Teaching Thursday: Hybrid, HyFlex, Blues

This is my second semester teaching under a hybrid-hyflex model. For those not up on the latest lingo in higher education this involves teaching some students face-to-face and some students attending class on Zoom. The model’s intent was to give students a chance to attend class even if they can’t because of the COVID-19 situation while preserving as much of the in-person experience as possible.

To be clear, I understand the situation and I recognize my own privilege to be teaching face-to-face this semester (not to mention having a job at all!), and I get that the hybrid/hyflex model is being developed on the fly as a response to a pandemic that appears to introduce new challenges daily. I also understand that students are navigating real world challenges associated with the pandemic as much as faculty (if not more so). Finally, I realize that my efforts to retrofit two existing classes to this hyflex model is the equivalent of attaching an electric motor to my diesel truck and calling it a “hybrid.” 

That all being said, this model sucks.

First, I can’t get my zoom students to engage regularly. About 50% of my students attend my class via zoom and they’re mostly a shadowy presence at the margins of the classroom encounter. Some of this is technological. The zoom students struggle to hear students in the face-to-face classroom because the microphones are still designed to pick up my voice. More than that the camera is turned to me rather than their classmates. These two decisions in how our hybrid/hyflex classrooms are set up make it a particular challenge to get the zoom students involved in classroom discussions. In fact, the need to repeat anything that a student says in the classroom so that zoom students can hear it disrupts the flow of the classroom conversation even more. As a result, I have a tendency to either further marginalize the zoom students by being more engaged with the students in the classroom or marginalizing everyone by becoming the “sage on the stage” and essentially lecturing to both groups alike. This has a tendency to drive face-to-face students to attend via zoom (especially as winter weather descends on us) because if I’m just going to lecture at the class, they might as well endure that from the comfort of their own couch. 

[This is saying nothing of my fear that some of the students who are attending my class are bots. In an effort to discourage bots from taking my class, I show a clip from the documentary “Blade Runner” and insist that all my zoom students take the Voight-Kampff Test]

Further complicating this is my honest desire not to penalize students who choose to attend class via zoom. I would love to construct some assignments designed to get zoom students more engaged in the classroom experience. For example, I have been tempted to make the zoom students write discussion questions that frame the classroom conversation or alternating between the zoom students and the in class students leading discussion. (I have this idea of a “Zoom Student Thursday” where students on Zoom lead discussion on Thursday!)

The problem with this is that many of my zoom students are attending class in less than idea situations. They might be in loud or busy environments. Some might not be able to participate in class with their microphones turned on. Others still might struggle with social anxiety and dislike speaking into the void as much I dislike lecturing into the void.

I realize, of course, that there are solutions to this problem, but I can’t escape the feeling that these are all work-arounds for deeply flawed approach to teaching. The zoom technology, at least as it is implemented, on my campus still assumes that the instructor is the source of knowledge, authority, and structure. The unevenness of access to the classroom environment also forces the instructor to act as mediator between the different groups. While most instructors do act as classroom mediators anyway (and not all students feel equally at ease in the classroom and have equal access to the classroom as learning space), navigating the difficulties associated with both zoom and its implementation has me very frustrated.

[I also fear that when this is all over, we’ll discover a small number of students who have died in their apartment or dorm rooms and no one realized it because they continued dutifully to appear for each of their zoom classes and quietly endure the regular sessions long after they departed from this world. It is deeply disconcerting to teach to even one or two students who might be dead. 

This article from Slate offers the opposite scenario which demonstrates just how real the possibility of having a deceased student attending zoom classes is.]

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