Active Learning in HyFlex: A Morale-Boosting Story

Just what we all need! Another article with ideas for teaching during the pandemic! If you’re in a similar position to me, you’re probably sick of the overwhelming amount of tips, ideas, apps, websites, op-eds, and publisher pushes we’re been receiving non-stop for the past six months. This post, therefore, is not a how-to with even more suggestions; instead, what follows is a story about managing to find the joy again in the classroom when some small active learning went right.  

For background, I teach in a state that doesn’t believe we’re having a pandemic. The push for f2f classes at all levels has been strong across the state, despite the Board of Education’s refusal to implement a mask mandate in schools. Though my university made the decision to hold nearly all classes in-person, it has stressed safety protocols including half capacity classrooms and mandatory masks at all times. The university invested millions of dollars installing camera equipment across campus to allow what they called ‘extended classrooms’ through which a portion of the class would attend via web conferencing tools. This format, now known as hyflex (for hybrid flexible), is touted by university leadership as providing an equal experience to students both in the room and at home. For teachers, however, this hyflex model creates greater constraints on active learning than any one consistent delivery method (in person, online synchronous, or even online asynchronous). Activities that work well in the classroom don’t translate well to the students at home, so we are often left prepping for and teaching essentially two classes at once. It is forcing many teachers who strive to create student-centered classrooms, myself included, to return to predominately lecture-based classes. (Scott Freeman, et al.’s 2014 study on the importance of active learning and the ineffectiveness of lectures has been discussed in many articles and posts concerning education and psychology.) As I teach a foreign language, it has been particularly difficult to emphasize active learning. Understandably, this has led to a fair amount of discouragement on my part, which is why the below successes provided such a needed boost for both me and my students.

The course in question is an upper division course in which we cover early French civilization from the Chauvet cave paintings through the Middle Ages. Per my policy, students can switch back and forth between the physical and digital classroom as they want or require. It is one of my favorite classes to teach, so the restrictions imposed by the pandemic have been doubly frustrating. A class normally filled with jigsaw discussions, partner collaboration, and group work has become predominately lecturing interspersed with Socratic questioning based on front-loaded reading questions. However, I’ve had three solid successes adapting engaging activities to the class, one with the Bayeux Tapestry and two concerning gothic architecture and cathedrals.

The Bayeux class was adapted from a colleague’s idea for a treasure hunt: his students find elements in the tapestry based on a set of clues using a reproduction hung on the wall. After creating a French set of clues, the first challenge to overcome was organizing the activity in a socially-distanced classroom. Fortunately, I was able to procure three copies of the reproduction and hang them in the hallway so that students could search for clues while maintaining a safe distance. The second challenge was harder: how to incorporate the students in the ‘extended classroom’ who, for health reasons, could not come into the physical class. For this, I directed students to a website that offers hi-res images of the panels in order. Though the site facilitates exploring the tapestry following the order of the narrative, it does not allow for easy flipping between images while searching for clues. The final challenge was hardest: what to do with students’ finds. As I have been using Microsoft Teams to host the extended classroom, share documents, collaborate notes, schedule and host office hours, and facilitate direct communication between students, this was the obvious solution. Though the platform can be overwhelming at first, Teams’ many functions allow for easy sharing and collaboration. Different channels within a Team host social media-style discussion board, and chats don’t erase when you close a meeting. For the Bayeux activity, I simply created a new channel, and each student created a comment thread with pictures of the details they found in the tapestry. It was then easy and entertaining for students to scroll through each other’s finds and to display them via classroom projector.

The second highly successful active learning activity came about as a happy accident of architecture. Our campus contains a full-sized replica of the labyrinth in Chartres cathedral, so students have the opportunity to visit a small part of medieval France right here in Oklahoma. Built at the beginning of the 13th century, the Chartres labyrinth is a 42-foot diameter complex circular pattern made with stone on the floor of the nave.

Our campus recreates the path in colored brick outdoors, so we took a small field trip across campus to walk the 1/3-mile circuit. The labyrinth is a space for reflection and meditation; as such, the exercise was not only a learning opportunity, but also a moment of calm and self-care during a particularly stressful semester. Students each walked the labyrinth at their own pace – at least the f2f students did. This activity was not quite so transferable to the extended classroom, but I was able to join Teams from my phone and walk the labyrinth for them. Though I am sure their experience at home was not the same as walking it themselves, they were still able to experience the labyrinth digitally while also exploring high-res images on the cathedral’s website. Not only was this a chance to experience a piece of France, but it also created a mental break for students and myself. Plus, stepping outside the formal classroom provided an opportunity for students to practice more conversational French.

The activity that worked equally well in all hyflex formats was also related to our study of cathedrals and the technological advances made through gothic architecture. Students each perused detailed images of Chartres’ stained-glass windows through a site providing descriptions of each panel. Students were to choose one panel to recreate themselves using any objects, people, or animals in their vicinity. My example, clearly remarkable for its verisimilitude and artistic expression, is here:

Each student then shared a picture of their scene, a screenshot of the original panel, and a description of the story represented in another Teams channel. Some examples follow here:

As with the Bayeux activity, students scrolled through, commented on, and reacted to their classmates’ posts. As most students in the extended classroom don’t turn on their cameras for class, this activity in particular increased feelings of membership in the classroom community. Everyone’s participation was the same format and equally accessible to all other members of the class.

Overall, this has been a lonely, demoralizing semester. I miss my students, and they miss each other. My go-to engaging activities don’t work in hyflex, socially-distanced classrooms. Students, faculty, and staff are dealing with exceptional stress caused by safety and health concerns, financial insecurity, environmental disaster, and even the election. Though this post may not help other educators with ideas for their classes, it’s important to share our small victories and moments of connection in the classroom. Though the format was weird, it was nice to feel normal in class for a few days.

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