Making the most of the spaces we have: Design principles for successful hybrid and hyflex learning

Hybrid and hyflex learning are lasting legacies of our years of pandemic education. For educators at scale, with cohorts spread across the world by closed borders, these modes of delivery are a necessary response to ensure a safe return to campus and the ongoing online education of vulnerable and offshore students. Hyflex learning in particular has been a controversial and much debated mode of delivery. A quick Twitter search brings up thousands of tweets from institutions to vendors to educational developers proselytising or demonising the approach. The same Twitter search also reveals an almost universal lack of agreement as to what hyflex teaching is, what is best practice and how to embed it in a curriculum. For every advocate arguing that hybrid and hyflex learning represents the generational step-change we have been waiting for, there is an equally strident argument about it’s efficacy (or potential) for deep learning. I want to make a case that hybrid and hyflex learning done poorly is still bad teaching. Done well, it can be truly transformative, innovative and facilitate deep learning. The simple key to doing it well is design.

Design, you say?

As institutions seek to design curriculum, prepare delivery, and conduct authentic assessment in this new normal of learning at scale, the deployment of effective pedagogical design principles is critical. The post-pandemic institution is one where unanimity and equity of experience are not assured simply by physical presence and where splitting the cohort into face-to-face and online groups creates a two-speed experience. The rusted-on structures of timetabling, teaching spaces and ‘traditional’ delivery models like lectures and tutorials have broken down in the face of a pandemic induced necessity. We can’t afford to rinse and repeat the ways in which we have always done teaching and learning, or to uncritically snapback to how we designed, delivered and assessed education in 2019. Equally, we can’t afford to rest on the laurels of emergency response teaching, a mode that served us well during 2020/21.

We need new design principles that are agnostic of the spaces we use to deliver our education. We need design principles that focus on the experiences of learning, that create moments of connection with people, with disciplines and with society. We need design principles that deconstruct the reliance on didactic instruction, testing memory, fear, and transactional learning (see my previous blog post Be More Cockatoo). We need design principles that rely on the activities, relationships, and engagements we build, not on the placement of desks and chairs, the size of the teaching desk or whether cameras are on or off. I call this approach space agnostic learning.

What is space agnostic learning?

Space agnostic learning (SAL) is where mixed modes of participation allow students undertake the same or equivalent activities of learning face-to-face or online, sometimes for the duration of the teaching period and other times varying across it. The kinds of teaching and learning activities that are deployed in space agonistic units allow students across the cohort the same capability to learn a topic, engage and connect with each other and the teachers and be assessed and receive feedback, in real time. SAL designs teaching and learning activities so that where they occur does not limit the engagement and participation of students. SAL designs for the affordances of different spaces that can be shared to enhance learning between students, for example, group work between face to face and online students utilising different apps or media capabilities. SAL design aims to make the most of the hybridised cohort, rather than deliver to the lowest common denominator between them.

From our experiences of delivering space agnostic learning at scale at the University of Sydney Business School, we have developed five design principles, embedding agency, student voice and co-design, connection, authenticity, and active learning into the DNA of the teaching, learning and assessment experience. They build on our University of Sydney Business School approach to pedagogy called Connected Learning at Scale, which deeply integrates active and connected learning with the capacity to leverage a student’s business education to understand and solve critical global, local and personal challenges.

Diagram of space agnostic learning design principles
  1. PURPOSEFUL – Teaching, learning and assessment activities should be designed specifically for mixed modes of participation. Purposeful design includes considerations such as group facilitation, authentic engagement and communication across the cohort, clear guidance and instructions for learning activities, equity and adjustment for students and staff, alignment with learning outcomes and reasonable student agency in relation to participation. Purposeful design breaks down and rethinks all teaching and learning from the delivery of engaging information, through to the deployment of active and connected delivery activities and the submission and grading of authentic assessment and feedback.  
  2. WIRED – Using technology effectively to design for equal opportunities and capabilities for all students to participate. In physical spaces this should include ubiquitous wi-fi, effective audio-visual including sound projection and collection (audio in and audio out), both institutional and personal. In online spaces, appropriate platforms and consideration of bandwidth, device and literacy requirements are critical.  A wired environment is balanced towards the connection of the online students to the physical students in the space they are occupying. It recognises that proximity can be facilitated through the judicious and considered use of learning technology, from enterprise systems like a VLE or web-conferencing through to the engagement with cloud-based social media. Also, wired doesn’t always means synchronous. The capability to interact offline is equally critical. The design for this synchronously asynchronous learning using interactive media (for example) reduces the burden on live interaction having to occur in a single slot of the day (or being entirely dependent on the technology ALWAYS working). 
  3. LEVERAGED – Allowing for and using the affordances of space where appropriate (or necessary) and ensuring the negation of these affordances where it is not necessary or appropriate. Leveraged design ensures that the unique capabilities of physical interaction (within the limitations imposed by social distancing, for example) can be leveraged to better support the learning of those studying online (and vice versa). SAL design avoids finding and delivering to the lowest common denominators between the modes of participation. Instead, it leverages those capabilities and eliminates the differences where appropriate, for example students as producers or co-designers utilising DIY making such as media or problem solving. 
  4. BALANCED – Finding a balance of engagement between students in different modes of participation, both in terms of self-selection of groups and structured or mandated activities. This principle recognises that online and face-to-face are different modes of participation and that there needs to be balance between and within the cohort in terms of access, engagement, group work and assessment. For example, lecture content might be entirely delivered online as it offers a more effective way to package and navigate information and support asynchronous interactivity, or the presentation of different perspectives and voices within the ‘lecture’. However, group assessment might be better facilitated online to support mixed groups within the cohort.     
  5. CONNECTED – Connected design allows students to make and use connections between each other, with the teacher and with the critical learning points within the class. Ensuring clear human connections is critical for this occur (use of video, names and clear audio are the technical starting points). Connected design identifies multiple ways for students to engage and considers the limitations within modes of participation (such as social distancing or bandwidth) as well as between modes.  Connected design can value asynchronous connection (such as using crowdsourcing, debate or conversation deployed over time) as much as synchronous discussion such as conversation, discussion, or question/answer. 

How do I design for space agnostic learning?

The critical message here is empathy. Put yourself in the shoes of a student in your class.  Think through the ways in which they are studying and interacting with the unit and their colleagues. Understand the compromises, challenges, and benefits of the decisions they have made about how they can participate in your unit. Get to know the spaces you and they will inhabit. Know the ‘classroom’ and its capabilities and clearly design and structure your technology approaches to support the kinds of activities and teaching you will be designing. Design to make the most of the spaces we have available for learning.

  1. Communicate clearly – From the design of the unit of study outline, to the endorsement of assessment, right through to the delivery of the units and the expectations of students and your team, clear communication is critical. Make those expectations clear to students and staff upfront and as you deliver the unit.
  2. Think through the activity – How will the activity work with students in the room and online? Can you have them work on it together, or do you need to group them together within a face-to-face group and online ones? Can the activity be split between online students (undertaking one part) and face-to-face students doing a different part? Are there capabilities unique to one mode of participation that can be shared to enhance the learning of the entire cohort (i.e. the use of drawing or notation platforms for online students). It often helps to discuss the activity with peers or draw on the experiences of others undertaking similar activities.  
  3. Keep the tech simple and have a back up – The more complex the technical integrations and interoperability, the greater the risks of failure (and sometimes the bigger the chance of something truly creative and transformational happening, though not always). Keep the tech simple to start with, consider the bandwidth and literacies of the students working online (and of those in the face-to-face space supporting them to interact with the entire cohort). Always have a backup plan, an analogue solution such as pen and paper, the use of text-based messaging like a discussion forum or social media, the shifting of synchronous engagement to an asynchronous connection or the use of tools such as uploading photos or diagrams (worked solutions) in case the media or technology fails. 
  4. Support ways to participate collectively and ensure the equivalence of experience – It is easy to default to designing activities specifically for each different cohort, or to only support group interactions within a mode of participation. Thinking about the benefits for learning that come from having the cohort interact with across and between modes is critical. It can help overcome social isolation, manage the complexities of social distancing in spaces, build skills in terms of remote working and support the development of skills in the use of media technologies. It is important to ensure that students don’t feel they are missing out on something by engaging in different modes. The intention of a space agnostic mode is to design an equivalent experience, either during or post the class.
  5. Design a framework of evaluation – Evaluating the effectiveness of teaching and learning activities either during or post-fact (through mechanisms such as student surveys) is critical to improving the educational experience. Asking students how it went, what worked well and what could be improved, allowing their voices and stories to be heard creates a positive culture of listening, improvement, and recognition. Building in more rigorous pedagogical evaluation methods can also enhance the understanding of the experience not just for you and your future students but for colleagues inside and outside your institution.

Additional resources

  • To find out more about projects where the Business School has deployed a space agnostic approach, have a look at our Leading in a Post-Crisis World program.
  • To have a look at how we are transforming curriculum you can read about our Connected Learning at Scale initiative here and here.
  • Space agonistic learning is part of our ecosystem approach to business education, which you can read about here.

Published by Peter Bryant

Associate Dean Education and Co-Director of the Co-Design Research Group

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