Voices muffled by masks, microphones out of range, professors’ divided attention.
UF’s Spring semester will bring these challenges and more to its HyFlex classes.
Professors and technology personnel are hurrying to prepare themselves for a Spring semester with more in-person classes
Hybrid-Flexible classrooms, or HyFlex, will be used throughout UF in the Spring. Teachers will simultaneously address in-person students and the rest of their students remotely, via Zoom. The switch will require professors to learn new technology, adjust course layouts and be flexible with their syllabi.
A small portion of the class will be in front of the professor, masked and socially distanced due to capacity limits for classrooms. The number of in-person seats varies based on the class and classroom size.
UF Information Technology is installing cameras, microphones and at least two monitors in every classroom in preparation for the Spring semester, wrote Mark McCallister, director of Academic Technology, in an email. They will update existing microphones to increase range and clarity, he wrote.
McCallister couldn’t give an exact figure for how much UF is spending on this technology.
“Costs depends on a variety of factors, including existing cabling and technologies already in a particular classroom space,” McCallister wrote.
The monitors will allow the professors to simultaneously share their screen on Zoom and in person so students can watch the lecture in either format. The online class will also be displayed on a monitor so the instructor can interact with the remote students.
Professors will have to cater course content to the needs of both sets of students.
If more seats open up throughout the semester, students will be allowed to take the in-person section of the course, UF Provost Joseph Glover said at a Board of Trustees meeting Thursday.
Gillian Lord, UF professor and chair of the department of Spanish and Portuguese studies, has witnessed her two oldest daughters participate in HyFlex learning through Alachua County Public Schools. She said it doesn’t work.
She said teachers are either talking to the in-person students or talking to the online students and they rarely get the same treatment.
“I already kind of am aware of things to really watch out for, like not prioritizing one population over the other,” Lord said. “But I don't know how you don't do that.”
Communicating in a foreign language is hard enough, let alone through masks and from distanced desks, she said. Lord would prefer keeping foreign language classes 100% online. Her department voiced these concerns to Glover on Oct. 13. Though their request was not granted, clear masks are the compromise.
Lord sighed as she talked about the added challenge of teaching students who are not in the same room.
“I don't know how to get three people who are sitting 6 feet apart to have a conversation in a classroom without screaming,” Lord said.
Instructors will have to work twice as hard to make sure the classroom experience and assessment is fair for both sets of students, said Joseph Spillane, associate dean of UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Spillane, a UF history professor, is rethinking aspects of his course like class discussion and group work, he said. He is considering brief written responses to supplement in-class discussions every week, and group projects or assignments over traditional exams, he said.
“But I'm hopeful that the technology will be good enough, and that the training is good enough and the effort will be good enough so that students will find it to be a good learning experience,” Spillane said.
His department offered three sessions in which faculty members who are comfortable with the HyFlex technology helped colleagues who are nervous about it, he said.
To prepare for Hyflex learning, UF faculty can schedule consultations with UFIT personnel, go to open classrooms for self-guided practice or attend weekly workshops until Dec. 23, according to UF’s Preparing for Spring website. The website includes a “Pedagogy and Activities” page outlining best practices for teaching and student engagement.
No training is mandatory because there are a variety of comfort levels with the technology, McCallister wrote.
The switch to HyFlex classes comes after UF announced it would offer more in-person classes on Oct. 6. Fuchs explained in a public address video on Oct. 9 that the expansion of in-person learning is necessary to “retain full funding for our university, and thereby protect the jobs of our employees.”
Flexible scheduling and guest speakers are factors of distance learning worth keeping, said Scott Sager, education coordinator and professor in UF’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation.
Sager teaches courses that require field experience – experience that was limited during the mostly online Fall semester. He’s teaching an Integrated Natural Resource Management course in the Spring. He is using camera crews and recording studios to better facilitate the in-person experiences of class, he said.
UF has not provided faculty with a formal directive regarding in-person students having to quarantine if exposed to COVID-19, Sager said. He believes that is the best possible approach to the situation because of how diverse the university is.
“I want them to give the instructors the flexibility to figure out ‘What is the way that this makes sense given what I'm trying to accomplish in the course,’” Sager said.
At a Faculty Senate town hall in October, Glover, UF’s provost, said faculty members who test positive for COVID-19 would be no different than being sick from the flu.