught.
As a result of the successful pilot program in 2018 and 2019, and the agreement between the administration and faculty union regarding training and compensation, MSUB was uniquely positioned when the coronavirus pandemic arrived. We were able to pivot to remote delivery nimbly in the spring of 2020 and began the 2020-2021 academic year with a more robust and strategic flexible delivery approach than many other universities. We worked with our registrar to code HyFlex courses in our student information system (Banner) so that students could identify HyFlex sections and were able to add a short description of HyFlex into the Banner description field. Even in courses not coded as HyFlex, instructors could experiment with the design mode as a way to stagger attendance in small classrooms, switch seamlessly to remote delivery in the event of a class COVID-19 outbreak, and accommodate students who were isolating, quarantining or simply felt safer not being in the physical classroom.
To gauge the effectiveness of these flexible delivery modes, and to assess student experiences during the first full pandemic year, MSUB conducted a student survey toward the end of the first full semester back on campus (November 2020). Though the survey asked more generally about student experiences and wellbeing during the pandemic, it also included several questions specific to various course modalities, including fully online, fully in person, synchronous remote (Zoom/Webex) and HyFlex.
With a response rate of almost a quarter of the student body (n=712), the survey results indicated that nearly 20 percent of respondents had taken at least one course that met the definition of HyFlex that semester. When asked which modality students liked the best, HyFlex ranked the highest among the range of delivery modes implemented that year. Just over 19 percent of respondents said they liked HyFlex the best, compared to hybrid courses with required attendance (9.98 percent) and Zoom/Webex (5.7 percent.) Similarly, when asked which delivery mode they liked least, students ranked HyFlex the lowest, with only 4.4 percent saying it was their least favorite mode. The popularity of HyFlex was confirmed in an open-ended question asking students what they would like their instructors to keep doing during the following semester. The most common answer was “keep being flexible/understanding” (n=62), followed by “keep having options for different participation modes” (n=52).
The popularity of flexible course delivery modes among students was in the forefront of our minds when MSUB launched its Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) in the summer of 2021. The inaugural faculty co-directors were selected, in part, because of their involvement in the HyFlex pilot program and one of the primary goals of the CTL during its first year was to offer HyFlex pedagogy training to all members of the university faculty, including part time faculty. One of the tenants of our new CTL is developing faculty communities, and we made the choice to bring all of our faculty development programs in-house. As a result, we moved away from contracted faculty development in HyFlex and implemented an workshop program led by MSUB’s faculty experts.
The workshops are currently offered in three distinct modules using HyFlex design, so they include an asynchronous component, an in-person session and a remote synchronous option. Participants complete tasks on their own, prior to a face-to-face workshop. During the synchronous portion (also recorded for those who cannot attend) there are demonstrations of existing HyFlex courses, interactive brainstorming sessions and time for reflection and questions. Following the synchronous workshop, attendees are required to build several modules of a HyFlex course and submit them for review by the trainers. Upon successful completion of the training, MSUB faculty are awarded a $1,000 stipend and approved to offer classes with the HyFlex registration code. Upon delivery of the course, they may request final review using a rubric designed specially to ensure quality HyFlex delivery, modeled on MSUB’s Core Principles for Quality Online Teaching, and become eligible for a $2,000 HyFlex development stipend. The success of our CTL’s trainings led to a request from other colleges in Montana for our faculty to lead workshops for faculty at other campuses around the state. The first one was held in April 2022 and drew close to 40 participants from the Montana University System campuses.
As of the spring of 2022, MSUB had successfully trained 90 of its approximately 160 faculty in HyFlex delivery and increased the number of HyFlex courses offered in a semester to 60. In the summer of 2022, MSUB’s CTL began offering a “HyFlex 2.0” training, designed for those who had already taught at least one HyFlex course. This level-two course uses the same model as the first, but focuses on learning from prior experiences: identifying challenges, finding solutions, and improving on the model in future courses. Themes that emerged from faculty dialogue in the inaugural HyFlex 2.0 workshop included challenges with designing in-class activities when instructors don’t know how many students will attend, designing assessment of learning objectives across various modalities, ensuring an equitable learning experience, and implementing HyFlex in courses with lab/clinical/experiential components.
MSUB plans to continue to engage in regular assessment of both faculty and student experiences with HyFlex. With the CTL as a conduit, there is currently a research group of faculty members investigating a range of issues. One is surveying faculty about their experience teaching HyFlex, another is surveying student experiences and a third team aims to gather data on student outcomes according to course delivery mode. We hope to have preliminary results before the end of the 2022-2023 academic year.
Although our HyFlex journey has been positive overall, there are a few lessons learned from our experience. Perhaps the most important was that students were not always clear how to engage in HyFlex and some online students were hesitant to register for courses that were coded as HyFlex, due to confusion about how the modality works. Academic advisors and other staff members were not always communicating clearly the definition of HyFlex. A corollary to this lesson was that some faculty were also unclear about what constituted a HyFlex course and would require synchronous participation, violating a primary component of the flexibility of the course mode. In order to try to bring clarity for all members of our community. In the spring of 2021, a group of faculty with flexible course design experience worked together to develop definitions for four distinct course delivery modes, including HyFlex, and the faculty senate reviewed and approved them for institutional use. At MSUB, a HyFlex course “…allows fully flexible participation for students. Students may choose to participate fully online, fully in-person or a combination of both and may change their participation mode at any time. HyFlex courses must comply with the MSUB Core Principles of Quality for Online Courses. Synchronous participation is not required.” (https://catalog.msubillings.edu/undergraduate/course-modes/).
MSUB’s positive HyFlex experience has reaffirmed some early choices we made as an institution. First, working closely with faculty and creating a shared understanding of the increased preparation required for a HyFlex course helped balance faculty workload and assuage their concerns that this would be teaching two courses instead of one. Second, MSUB engaged multiple stakeholders as we built the infrastructure to grow HyFlex offerings including the Academic Senate, the Registrar’s office, and Advising. Third, our communities’ willingness to invest financially in faculty development has not only provided a strong pedagogical foundation for HyFlex teaching, but it has also enabled us to create continuous opportunities for faculty engagement.
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