The Variable Course Modality

Female student looking at her laptop while seated near the window in the Payson Library

What Is a Variable Course?

In response to the ongoing health risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Seaver College empowered faculty to select the modalities for their own courses, course by course. All courses will receive a course tag indicating the venue: Classroom (C), Online (O), or Mixed (M). Courses may also receive the Variable (V) tag to indicate that students can participate in class sessions remotely, using some combination of synchronous videoconferencing and asynchronous activities. Online classes automatically carry the Variable tag; for Classroom and Mixed classes, individual faculty members choose whether to add the Variable tag.

Variable Courses and the Hyflex Model

Earlier versions of the Fall 2020 course modality labels used the term hyflex for a course that would be tagged as Mixed Variable (MV) using the final modality tags. The hyflex (hybrid-flexible) course model was pioneered at San Francisco State University in 2005 as an attempt to expand a program by incorporating online students into existing traditional on-campus courses.

Seaver's Variable courses differ from classic hyflex courses in three significant ways:

  • In the original hyflex model, onsite classes were conducted in traditional formats, and online students participated asynchronously. In the fifteen years since hyflex debuted, the combination of ever-improving video compression and ever-wider access to high-speed internet has given us the option of synchronous participation in an onsite course by students who are physically remote from the classroom. Seaver College classrooms have received new technologies to support this kind of synchronous onsite-online integration.
  • Classic hyflex was originally motivated by a desire to expand an existing program by adding online students, and since then has been adopted mostly by faculty who want to maximize student choice. Seaver College's introduction of the Variable course designation seeks primarily to serve students whose lives have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that make it unreasonable to expect on-campus or even synchronous participation from those students. The use of Variable instead of Flexible indicates that these courses will consider student needs, not necessarily that they will support all student preferences.
  • In a classic hyflex model, students choose day by day which modality they will use to participate in class sessions. In Seaver's Fall 2020 model, students make a one-time choice about whether they will attend physical classes or participate online. Students who register online cannot later decide they want to attend onsite classes, because the registration data will be used to allocate classroom space.

Teaching a Variable Course

A diagram illustrating how students participate in Variable class sessions.

To implement a robust Variable course, a teacher needs to plan "in triplicate," considering how students can participate in core learning activities whether they are present in the classroom, attending remotely, or neither. While the original vision of hyflex was oriented toward allowing students to decide how they wanted to participate, the COVID-19 pandemic has removed that element of choice for some students. Students who fall ill or have high risk of doing so must remain isolated for their own wellbeing, and international students may be unable to return to campus whether they wish to or not, due to travel restrictions. Thus all three modes of interaction will be important to consider in planning Variable courses.

Variable Strategies for Lecture-Oriented Courses

If you normally devote the majority of your class time to lecturing, implementing a Variable course is relatively simple. You can deliver your lectures in the classroom, in the presence of the students who have registered to attend the onsite sessions. Starting in Fall 2020, all Seaver College classrooms will be outfitted with cameras and microphones, so you can stream your lecture to students who registered to participate online. You can record that same Zoom session and share it via Courses with students who were neither onsite nor watching online when you delivered it. (This also gives all students the opportunity to review the lecture to shore up their understanding of any parts they missed or misunderstood the first time.)

Posing questions to students and fielding their questions for you may prove more challenging in a Variable course than in a completely onsite or completely online course. You'll need to develop a plan for engaging the online synchronous attendees as much as the onsite attendees. A few simple strategies include:

  • If your lecture includes interactive elements such as posing questions to students, try to call on online attendees as much as you call on onsite attendees.
  • If your lecture includes receiving questions from students, set aside specific time slots to receive questions, rather than allowing students to interrupt the lecture with impromptu questions. During the question-and-answer segments, turn first to the remote students, then to the onsite students.
  • If you think that it's important to allow students to interrupt the lecture with impromptu questions, designate one in-class student per day to serve as the "voice of the chat." That student's job for the day is to receive questions from remote students via the Zoom chat feature (or some other channel) and relay them to you as the lecture progresses.
  • When onsite students ask questions, repeat the question for the sake of remote and asynchronous students. (Think of all the times you've struggled to hear a question posed from the audience at a professional conference or faculty meeting.)
  • Provide a venue (such as the Forums tool in Courses) in which students can ask questions asynchronously. Encourage all students to check the asynchronous discussion venue regularly, and to answer or extend each others' questions. You might also wish to spend the first few minutes of each class session reviewing your responses to any questions asked asynchronously that didn't come up in the prior synchronous session.

In many ways, if you plan to lecture to onsite and online audiences concurrently (synchronously), it makes more sense to plan the lecture as an online lecture that happens to also have an onsite audience than to plan it as an onsite lecture that also happens to have an online audience. For more pedagogical and technological tips, please see the CTE's "Online Lectures" page.

Variable Strategies for Discussion-Oriented Courses

If you normally devote the majority of your class time to student discussions (in groups of any size), implementing a Variable version of your course can be relatively complex, and is made more so by steps taken to mitigate coronavirus spread. For present purposes, let's assume that you have already taken classroom furnishings into account, and have decided that you can conduct a satisfactory discussion with your onsite students. Even if you plan to teach an Online Variable course with no physical classroom component, you'll still need to balance the synchronous and asynchronous options.

For students who must participate asynchronously, you'll need to provide learning activities roughly equivalent in learning value to the in-class activities. The caveat "in learning value" is important. Your asynchronous learning activities need not be "ports" of your in-class activities from an onsite into an online environment, like a video game translated from one platform to another. Rather, your asynchronous learning activities need to address the same learning outcomes, and provide students with learning benefits similar to those they would gain from participating in the onsite activities. Since you're emphasizing discussion in your classes, you're probably interested in having students engage in a give and take of ideas and perspectives. Our Courses system offers two tools for asynchronous discussions — the Forums (more like a group email chain) and the Commons (more like a Twitter thread or Facebook wall). You might also want to explore various external tools for facilitating asynchronous discussions.

Incorporating remote students into large-group synchronous discussions requires a different kind of planning, but in-room cameras and microphones can help you build a bridge between onsite and remote students. With a Zoom session running and projected on the classroom's screen, students can participate from any physical location that has an adequate internet connection. You'll find it helpful to devise and consistently use an equitable turn-taking strategy that brings both online and onsite students into the conversation. As you develop this strategy, keep in mind the lag time that accompanies online video transmissions. Probably the biggest technological challenge will be sound; online students may find it difficult to hear what onsite students are contributing to the discussion, depending on factors such as the size of the room and the distance between the student who is speaking and the professor's microphone. (Microphones for students are not currently featured in the classroom designs.)

Incorporating remote students into small-group synchronous discussions adds one more wrinkle. The easiest thing to do is have onsite students work in onsite groups, while online students work in online groups (via Zoom breakout rooms). If the proportion of students in each venue doesn't support the group work you want students to do, or if you think it's vital to have onsite and online students mixing within the groups, you could try to have all students collaborate in Zoom breakout rooms. If you try this, it will be very important for all students to have earbuds or headphones with their own microphones (rather than using their devices' built-in microphones), and for students to unmute their microphones only while they personally are speaking. If a student's microphone picks up audio from a device used by another student in the same breakout room, they will likely get an echo effect or screeching feedback. If audio feedback becomes a problem, you could ask students to use real-time text-based communications instead.

If your normal in-class discussions involve a lot of reconfiguring of groups or moving around the room, as in a jigsaw discussion or expanding fishbowl, you may find it easier to conduct those discussions fully online than to coordinate students across two different modalities. This is particularly true in a COVID-aware classroom, where furniture must remain in predetermined locations in order to maintain physical distancing.

Teaching a Variable course can be very rewarding, giving you a sense of satisfaction in serving students with a variety of needs. Offering a Variable class opens up the course to students who otherwise could not take it, due to logistical impediments. On the other hand, a Variable course requires careful and complex planning. If you would like additional conversation about whether Variable is a good fit for your course, please contact the CTE.

For Further Information

The following resources on the hyflex course model may be useful as you design your own Variable courses.