Lights, camera, classroom

Teaching during a pandemic calls for a high-tech ‘HyFlex’ environment

Before hopping online to teach — whether in DU’s online MBA program or with faculty in professional development — adjunct professor Patrick Orr checks his microphone, adjusts his camera and readies his props. (In this case, it’s a tablet that acts as a whiteboard, digitally translating his notes to his students’ computer screens.)

The name of this production? “Teaching During a Pandemic.”

“Faculty now are the producer, director, writer, lighting technician, sound technician, makeup artist and content creator,” says Orr, who also serves as the Daniels College of Business director of global experiential operations. “And they need to pull all of that together when they teach. They are things our faculty hasn’t had to do in the past, but the pandemic has created this environment for you to systematically think about what you’re doing rather than just teaching to a single audience in a classroom.”

As early as the CD-ROM era, Orr was incorporating technology into his 22-year DU teaching career. But with COVID-19 injecting uncertainty into classrooms from kindergarten to college, the University of Denver has had to adapt like never before.

To provide a high-quality education and keep students safe during the fall term, DU began offering classes in nontraditional formats and nontraditional locations.

In-person classes have been staged everywhere from the Myhren Gallery in the Shwayder Art Building to study areas in the Anderson Academic Commons. DU has also offered online classes and “HyFlex” classes. In these, the professor engages the students in front of them and the students logging in, all at the same time.

“I think it’s a great solution for education during a pandemic,” says Tabea Wurst, a graduate student in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. “I hope the option will be continued even after COVID restrictions are lifted. It allows for more flexibility for grad students who usually are employed while working on their master’s.”

HyFlex classes have created more screen time than she’d like and have made it more difficult to feel like a cohesive cohort, Wurst says. And from a technical standpoint, there have been some hiccups. But Wurst, who is also a classroom assistant in a strategic communications course, says DU’s model provides a strong foundation upon which to build the classroom of the future.

“I would support any efforts made to make this arrangement a permanent one,” she says. “It’s a more modern way of learning, and it provides both professors and students regular access to each other in person.”

The solutions come out of Chancellor Jeremy Haefner’s Fall Logistics Task Force, which comprised numerous subcommittees focused on the emerging learning challenges.

“This is such a unique situation where the classroom and technology are so interwoven,” says Virginia Pitts, director of university teaching at the Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL). “I think we’ve done a really good job of getting ready for this. It was hard, and it was always going to be hard. I think DU has done a really great job of getting us here.”

Even before the coronavirus reached the United States, OTL went to work preparing faculty for the challenges that lay ahead: How would a professor engage in-person and online students at the same time? What about small group discussions or labs?

OTL aggregated as many resources as it could and passed along its knowledge through one-on-one appointments, teaching toolkits and its Course Design Institute, which soon saw twice as many participants as usual.

Meanwhile, the Information Technology Division outfitted spaces to accommodate newly purchased technology, including 175 Logitech all-in-one video stations, featuring a camera and a mic system connected to a mobile cart or a classroom monitor. They adjusted their hours, set up a chat-based help center and equipped student support staff to work remotely.

“It was a team effort,” says Theresa Hernandez, assistant vice chancellor of campus partnerships. “Everyone has been involved, trying to get creative and think outside the box. “It’s helped knowing there was 100% support from the senior administration to make this fall launch happen. They put funding behind a lot of this — for faculty to recreate their classes [and for] classroom assistants to help them navigate the technology while they teach and help the students who are having difficulties.”

OTL director Leslie Alvarez says there have been bumps along the way but that the effort has gone better than expected. Even in a new environment, OTL is already taking note of best practices and preparing to apply them to future courses.

“We’re really thinking about the way we engage with our classrooms and with our students and making education more accessible,” Alvarez says. “That to me has been a real silver lining of the HyFlex classroom and the time we’re finding ourselves in.”

Other positive side effects have appeared too. The pandemic has strengthened partnerships among units; the use of technology on campus has accelerated; students can now hear from guest speakers from all over the world via video chat; and faculty are finding new ways to engage with students.

Perhaps best of all, Pitts says, DU is building a strong foundation for the future of education while offering support on a more personal level.

“It’s exciting to see that we’re pulling this off together,” she says. “I love that we’ve been able to be a part of helping people feel that sense of connection.”


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