In 2020 we used HyFlex technology in our Research Skills in Pharmacology workshops to recreate the interactivity of class discussions. It allowed students in the classroom to interact with students thousands of miles away, but couldn’t fully recapture the dynamics of small group discussions with everyone in the same place.
My colleague Susan Duty and I co-organise the Research Skills in Pharmacology module. We designed this module to improve training in research methodology and practical skills for our students before they start on professional placements or final year research projects. Workshops to allow small group discussions between students are a key element of the module, so we were concerned that social distancing and students choosing to study remotely would greatly disrupt our ability to run them. The HyFlex approach with remote students joining classroom sessions via Teams and a camera / microphone covering the room sounded promising as a means to allow our usual discussions to take place. Our module was one of the first in the Faculty of Life Sciences and Medicine to try this approach, but despite a warning that we should be prepared for failure while trying to make HyFlex work we were reasonably happy with the outcome.
We found that running HyFlex sessions was much easier with 2 members of staff in the classroom. One would lead the session as normal, whilst the other dealt with the technology and monitored Microsoft Teams for contributions made by students on there. We found that we could allow the group of online students to discuss their ideas by muting the classroom microphone and turning down the volume on the computer audio. However, with up to 20 students online it was too easy for some to hide and not participate in the chat. The breakout rooms function that has recently been introduced to Teams should help with that problem, as splitting students into smaller groups will make it harder for them to avoid contributions.
Running a single HyFlex session took less time than duplicating the session, once in the classroom and once online. However, I don’t feel that is an effective replacement for sessions designed to run wholly online or wholly on campus. Constantly having to shift focus between the physical and virtual classrooms was mentally draining. Socially-distanced students wearing masks in the classroom found it difficult to communicate with each other and students online struggle to hear them through their masks. Although being able to meet our students in College was a positive experience, with a focus purely on the educational value of the sessions I think they would have worked better if they had been held entirely online using breakout rooms to allow mall group discussion.
HyFlex technology allows students in the classroom and those working remotely to be part of the same teaching sessions, but social distancing means that the physical classroom is not as dynamic whilst the interface between the virtual and physical classrooms makes communication more difficult than in an online-only session.
Written by Andy Grant
Andy Grant is a Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology Education within the Faculty of Life Sciences and Medicine.