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The HyFlex Learning Model: Online Ed’s Most Customizable Idea Yet

by Staff Writers


Most students and educators have heard of both online courses and hybrid courses, but may not yet have encountered a new trend in non-traditional education: HyFlex. Hyflex courses are growing in popularity, as they offer students the chance to customize their educational experience and tailor coursework to their individual needs and learning preferences. Whether you’re interested in learning how you can take HyFlex courses yourself or just want to learn a bit more about what HyFlex is, read on as we explain the origins, meaning, and benefits of this innovative new learning model.

What Is HyFlex?

So just what is HyFlex? Combining elements of both online and classroom-based learning, HyFlex takes hybrid classes to a new level of flexibility, hence the name. Students can choose whether they want to take classes online, head to the classroom, or do both, giving them the freedom to study when and where they want based on their own needs, desires, and preferences. Students can change how they choose to attend courses weekly, resolving many of the scheduling issues common to students engaged with extracurricular activities or who have familial and work responsibilities to juggle.

Who Is Using It?

HyFlex is a relatively new development (it was first introduced in 2006) but is already showing up at several colleges across the U.S. Currently, students can find some HyFlex courses at the following schools in a small number of degree programs, a few of which we highlight here.

  • San Francisco State University:

    At San Francisco State, students in the Instructional Technologies master’s program have the option of taking courses using the HyFlex model. In fact, HyFlex was developed at the school by Dr. Brian Beatty in response to the large number of students who commuted or had to balance full-time work with their studies. Today, most courses in the ITEC program are offered as HyFlex and more are in the works for the future.

  • Herkimer County Community College:

    Not every HyFlex experience is identical. At this community college, students taking introductory psychology courses get the chance to experience HyFlex and team teaching at the same time, with two sections of the course being scheduled at the same time.

  • Buffalo State University:

    Students at Buffalo State University can take advantage of HyFlex through an "Advanced Library Research" course that uses the model. Because much of the work for the course is independent (the course is meant to foster research and evaluation skills), HyFlex is a perfect match.

  • Ohio State University:

    The HyFlex model has also been modified to better suit the needs of students at Ohio State. Professor Jackie Miller has used it in her hybrid courses, allowing students to choose on a daily, rather than weekly basis whether to attend classes in person or online. Students in her course learned online and off simultaneously.

How It Helps Students

The flexibility of HyFlex helps students in a number of different ways. Aside from simply making it easier for students to balance the demands of their personal and professional lives with their academics, the model has some real educational benefits. First, it makes it possible for students to customize their educational experience. With students arriving to class with a wide range of different levels of experience and expertise on the subject, some will need more guidance and others less. This format allows them to choose what kind of experience works best for them. Along those same lines, some students learn better online and some off. Again, the student himself chooses which is a smarter avenue for learning according to his own needs. Additionally, some educational experts think that flexible models like HyFlex, which give students more control over the experience of learning, actually help them to become more engaged in coursework and to take the initiative in learning, which in turn gives them a boost in metacognitive skills.

Research suggests that the opportunities provided by HyFlex and other hybrid models are promising for improving educational outcomes. A study by Dr. Miller at Ohio State (mentioned previously) found some surprising results in her HyFlex course:

  • 95% of students preferred having options of how to use technology to support their learning.
  • 95% of the students in her course also felt that the course model increased their conceptual understanding of the material.
  • 70% felt that having a choice in how they used technology improved their participation above the level they expected at the start of the term.

Miller’s results aren’t isolated to her course alone; similar studies of hybrid courses have found outcomes that aren’t all that different, with increases in both participation and student achievement.

It isn’t just students who stand to benefit from HyFlex, however. Institutionally, the HyFlex model also offers benefits. It can help schools to better coordinate classes and meet the needs of students who are spread out over a large geographic area and have to commute to class. It can also be a good solution for schools that are challenged by limited classroom space and budget constraints.

Some Drawbacks

Of course, no educational model is perfect, and HyFlex does come with some potential drawbacks. One of the biggest challenges to the HyFlex model is shared by all non-traditional approaches to higher education: the culture of the school has to support these kinds of initiatives. This means that, for such a model to be effective at achieving educational goals, instructors have to be comfortable working with technology, course management systems need to already be in place for use (or created at some expense), and the students themselves need to have a certain degree of technical competency and understanding of what hybrid education requires of them. If any one of these things is lacking, HyFlex and any kind of similar educational model can fail or have serious weaknesses that may make traditional coursework a much more viable option, at least until changes can be made.

What It Means for Higher Ed

Today’s students are anything but traditional. While a fair number of college students are still fresh from high school, young, and free from major familial and financial obligations, research has revealed that a staggering 40% of America’s college students now fall within the boundaries of what would be considered non-traditional. These are students who are returning to school later in life, who hold jobs, have to balance coursework with caring for families, or former members of the military embarking on new careers. Trying to coordinate other responsibilities with school can be hard, and is forcing many colleges to rethink how and where they deliver course content to meet the needs of this growing sector of college students.

HyFlex may be a potential solution. It allows colleges to better meet the needs of non-traditional students through greater flexibility, customization, and potentially cost-effectiveness. Some have even predicted that hybrid models of learning will offer colleges a smarter, more accessible way to balance the demands they face from students, instructors, and administrators, while helping to improve critical indicators like satisfaction, achievement, and resource optimization.

While MOOCs have been a big buzzword in higher education over the past year, providing free or cheap education to the masses, they do not yet offer students the chance to earn degrees or college credit. HyFlex courses and other hybrid models offer a middle road between MOOCs’ online model and the traditional classroom setting, helping to break down the boundaries between the virtual classroom and the physical one in a new and innovative way.

Yet despite the promise of new classroom models like HyFlex, there are still many challenges ahead if they are to take root and make a significant impact on how students learn and what they expect from their educational experiences. Schools have to improve their IT support and build strong network infrastructures; instructors have to coordinate with students and other faculty and be willing to implement and use new technology; and most importantly, students themselves have to take greater responsibility for their own learning process and educational outcomes. For schools that can bring all of these things together, HyFlex offers the chance for colleges and universities to offer students the most customized educational experience yet, one that can best meet students’ needs, goals, and personal aspirations, which in an era of intense competition for students could be a major selling point.