Hyflex and Team Based Learning – in practice

Back in August, I blogged about my plans to combine Hyflex with Team Based Learning. Well, I’v now done this for a semester and here I report on my experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly! If you are time pressed, just jump to the ‘lessons’ where I provide some hints and tips based on my experiences.

What and Why

Figure 1: Students participating in Hyflex TBL session, November 2021

First things first. Team Based Learning (TBL) is an active learning approach where students spend class time working together on meaningful problems. The key elements of team based learning are as follows:

  • Strategically formed teams : students are put into teams where ‘assets’ (for example industrial experience, or previous knowledge of the subject) are fairly distributed.
  • Students prepare for class : TBL is a flipped approach supported by pre learning. By which I don’t mean recorded lectures, I mean high quality online resources like video ‘bites’, self assessment exercises, ‘serious’ games and so on.
  • Students apply concepts to solve problems : Class time is reserved for meaningful activity such as team quizzes (to check knowledge) and application exercises (applying that knowledge to significant team challenges).
  • Students must be truly accountable : Students are accountable to their team through regular team exercises and quizzes, team contracts, peer feedback and a final peer evaluation that weights their mark.

Hyflex, on the other hand, to repeat my previous blog on the subject, is a ‘flexible hybrid’ approach with 3 ‘modes’ (online, in person, asynchronous ie self paced) and has 4 key elements:

  • learner choice : learners choose a mode and can change each week/session.
  • equivalency :  equivalent learning, not necessarily identical means. 
  • reusability : all resources available to all learners (e.g. recordings of sessions, pre and post learning resources, forum discussions).
  • accessibility : all learners can (if they wish) access all modes. 

Why on earth would I want to combine these ? Well, the arguments for TBL are fairly well rehearsed – I have been doing TBL since 2017 and have no intention of letting a pandemic get in the way of teaching in a way that, for me, has delivered high quality peer learning at scale.

My reasons for trying Hyflex are more exploratory. The core reason is that, with over a third of my cohort at least starting remotely in 2021, I wanted some way to genuinely make these students part of the class, rather than just letting them catch up with the pre learning and recorded sessions. But thinking through it, I felt that Hyflex could, potentially, offer a ‘quadruple’ win:

  • More inclusive: Enables us to widen our offering to those that cannot always make it to campus (for example those with caring responsibilities) and potentially opens new markets (for example those in work).
  • Lower Carbon : As Education Lead of our Climate Action Framework, I am interested in ways to reduce the ‘carbon footprint’ of our education (without reducing quality, of course). Hyflex offers a way to substantially reduce commuting so students only need come to campus where there is a clear learning benefit for them.
  • Flexible use of campus : As with all Universities, we have a finite campus. Flexible use of this resource enables us to give more students the benefit of our education without the need for new build.
  • Improved pedagogical outcomes : designing courses to harness the different strengths of the various modalities could provide better learning outcomes for our students. For example, asynchronous self paced activities consolidate core knowledge, whereas synchronous team activities foster social learning.

These aims are, admittedly, an aspiration. Yet I felt (and still feel) that since we have been forced into some element of hybrid learning due to the pandemic, the right thing to do is to treat this not as a constraint but as a challenge and an opportunity to innovate.

That’s the theory. What about the practice?

Figure 2 : Student responses from a ‘pulse’ survey taken 3 weeks into Hyflex TBL teaching.. Green quotes show selected responses to the question “What aspect of hybrid learning has worked BEST for you ? “. Orange quotes show selected responses to the question “Do you have any requests for us to improve the quality of your learning experience?”

The Good

Students (particularly those remote, or in quarantine) genuinely appreciated the effort made to involve them in the class. The flexibility was also appreciated by students, one of whom attended online ‘because they got up too late’ – whether this behaviour should be encouraged is of course debateable, but my view is that this student most likely would have skipped class otherwise, whereas instead I welcomed them to the class and included them in discussion.

It was also useful to create international teams, with a variety of perspectives being brought to bear on the topic in question.

Students often appreciated being able to work is less cramped conditions, with all their home resources available to them. One unexpected side effect was that, in conversation at graduation with one family (the younger sibling is now a student of mine) I discovered that the father has briefly ‘sat in’ on one of the sessions! Fortunately, he was impressed by the inclusive nature of what he saw, and so I am chalking this one up as a ‘positive’. Ymmv as they say.

I supplemented ‘hybrid’ learning with some 100% online sessions (we call these Live Interactive Online Learning) using breakout rooms, and these ensured that hybrid teams were able to work together with equality between the team members and gave important additional bonding opportunities.

I had considered making ‘pure’ online teams, and in some cases this solution worked well. For example in one course, there were 5 weeks of theory (2 hours per week) followed by an intensive week in which teams worked together intensively on a challenge, culminating in a presentation at the end of the week. For each of the ‘theory’ weeks I allocated teams dynamically depending on who was online and who was in person. Each team was either 100% online or 100% in person. That had the additional benefit of ensuring that students worked with a wide variety of team members. This solution also works well for ‘one off’ sessions. However, this breaks a core TBL principle of ‘permanent teams’ and means that teams are always in the ‘forming’ stage and never fully develop. In addition, it means that students that are remote for the entire semester (we had quite a few) never get to mix with the online students. Thus, in the intensive week, I created hybrid teams which were permanent for that week. In addition, for my 11 week TBL course I also created hybrid teams that were permanent for the semester.

This arrangement means that students are learning some valuable team working skills. Increasingly the future of work is at least to some extent hybrid. So we offer students a golden opportunity to figure out working practices that enable teams to operate at maximum potential, all within a safe and supportive environment. 

One final advantage was that in the run up to Christmas, as omicron starting ramping up through the country, it was very straightforward to move the final week entirely online and thus give students some protection for risks, not just to their own health, but to precious time with their own family (some students took the opportunity to travel home for Christmas early, for example).

The Bad

As I reported in my last blog, there are definitely some challenges, bourne out by experience. Of course, Hyflex TBL took a great deal of time to design and prepare for (it’s been a busy old semester). I needed to redesign some of the application activities to better suit the hybrid mode.

I have already rehearsed above the disadvantages of ‘pure’ online teams (although in certain situations these work really well). Given that we had hybrid teams, how did this work in practice?

Technology issues were certainly a concern, we had quite a lot of issues with background noise (harder for online students to engage with their groups). We tried the Owl 360 camera  – this works quite well for the camera aspect (but required an AV technician to set it up every session, so I only stuck with it a couple of sessions) and the microphone is really not up to capturing voice input from a large room. I quite like the idea of a catchable microphone such as Catchbox or bigmicball but these have obvious safety issues in a pandemic so I will save these for the other side of covid …

In the end, I borrowed a set of high quality USB microphones from my AV department and booked another room to split out the students – this helped considerably with noise issues. I also made a habit of checking in to breakout groups online as well as in person, this enabled me to experience the team working as an online participant. I also booked a second room for some sessions, thus splitting the teams for group work. This was surprisingly easy – once the Hyflex setup was sorted, having a 2nd room was pretty simple, assuming that there was someone to manage the teams in that room.

There is also a risk that in class students end up talking to their laptop and not to each other, which perhaps begs the question of why they are in class at all. Of course, I could turn that question round and observe that *despite* having the opportunity to attend remotely, most students in fact chose to attend class where possible. We did have one example where a team chose to all work entirely remotely to make communication easier, but that was definitely the exception.

Some teams found their own way of communicating, for example using a different platform such as Teams. While this is fine, it did mean it was hard to figure out what the team was doing when visiting them in breakout rooms.

Finally, it’s probably worth admitting that I did not fully implement Hyflex. I didn’t really make the ‘asynchronous only’ mode available to the students, I expected students to attend the timetabled sessions whether remote or in person. Since my sessions are largely team working, the session recordings are of limited use for those not actually there, whether in person or online).

In addition, as Beatty himself admits, allowing equitable access (principle 4: accessibility) to all students is quite difficult in practice due to, for example, wifi coverage in different parts of the world. We did have some mitigation in the form of laptops on loan to those in hardship, and bookable rooms on campus, and these reduce but do not entirely solve the problem.

The Ugly

One of my main learnings is that the challenges of hybrid are not just (or perhaps even primarily) about the technology. Team dynamics are a key issue and one that I need to keep a closer eye on.

Obviously, online attendance does give an opportunity for ‘social loafing’ and I had representations from several in class students concerned about this. But the flip side of this is that online students can end up feeling excluded from teams. Certainly I witnessed some in person students talking over or ignoring input from their online colleagues:

We usually do not involve the hybrid students much in our group discussion as it is very difficult

Student (anonymous) feedback, November 2021

Indeed, remote students appeared to be experiencing a ‘second class’ experience, as evidenced by a pulse survey that I conducted in mid October (quite early on in the semester). This used the well known ‘change curve’ to get a sense of how students were feeling about Hyflex learning. I asked these questions:

  • Discuss your own experience of the change curve with regard to:
    • Initially being accepted as a student at Bath University
    • Your decision around when or if to physically come to Bath to study
    • What your barriers might have been (or continue to be) e.g. language, visas
    • How being in person or virtual has affected your experience and perceptions of Team Based Learning
      • If you’re in the physical classroom today annotate the ‘in person’ curve
      • If you’re virtual and on Zoom today annotate the ‘virtual’ curve
  • Be honest with yourself and others.
  • After your conversations position your own individual ‘X’ on one of the two Change Curves.
Figure 3a: Responses of in person students showing their perceived position on the ‘change curve’ as described in the text. Note that as this is anonymous some students placed more than one cross, so the results should be taken as indicative
Figure 3b: Responses of online students showing their perceived position on the ‘change curve’ as described in the text. Note that as this is anonymous some students placed more than one cross, so the results should be taken as indicative

The results (figs 3a and b), despite having a number of spurious points, are striking. It’s probably worth emphasising that this exercise was done early in semester and informed our later work including team coaching, improved technical support, 1:1 support and so on.

The Lessons

I summarise my thinking below:

  • Explain your thinking: I found it key to explain to the students at the outset why I am running the course this way and what are the intended benefits.
  • Ask the students! My October survey (only 3 weeks into semester) was invaluable in picking up issues and we formulated an action plan to deal with these
  • Acknowledge ‘zoomland’ when you are talking – be inclusive.
  • Get help – I got input from an instructional designer before the course begain, plus AV technical help in the first couple of sessions. I am lucky enough to be co teaching this course, but I think the key is to have someone else in the class (could be a post grad helper), ideally 2 people, one online and one in person. On reflection, I think I could have been more specific about tasks for my helpers, in the end I did a lot of the logistics myself. Tasks that could be taken care of by post grad helpers include
    • Letting latecomers in from the waiting room
    • Posting links to resources on the chat
    • Taking an attendance register
    • Monitoring team dynamics for their ‘allocated’ teams
    • Holding ‘team coaching’ sessions with their allocated teams, by appointment
    • Managing zoom logistics like recordings and transcripts (the transcript is really useful to help mitigate audio issues).
    • Answering questions on the chat
    • Checking that online students are (i) participating and (ii) can hear OK
    • Chivvying along ‘their’ teams (if necessary) eg urging them to turn cameras on if possible
    • Confirming to the instructor that the zoom is showing OK, we are off mute etc.
    • .. etc
  • Train your post grad helpers – in team coaching, but also in using the technology. I found that after the first couple of sessions, I didn’t need specialist AV help in the class, but I did find it took a lot of my time juggling the technology that could easily be done be a helper.
  • Consider technology – it’s not the whole solution, but can help. Think about the microphones, headphones, laptops, cameras – what do you have as a class? What does each student have? What are the acoustics of the room? Can you try a second one? (once you have got used to hybrid, doing it from multiple locations is easy as long as there is a helper in the other room). Can teams book a private room for themselves?
  • One other thing that *really* helped was having the zoom session on a separate device (laptop or mobile). This enabled me as an instructor to check that everything was being displayed as intended. I also used the device to dip into breakout rooms, while the main room PC stayed (in zoom terms) in the main room. Otherwise, whatever the room PC ‘sees’ (including breakout room discussion) is broadcast to the room.  
  • Designate a team spokesperson (perhaps a remote participant) for each class (rotating the role each session) so that the teams don’t scramble each time they have to present. This definitely helped, as I mentioned in my last blog “10 seconds of dead air seems like an eternity”. Raman et al (2021) recommend ‘cold calling’ on students with cameras off, this can be useful though I would advocate giving notice to such students and allowing text responses if necessary to mitigate against audio issues.
  • Use a back channel. This sounds obvious, but having a way of communicating with the helpers without the class seeing is key. In the early sessions we used zoom private messages but since these were broadcast on the screen it wasn’t very private! Using voice to communicate over zoom is also obviously an issue. We used WhatsApp, but other solutions are of course available.
  • Task design to avoid the need for rely solely on fast paced conversation. In our case, we often used jamboard as a collaborative editing environment. This enabled online and in person students to contribute simultaneously. It also allows us as instructors to easily view team outputs quickly and then to decide which breakout room to visit. Another tactic is to have tasks as ‘specific choices’ as recommended in TBL. (for example: ‘how much would you charge for this product? Which of there is the most likely correct diagnosis for this patient? Where would you site a new factory? Which of these choices is the BEST interpretation of this situation?)
  • Have a team reflection session for the teams to honestly discuss progress and surface any issues
  • Use some self paced individual activities (eg a quiz) that will allow meaningful student activity while logistics are being sorted out (eg allocating students into breakout rooms) if necessary.
  • Also have a reflection session among the course team – I spent about 15 minutes per week discussing with the course team and building a reflective log that will be useful in planning next year. Naturally, I shared the session plans and reflective log with the post grad helpers.
  • Add a reflective element to the individual assignment to acknowledge the learning journey students have been on.
  • And finally – remember that Hyflex challenges are as much about the PEOPLE as about the TECHNOLOGY – coaching in team dynamics is key, particularly between in person and remote.

Some things I have not yet tried (but might), some of these are drawn from Raman et al (2021)

  • Encourage some teams to be remote yet together (for example in a student house).
  • Schedule a formal team consultation (perhaps with a suitably trained postgrad helper which might make the session more open and frank than with an academic staff member). I did try a couple of these, however on reflection I would schedule these earlier, before team attitudes had hardened, in order to resolve issues more effectively.
  • Provide smaller, subgroups, explicitly pairing in class and remote students as recommended by Raman et al (2021) These authors also suggest relaxing the Hyflex model to insist that at least one member of the group attends in person, thus is visitable by the lecturer. I am not sure such a restriction is actually necessary given online facilitation possibilities, however it does mean that ‘broadcasting’ instructions to all groups is much easier.
  • Allow zoom breakout room recording, if desired by the team. This can be useful to the team and might also be an audit trail if there are issues of team contribution (and just having the recording is an incentive to contribute)
  • Implement a sign in system so that we know the mix of in person and remote students ahead of class.  
  • As I suggested in the last blog, experimenting with some ‘flexing’ to the TBL model such as limiting remote student-student interactions to pairs (in-person  students could take turns interacting with their remote peers) or even jigsaw (online students consult together and then come back and share their learnings with their team) as suggested by this blog.
  • I will pay more attention to asynchronous modes of involvement – probably mainly a forum for class discussion.

For more thoughts, you might choose to check out Raman et al (2021) – tips summarised in Fig 4. This has many interesting ideas in it, most of which I agree with. The one exception is giving primacy to ‘in person’ students for reporting back. I think this risks excluding online students; I think it is quite easy to get remote students to share screen, turn videos on and report back to the class. This is particularly important where some students are online due to factors outside their control – I think Raman and colleagues refer to a ‘forced rotation’ between in class and online students where their solution makes more sense.

Fig 4: Hints and tips for Hyflex and team working (Raman et al 2021)

Student Facing Guidance

For what it’s worth, here are some ‘rules’ that we created from our class discussion

  • Be present for the duration of the session
  • When you are working virtually in a breakout room switch your camera on
  • Share your screen when working on a shared document
  • Be inclusive of all team members and speak in English
  • Ask if you don’t understand

And here is the guidance we provided – very much a work in progress

  • Sometimes it is not an issue
    • In LOIL breakouts everyone is online
    • For some formative exercises we separate you into online/in person ad-hoc groups (ie not hybrid teams)
  • Working arrangements and governance
    • Only 1 in class person communicating (acting as the bridge)
    • Give primacy to any student ‘on their own’ (whether online or in person)
      • That student can share screen or drive the online platform.
      • That means that the ‘majority’ students need to make themselves clear to the student on their own
  • Use a different Room
    • Your team could go to a different room for the assessed exercise
  • Task decomposition
    • Is there some independent work that could be done before the team discussion?
      • Eg online research or individual brainstorming
  • Use modes other than video/voice
    • Eg collaborative editing of documents
    • More use of chat.
  • Use software or devices
    • Use headphones
    • Use a directional microphone (we have some available)
    • some laptops are better than others, and mobile phones are often good for this.

References

 Raman, R., Sullivan, N., Zolbanin, H., Nittala, L., Hvalshagen, M., & Allen, R. (2021). Practical Tips for HyFlex Undergraduate Teaching During a Pandemic. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 48, pp-pp. https://doi.org/10.17705/1CAIS.04828

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