Tip: "ZoomFlex" & Flexible Design Strategies
There are so many reasons to design for flexibility, rather than trying to adapt on the fly to rapidly-changing circumstances.
As I think about planning for fall - where I’ll be teaching some “remote synchronous” (live attendance requirements) and some “online” (fully asynchronous) sections, I have found inspiration in this video, below, created by Mike Caulfield explaining “ZoomFlex” - how to accommodate some synchronous/some asynchronous students this fall. He encourages us not to ask: How do we create a face-to-face class while including an online audience? but rather to ask: How can we create an online experience that we can include face-to-face students in?
I think of flexible design as an opportunity to meet students where they are. They may have signed up for a section with synchronous requirements, and then life happens. Their kids’ schools move online. They are healthcare workers amidst a new surge of cases. They get sick or have a family member fall ill. There are so many reasons to offer flexibility to our students this semester. Rather than being caught trying to adapt on the fly to rapidly-changing circumstances (this spring), for my own peace of mind I want to approach this fall from the outset with as much flexibility for students - and for myself! - as possible.
Design for asynchronous tasks. I would argue that it’s easier to plan an asynchronous online course with flexible components than to plan a “live” course & have to make many course adjustments as life happens for individual students. I also see it as an equity issue - some students will ask for extensions or extra help, but many won’t. The students who need it the most, probably won’t ask. If instead we approach fall courses from the asynchronous perspective, we can then adapt to synchronous (and even in-person, although I doubt most of us will meet our students in-person) when and if you can meet live.
What does that look like? For me, one strategy is to build into the course structure a logical sequence of “chunked” assignments to support students in making progress. At the beginning of the summer, I walked through a thought experiment of a HyFlex-ed course task. I’ve refined it a bit and incorporated some student choice options and “live” options - the task here is developing and revising an outline:
Setting up this sequence allows students who have the time and ability to meet together, either in-person or over the computer, the choice of how their group will meet. Students with less personal flexibility can elect to complete the group work asynchronously. I have created asynchronous components to take the place of class “lecture” time, and ask students to complete some independent work on their own before coming to the group session, and ask that the group work be done before the whole class meeting. So there’s a broad structure to the week, but flexibility within that structure.
Offer many low-stakes assignments. The second piece I have implemented in my flexible courses is to offer students more assignments, but offer them choice as well. The goal is not more work; in fact, I think there’s a strong argument to be make that this is a time to distill a course down to essentials, not to overload students. My thought here is that by offering more low-stakes assignments, I am giving students the opportunity to learn from mistakes: if they complete an assignment and totally miss the mark, they can simply choose to do an extra assignment in the same category later in the semester, and apply what they learned about how they did the first time. I also think this approach discourages cheating, for those who are concerned about this, because no one assignment is “make or break.” (And, frankly, who has time or motivation to google answers or coordinate with classmates for 15 different quizzes, when each is worth 1-2% of the final grade?)
What does this look like? Key for me is that more opportunities doesn’t mean more work, but rather more choice. This can be choice of topic and timing within the same category of task: in my reading classes, I offer 8 reading assignments (article + discussion + written response) and ask students to complete any 5 of their choice. This way students can pick either the topic they are most interested in, or the weeks when they have more time to complete the assignments. Some topics have only 1-2 students working on it, which allows for more individual responses in the discussion board that week, and some topics almost the whole class chooses, which gives broader perspectives and more energy to the discussion.
More choice can also offer different ways to engage with course content - here’s an example of offering different types of low(er)-stakes tasks that allow students to have some discretion in how they want to build towards a high(er)-stakes task:
This is my still-evolving approach to designing my fall classes - I would love to hear about what you’re planning for fall. Below are some additional resources about choice and low-stakes assignment. Thanks for reading!
For more information:
If you haven’t yet read Hybrid-Flexible Course Design: Implementing student-directed hybrid classes, by Brian J. Beatty (@brian232323), or Teaching Online: A Guide to Theory, Research, and Practice, by Claire Major (@ClaireHMajor), I continue to recommend both these titles.
More on low-stakes assignments: some general examples, using low-stakes writing in large classes, and thinking about it from an equity approach.
More on offering students choices: some benefits, how to guide students to make good choices, and choice as ownership.