In which I take you on a tortuous journey through my thinking, planning, and preparing to teach college writing classes during a pandemic and why I’ve decided that HyFlex design and HyperDocs are my solution.
Healthy at MSU?
Morehead State University recently unveiled its Healthy at MSU plan for re-opening campus this summer and bringing students back in the fall. While we do not yet know what social distancing will mean for foot traffic in and around our buildings or how classrooms will be set up for teaching and learning, we do know that our semester will start at the usual time and end at Thanksgiving with no fall break. This move appears to be in line with plans at other Kentucky public universities including the University of Louisville where my son is a student. The Morehead State calendar leaves us with 14 weeks of instruction if we leave a week for a final or concluding activity of some sort. This feels doable to me (usually we have 17 weeks including finals and one week off for fall break and Thanksgiving) as I was already planning to make some calendar adjustments given the fact we will still be teaching during a pandemic. I believe pandemic teaching and learning plans should be loose, flexible, and forgiving, don’t you?
While it is nerve-wracking to not yet know what Healthy at MSU will look like on the ground and in the classroom, I suspect that many of the guidelines that U of L is describing will be in place (face masks, physical distancing, and health screening). I liked U of L’s decision to adjust course offerings to either online or hybrid courses (evenly divided by program) to reduce the physical exposure for students, faculty, and staff while still offering flexibility if local pandemic conditions change. U of L is also explicitly focusing on giving first year students hybrid classes over online classes which feels like the right priority. I am less pleased with MSU’s decision to offer only 25% of our classes online. I have no idea of the percentage of hybrid classes being offered, but suspect there is still a high percentage of classes being offered as 100% face-to-face which might force students and faculty to face another hard pivot if the pandemic pushes back at our return to campus. Note: U of L defines hybrid as having 25%-75% of the course taught face-to-face, with the remaining taught on line. For example, for a course requiring 44 contact hours, the minimum for face-to-face interactions translates to 11 hours. In the past when I have taught hybrid classes my face-to-face instruction was roughly 50% ( typically meeting Tuesday and online Thursday). I understand the urge to limit the percentage of online classes at MSU, but do not understand the resistance to hybrid teaching and learning which has long been my preference and seems much more appropriate to our current conditions (remember: loose, flexible, and forgiving!). Note: Many programs are moving their first-year composition programs online (or with a small number of hybrid classes) which begs the question…
I am trying not to panic about how I will teach 19 other humans (our current class cap) in the classroom currently assigned to me let alone how I will reach my third floor office (or second floor classsroom) in a building thronging with students, faculty, and staff (riding elevator and climbing stairs seem equally risky endeavors). I presume our long hallways will be marked to encourage social distancing, but how that will look when students are stacked outside classrooms waiting for a door to be unlocked feels more questionable. Will we need to arrive much earlier than usual (but not too early so we don’t run into the previously exiting class) so we can safely position ourselves behind plexiglass (will there be plexiglass?) and then students must seat themselves according to time of arrival and then leave in that order (and will students play along with this or seat themselves willy nilly by preference)? And when and where can we have private conversations with students? Can’t speak quietly in the classroom thanks to physical distancing requirements and not in my tiny office that is for sure. The mind boggles about the logistics and every day I come up with new questions. And how do we foster a warm relationship, a community, with our students while striving to protect ourselves and others? How much care is possible and practical? Plus, how do we respond to those who are careless or resistant to community care?
Juggling Multiple Delivery Systems
Thinking about the many challenges that will need to be faced is overwhelming, so my coping mechanism has been to think about the things that I can control. Currently one of my two hybrid sections (of Writing I) has been shifted to online. This made me unhappy on several fronts. First, it requires two preps (why switch one and not the other?); second, the regional campus hybrid (the canceled class) is often a smaller class in a larger classroom with easy access so it just feels less risky to spend time in that building/classroom; and third, I love that teaching at the regional campus allows me to loop with my students so we develop a close-knit community of writers over both fall and spring semesters. However, the one item on this list that I can control is the class prep. I love teaching online, but it is really really hard to teach two sections of the same class using two different delivery methods. Maybe other humans can do it but I don’t have the capacity to juggle that many balls easily – at least I can’t while also attending to other classes and other responsibilities. Plus, everything I have learned about our current pandemic has indicated that there is no end in sight and that a critical mass of experts are predicting at least one more spike if not two or more. While Kentucky has been doing well (in that we flattened the curve and haven’t had spikes that overwhelmed our hospitals) our new cases are still rising. It is possible that geography may continue to be our friend as I teach at a regional university where most of our student population already lives in the area and we have a low density population, but I don’t want to bet my health and life on that so loose, flexible, and forgiving has become my mantra as I think, plan, and prepare for the fall and that is when HyFlex Blended Learning entered my consciousness.
HyFlex is not Hybrid
Back in the halcyon time when we thought we might social distance ourselves out of this pandemic and things might be better in the summer and fall, I declared that I wanted to keep my usual hybrid teaching model that seems to work so well for my writing classes. But every time I think about what we do know about the spread of COVID-19 and the logistics of taking precautions on campus, in my building, and in my classroom I worry that even if things feel OK at the beginning of the semester they may not stay there. I worry about my middle-aged overweight self and I worry about my students, so this meant that I could not simply use my old hybrid model with a forgiving attendance model. Plus, as previously noted, I worried about the cognitive load of creating and delivering multiple versions of the same class as well as supporting students through the process. A hybrid class follow a fairly traditional learning model that is directed by the instructor. The only difference between hybrid and face-to-face classes is that students do some of that work online and some of that work face-to-face. However, if I design my hybrid and online sections using a HyFlex Blended Learning model then I can support my students’ development as writers while also responding to fluctuating health risks and reduce the cognitive load for all of us. And fortunately, my use of HyperDocs in recent years to support my hybrid and online classes combined with my shift to conference grading has prepared me to make the transition to HyFlex and to support its implementation. In addition, my long experience with teaching online classes will guide me through the process of planning and building this structure before classes begin in the fall. Once the system is ready then it will be easy for me (and my students) to make informed decisions in real time about what learning activities to engage in that week. This feels like a win across the board for all of us. Students will have multiple options for entering our work which means they can opt in and out of our face-to-face classes, online meetings, and asynchronous work as their personal conditions dictate. This fluidity will also reduce the number of people in our classroom when we do meet which can only be a win during a pandemic. Supporting students as they make those decisions (and consider the consequences) offers a tremendous opportunity for students to develop good self-regulation habits. Finally, a HyFlex system will allow our class to meet changing conditions such as canceling campus classes or instructor illness as well as making it easier for students to adjust if they become ill. Moving from hybrid to HyFlex will benefit my students and myself in multiple ways.
As I begin building the model for my fall class I am actually quite excited about the possibilities of designing a path with multiple approaches and choices for preparing each deliverable. I am also being much more deliberate about the process of building the work of each deliverable on the one before so as to maximize our return for each activity. I have long employed a process (a model?) to support the development of writers, but I will make the process much more explicit and intentional for my students so they can make good choices and work more efficiently toward their goals. My next blog post will focus on the hyperdoc templates I am building so students can follow the process more easily. I know that choice can sometimes leave students lost and confused without a good structure and life and learning will still be unsettled for months if not years to come. In a different blog post I will also share my new vision of conference grading to support my HyFlex classes which may require a name change as it likely not involve a traditional conference at all. What models and tools are you relying upon to guide your thinking and planning for our next round of pandemic teaching?