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Community, Engagement, and “Flexing” in Covid Times

This summer, when we put together the ACE Framework for faculty preparing to teach in the fall under the reality of Covid19, one cornerstone practice we included was “HiFlex Course Design.” “HiFlex” is our version of “Hy-Flex” with an emphasis on “highly flexible” as opposed to “hybrid flexible.” We wanted faculty to think about how they could bake flexibility (for f2f, synch online, and asynch online) into their courses, and perhaps worry a bit less about hybridity on every front.

One piece of this approach were the Four Models for Hi-Flex Course Design that I developed. These models were an attempt to show faculty how they might focus first on online, asynchronous course design (the most accessible, but, often, most unfamiliar pedagogy of the three), and then “backfill” into the synchronous experience. In essence, we were encouraging them to create a fully online, asynchronous course and then use whatever synchronous opportunities they were afforded to augment, align, and delve deeper into student learning.

As we enter the third week of the term, however, I’m hearing more and more from faculty who are at their wits end trying to figure out how to approach those f2f and online synchronous sessions — even if they are imagining them as additions and augmentations to the larger online course, the sessions seem to fall flat.

Faculty share that they feel pulled in too many directions: setting up and managing the tech, attending to students in the physical classroom, and being there for the online students as well. At any given moment, they are juggling multiple inputs and needs and it is overwhelming and even demoralizing.

Hearing faculty share these stories reminded me of  when I used to volunteer in my daughter’s kindergarten class. As someone who easily experiences sensory overload, I was always amazed at how well my daughter’s teacher could attend to so many different needs and demands without losing it. Just sitting with two children and helping them through an activity left me drained. At one point, a few years later, I mentioned this to my daughter and she told me that occasionally her teacher would put herself in “time out.” Presumably this was her way of acknowledging that even she was human and sometimes needed a reset.

My first piece of advice to faculty who are feeling overwhelmed is basically a version of that kindergarten teacher’s technique: acknowledge your own humanity and limitations and be patient and gentle with yourself.

Faculty have often told me that approaching the work in a highly structured, scripted way, while seemingly the “right” way of dealing with so many competing demands, left them feeling like their teaching was stilted, flat,  and “too choreographed.” This made me think, in turn, about the practice of dance and choreography, and how when learning a new dance routine, the steps are often stilted and stolid. It’s only once the mind and body begin to build memory and familiarity in a new routine that something fluid and natural emerges. Even then, I think dancers would tell you they still have to constantly attend to the details and steps, even if they are doing so on a subconscious level. (Full Disclosure: I’m not a dancer. You should probably ask a dancer if this is true, because I’m kind of guessing.) So, my second piece of advice was to try and become comfortable with the discomfort and unfamiliarity as your own body and mind learn these new approaches.

One faculty member particularly was worried about community. She’s someone for whom this normally comes easily, but in the “split” world of Zoom/f2f, community seemed to be slow in emerging. We talked a lot about trust (which I believe is the pre-cursor to community) and how trust is built in-person versus online. I had a few suggestions:

  • encouraging online students who didn’t want to turn on video to instead choose/use a photo/avatar as a Zoom user picture, perhaps even rotating through different ones on different days.
  • try to learn the “new cues” in Zoom that we used to indicate presence, the desire to speak, concern/confusion. Perhaps even have a conversation with students about how you might develop this language together.
  • look for ways in Zoom to encourage more playful, spontaneous interaction: with user pictures, background images, backchannel chat discussion. Give students permission to experiment with these tools and figure out how they might use them to connect and commune.

After sharing this advice, though, I felt like it wasn’t enough. In fact, after posting some of this in a private PSU group from the ACE Workshop, several faculty continued to say how much they were struggling with community building and the hy/hi-flex model. So I went to Twitter and asked for advice about both issues, and I wanted to summarize some of what was shared, because so many people are thinking about this and doing great work on this front.

Community Building & Ice-Breakers in Online and Hi/Hy-Flex Courses

Deanna Mascle (@deannamascle) shared some great ideas she uses in her writing classes:

Several people pointed to the excellent Equity Unbound project, curated by Maha Bali, Mia Zamora, and Autumm Caines:

And then there were a few specific activities that people talked about:

  • This great ice-breaker from Anne-Marie Scott where students pick an openly licensed image and then share with an explanation of why they’re taking your course.
  • Sharing your latest impulse purchase made during COVID, suggested by my good friend Cathy Finn-Derecki.
  • The always great fallback, “Tell us something boring about yourself” that Terry Greene mentioned.
  • GNA Garcia reminded me of the idea where your students share their favorite song and then you create a class playlist (on something like Spotify) that everyone can listen to when they’re working.
  • John Oughton shared this activity, which I definitely want to try:

So lots of great ideas, from more elaborate assignments/projects to quick, 5-minute icebreaking activities. Hopefully, someone finds something useful in there!

Adjusting to this new Hy-Flex Life of Ours

This faculty concern, which I’ve also been hearing a lot, feels much deeper and more complicated: how to manage this new kind of classroom in which:

  • some students are present f2f,
  • some students are joining via Zoom,
  • some students are reviewing materials and doing work asynchronously,
  • which students fall into these groups on any given day could change, and
  • all of this is happening in classrooms with new technology and relying on new systems AND
  • f2f students/faculty have to wear masks and social distance .
  • (Oh, and there’s a global pandemic lurking in the background.)

People on Twitter had things to say about this, and I’m just going to include that advice below and let it more or less speak for itself:


That last one, from PSU colleague Kerry Yurewicz, feels like the most important of all: None of us are alone in this. Rely on your colleagues, friends, networks, and perhaps most of all, students. Community is what matters here, and it is how we’ll get through it together.

Image by gene zhang from Pixabay