Online Learning: My life in the HyFlex Lane

I recently came across the episode of I Love Lucy where she and Ethel have just gotten jobs in a chocolate factory. It seems simple enough—wrapping chocolates as they move past on a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt moves slowly at first, and Lucy and Ethel do a fine job of keeping up with the candy moving along in front of them, feeling quite pleased with themselves. Before long, however, the belt speeds up and things quickly go sideways, the chocolates speed by, and Ethel and Lucy are reduced to scooping them off the belt and stuffing them … well, you get the idea and if you’re in need of a good laugh these days, I highly recommend this clip. 

Since we all understand the concept of foreshadowing, I imagine as soon as you hear Lucy and Ethel say “Well this is easy, we can handle this okay,” you know things are definitely not going to be okay. 

At this point, you may be wondering what this has to do with online learning or even librarianship. A post on the AISL listserv recently asked the question, “What IS a school librarian?” For me, defining what it means to be a school librarian used to be easy. But with all the changes that COVID-19 has thrown at us and how quickly our lives have changed, it isn’t as clear-cut as it used to be. It still means having a physical presence in the library, providing readers’ advisory, designing LibGuides, keeping our library website current, and collaborating with faculty on research projects. But now, for me it also includes designing lessons and teaching based on the HyFlex model my school adopted for this year (and truth be told, probably parts of it for years to come).

It’s a Strange, New World

I have to say, Kent has done a remarkable job of creating as safe an environment as possible for faculty, staff, and students. We started bringing students back at the end of August to provide enough time for testing and quarantining to ensure we were creating a bubble that allowed us to start school September 9 with over 400 students boarding on campus. An additional 100+ students are attending class synchronously and/or asynchronously depending on time zone restrictions. I’m happy to say we’ve just successfully finished week three of our fall term and know it’s because of all the ways COVID-19 protocol makes teaching and living harder: masks, de-densified classrooms, one-way traffic patterns, testing, staggered meals and outdoor dining, campus visitor restrictions, and social distancing to name but a few.

In addition to my regular duties as the research librarian, I teach two sections of New Student Seminar (NSS), a graduation requirement completed in a student’s third or fourth form year. NSS covers everything from active study and time management to information literacy and research skills. This year, both of my sections have 15 students total—13 students boarding and attending class on campus and two remote students that join via Zoom, time zone differences permitting. Armed with two years of teaching the course under my belt and time spent this summer at Global Online Academy, in PD with Dr. Joshua Eyler on Resilient Pedagogy, collaborating on a Hybrid Learning Guide for our faculty, and re-designing my PowerSchool LMS pages, I felt pretty well-prepared and thought “I can handle this.” Well, to be honest, I really wasn’t prepared for how many things I did previously that now need adaptation: talking clearly with a mask so I can be understood, listening carefully to an answer so I don’t have to ask a shy student with a quiet voice behind a mask to repeat themselves, any pair-share or small group discussion that requires close contact—the list goes on. Here are some of the challenges so far teaching during COVID-19, opportunities they’ve provided for growth, and a few of the lessons I’ve learned.

Lesson 1 | Technology is My Frenemy

On any given day I might have thirteen students physically in the classroom face-to-face (F2F) and two students joining synchronously—OR—I might have thirteen F2F students, one synchronous and one asynchronous student—OR—I might have seven F2F, and six synchronous and two asynchronous students—OR… You get the picture—the possibilities are endless depending on factors beyond my control that impact my classroom and my teaching. The Hyflex model is designed to allow you to quickly pivot from one mode of delivery to another with the least amount of friction. This model relies heavily on technology and right now I’m using a witches brew of hardware and software that frequently seems to have a mind of its own: a Swivl robot, an iPad, a laptop, and finally Zoom combined to create as close as possible a true classroom experience. Because one of my main goals for each class is that my students will be actively engaged with the lesson, I add live group discussion, large and small group discussion boards on our LMS, Padlets, and Zoom breakout rooms to the mix. I travel to my classroom with everything except the Swivl, so now in the ten minute break between the last person teaching and the start of my class I need to get the Swivl positioned in the room, turned on, the iPad inserted and connected, remember to take the marker that controls the Swivl out of the charger, put it in a lanyard that I wear on my lapel (and try not to leave the classroom with it still attached stranding the next person teaching), place four additional audio markers throughout the room to capture class discussions, return to my laptop and start a Zoom session, return to the Swivl and join the Zoom from the iPad that’s in the Swivl and begin recording the lesson all the while students are wandering in and the bell to start the class is minutes away. Oh, did I mention I need to make sure I don’t forget about admitting my remote students in the Zoom waiting room? Or take attendance and submit it before class starts? Instead of starting class feeling centered and focused, those chocolates are already flying off the conveyor belt and I’m working as quickly as I can to wrap them all. Needless to say, three weeks in and it’s exhausting. I can see it on the faces of my colleagues and on my own. I mostly get it right, but I’ve made more mistakes than I like to admit, and many more than I’m comfortable with.

Lesson 2 | Watching Myself Make Mistakes is Humbling

On the plus side, watching the recordings that I will post for my asynchronous students and any students attending class who would like to review the day’s lesson has been a truly enlightening and humbling learning experience for me. Reviewing my classes has helped me identify mistakes I make most frequently and see first-hand how they impact the remote student experience. That’s the good news. No really, that’s as good as it gets watching yourself teach on Zoom. The bad news is there have been many cringe-worthy moments I’ve had to relive: listening to audio describing my projected screen when I actually forgot to share the screen with my remote students, watching video where I did successfully share my screen, yet my marker was placed in the lanyard in such a way that the audio was muffled—and so on. This experience has been humbling, but back to the plus side, it’s forced me to let go of my perfectionist tendencies and be kinder to myself. I’m making an effort to learn from my mistakes then let them go and really focus on my main goal—to plan lessons that allow my students to engage with the material and each other. It’s all a bit chaotic, but I’m making headway and every class runs smoother than the last, giving me lots of opportunities to practice my new mantra: Celebrate every success—even the smallest ones! 

Lesson 3 | Keep Course Goals Front and Center

One of my main social/ emotional course goals is to help my students develop into a strong cohort group. Since all of my students are new to Kent, NSS provides a unique opportunity for them to develop a sense of belonging among a smaller group with the same shared experience. This is even more crucial for my remote students, many of whom will be joining us on campus when we return in January. I don’t want my remote students to have simply been observers of the shared experience of my F2F students—I want them to be actively engaged and involved with their classmates. This means everyone works together—in live group discussions when possible, in large and small group discussion threads, in small groups in Zoom breakout rooms, on collaborative digital platforms like Padlet, Google Slides, Adobe Spark, and through student-created videos. My goal is to incorporate interactive elements at least once a week when our time zones reasonably align, i.e. a student in China joins a 9:45AM class at 9:45PM. I admire the dedication and commitment my remote students make to show up, even when they could just as easily watch the recordings. This reinforces my belief that they value forming a strong cohort group as much as I do.

Lesson 4 | Slow Down Time

One way to think of last spring is that we all learned how slow learning really is. To address this new reality, our Scheduling Committee designed a new block schedule: within the weekly schedule each class meets three times (two 45 minute blocks and one 90 minute block) and within the daily schedule three classes meet Monday, Thursday, Saturday and four the remaining three days. This schedule slows down the student experience and removes much of the friction or stress of moving through eight class periods per day that we had in our schedule last year. The reality is that you will in no way have the same class time of previous years and something has to give.

Lesson 5 | Plan The Year: One Step At A Time

In our Hybrid Learning Guide, we recommended looking at your course in the following way:

1. Look at the course in its entirety:

2. Build your first unit (account for the spring+summer slide in cumulative disciplines):

3. Plan your lesson:

Following the above recommendations, this is my lesson on plagiarism in the planning stage:

How This Translates to My LMS:

The following images are from my LMS to give a sense of how the lesson plan above translates to my course site.

I make my learning outcomes visible to my students under Key Points:

I start by engaging my students in the first step of active learning, which is to identify prior knowledge. The Padlet allows all students, F2F, synchronous, and asynchronous, to engage with the prompt and to work on a common interactive element.

I make sure that quizzes and tests are low stakes. This activity is a structured pre-test and students are allowed to demonstrate mastery of the questions missed if they aren’t happy with their score. My goal is always mastery of the skill, not assessment based on a moment in time.

I provide relevant additional information for them to explore.

The engagement activity begins by dividing them into five groups of three. Each group has a private discussion thread where they will respond to the prompt and comment on each other’s posts around two academic integrity scenarios. The groups do this in a breakout room if a member is remote. Each group is tasked with creating a PSA slide or any other media they choose. Small groups allow my remote learners an opportunity to get to know classmates on an individual basis and foster stronger personal connections.

For an assessment, I provide a single point rubric and ask each student to evaluate their own PSA and the PSA of two other groups. I give them the option of doing a third group for extra credit.

Lesson 6 | Celebrate Every Success—Even the Smallest Ones!

As much as time slows down in learning, I feel like it speeds up in the planning stages. While we have only been back for three weeks, at times it feels like three months. That conveyor belt seems to be delivering my lessons at an accelerated speed. But there are hidden gems in all of this. A valuable one is it has leveled the playing field a bit between us and our students. It’s been an opportunity for them to watch us learn something new, something we struggle with daily and (hopefully) don’t give up on. It has been an opportunity for them to offer words of kindness and reassurance, “Don’t worry, that happens all the time in my other classes” and for us to be the grateful recipients—another reminder of what it feels like to be offered kindness in a difficult moment. So as I continue to adapt my lessons, I’m trying to keep in mind my new mantra: Celebrate every success—even the smallest ones!