Flexible Formats: A Primer for Faculty Decision-Making

Our Flexible Formats: A Primer for Faculty Decision-Making guide (PDF, 622KB) shares ideas for designing courses that offer a healthy balance of structure and flexibility whenever face-to-face course delivery is disrupted.

The following chart shows the four most common modalities for teaching outside of a traditional face-to-face classroom. You may find yourself employing a combination of these approaches in your course and switching between modalities many times in a semester or even a week. Remember, as you consider which mode(s) may work best for your course, try to balance structure and flexibility.

Web Synchronous

All class sessions meet synchronously via web conference, with few or no asynchronous online activities.

Online Asynchronous

All activities occur online, with no synchronous sessions or activities.

Hyflex (at Miami)

Class sessions meet simultaneously on campus and via web conference, with few or no asynchronous online activities.

Blended

Class sessions and activities alternate between occurring via hyflex or web conferencing and asynchronously online.

Benefits and Challenges of Modalities

Web Synchronous

In a web synchronous course, the sessions you would normally have in a face-to-face classroom occur via web conferencing, and your assignments remain the same for the most part.

Benefits

  • Requires the least amount of preparation time.
  • Students receive a live experience similar to what they would in a face-to-face classroom. 

Challenges

  • Student participation is difficult to track in large classes. 
  • Students may find it challenging to connect with one another and you. 
  • Evidence indicates that web conferencing causes fatigue (Jiang, 2020; Sander & Bauman, 2020; Sklar, 2020).
  • This option requires consistent broadband access and a fully operational web conferencing platform.
  • Students may miss class sessions due to illness or connectivity issues; therefore, they can only later watch a recorded session but not fully participate in synchronous discussion or collaboration.
  • Students who really want an on-campus experience or just plain need it due to various factors are not able to have one.

Online Asynchronous

In a fully online asynchronous course, you'll need to record lectures for viewing in the learning management system and redesign learning activities so that all of them can be completed online. 

Benefits

  • All of your students are meeting for class in the same way as one group.
  • Students can participate anywhere, anytime.
  • Changing to this modality requires a lot of work before the term starts, but it greatly reduces the required delivery time once it's underway.

Challenges

  • The sort of faster-paced and/or free-flowing discussion and group collaboration that occurs in a face-to-face course is extremely difficult to replicate in this modality. 
  • It can be challenging for students to connect with one another and you. 
  • Students often find it more difficult to stay on track in classes that don't have any synchronous sessions; many may not be familiar with the rhythms of an online class.
  • Some students who prefer to take courses on campus will not be happy and/or may avoid taking your course. 
  • This option requires the most development time (400-500 hours in total).

Hyflex

In the hyflex format, the instructor delivers the course from a classroom on campus. Some students are in the classroom with them, while others are able to join remotely but synchronously thanks to web conferencing software and A/V hardware. 

Benefits

  • You can be simultaneously connected with both sets of students. 
  • Your assignments and lectures can remain the same as they are in your face-to-face course, so you won't have as much redesign work to do ahead of time.
  • Students who really want/need an on-campus experience can still have one, but students who are unable to attend classes in person can still participate.

Challenges

  • You'll have to learn to use technologies for this type of dual delivery that will be new to not only you and your students but also the institution itself. 
  • It's very difficult to create a sense of connection between on-campus and remote students. While there are strategies to mitigate this, they typically require extra work on your part.
  • Your off-campus students may still experience "Zoom fatigue" (though we have shared some strategies for mitigating it). 

Blended

A blended format allows you to mix different modalities to take advantage of their benefits and mitigate their challenges. 

Benefits

  • You can move some coursework online to limit your web synchronous sessions to 60 minutes, which is the best way to avoid "Zoom fatigue."
  • Students will have more opportunities to interact with one another outside of regularly scheduled class time.
  • If your students experience issues during a web conference, they won't miss all of the content and activities you'd normally deliver during a class session.

Challenges

  • You'll have to devote time to recording lectures and/or redesigning activities for online asynchronous delivery.

For more information on these modalities, including to-do list recommendations, download our Flexible Formats Primer

Download the complete guide (PDF, 622KB).

The 5 C's of Flexible Learning

No matter what modality you choose, there are some overarching principles we recommend as you design and implement your course. Our recommendations, which build upon Universal Design for Learning principles and the flipped classroom model, incorporate the 5 C's of Flexible Learning: choice, considerations, community, control, and care.

Choice

Students are able to choose whether to attend the synchronous class time, whether by joining in the physical classroom or via web conference, or to attend asynchronously. In most flexible models, that choice can change from week-to-week or class-to-class. 

To design choice into your class: 

  • Give your students plenty of options
  • Teach to the same learning objectives for your students
  • Use the same standards for all students in assessment of learning and grading
  • Structure your grades so that students' aren't penalized if they can't attend face-to-face or scheduled live web sessions.

Considerations

To provide the best possible learning experience for your students, consider factors such as class size, term length, department considerations, and student diversity.

Consider adopting these practices:

  • Provide multiple ways for all students to access and learn the course content. This can include providing the same content in both audio/video and text formats. 
  • Use grading rubrics and automatic feedback on assignments to reduce your grading load (especially if you teach a high-enrollment course).
  • Consider questions students might ask, and proactively provide answers to them in an FAQ page in your Canvas course.
  • Prioritize which content is most important to achieving your course outcomes, especially if you're delivering your course in a shortened term.
  • Make sure your course requirements don't affect a certain student population disproportionately (e.g., requiring students living overseas to attend synchronous sessions). 

Community

Over the last couple of decades, the prevailing conceptual framework around building community in courses has been the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model. Based on the long-held idea that education is a communal and social endeavor, CoI consists of three types of presence:

Social presence can be defined as how students interact and connect with others and their willingness to take risks in their learning. Open communication is an essential element of this piece of the framework.
Cognitive presence consists of the critical thinking, meaning-making, and collaborative problem solving that occur as part of the inquiry students are making as a group.
Instructor presence encompasses everything from the design and delivery of your course to the various ways you facilitate and foster risk-taking, critical thinking, and collaborative work in the other parts of the framework.

To build community in your course: 

  • Provide orientations to online learning itself, the course, and various parts of the course that may need additional information (e.g., high-stakes assessments, group projects, peer reviews).
  • Create discussion prompts that allow students to draw on their own experiences and develop a rapport with others in the course.
  • Communicate with your students every time you log in to your course (e.g., respond to discussion posts, post announcements, give feedback, check in with individual students by email). 
  • Give personal feedback by learning and using the names of your students. 

Control

When you don't see your students in person, it can feel like you don't have as much control. How do you know if students are engaged? How do you track participation and attendance? How do you make sure students aren't cheating? You may find yourself asking these common questions as you prepare for flexible course delivery. However, relinquishing control isn't necessarily a bad thing; Smith and Brame (2014) found that giving control to your students can actually lead to better learning outcomes. 

To relinquish some control in your course:

  • Trust students.
  • Offer yourself as a bridge to support resources as needed.
  • Design authentic assessments into your course.
  • Set clear expectations for what participation/engagement should look like and how you plan to measure it.
  • Explore issues with and alternatives to quiz proctoring software.
  • Give students the option to turn off their webcam during web synchronous class sessions (unless they need to use it for a specific assignment). 
  • Don't require students to explain their personal situation or reasoning for attendance choices. 

Care

The need for flexible course delivery typically will come up at a time when there are many unknowns and both you and your students are under stress. You'll want to design your course so that it provides space for both you and your students to care for one another and yourselves. 

Your self-care lies in your ability to design and deliver your course with your own time management in mind. While making major design changes before the term begins might seem daunting, in many cases they'll save you time during the delivery of your course so that you can be present, provide feedback, and evoke community once the term has started.

  • Allow yourself and your students time and space to adjust and iterate.
  • Consider design time vs. delivery time as you choose activities and assessments.
  • Consider what really needs detailed feedback; can some assignments be graded as complete/incomplete?
  • Be open and supportive in your offer to bridge students to Miami support resources.
  • Accept that not everything needs to be perfect.
  • Avoid assigning what can be perceived as "busy work"; every reading, video, and assignment should be important to meeting your course's learning objectives.  

Explore our recommendations in more detail by downloading our Flexible Formats: A Primer for Faculty Decision-Making guide (PDF, 622KB).