How Hyflex Saved my Leadership Journey – a Humbling Lived Experience


Jessica L. Knott, Ph.D., AVP of Community Strategy, Experience and Management, Online Learning Consortium.

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Two photographs showing students participating in the hyflex immersion experience of IELOL 2021

Each year, the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) sends a staff member through the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) program focused on developing participants of varying leadership experience for specific applied and theoretical leadership skills that drive online, blended, and digital program excellence.

And, the program was just that – excellent. I will write more about that in-depth later, but this post is more of an unexpected love letter to Hyflex, Arizona State University (ASU), and incredibly kind faculty and community members.

I’ve wanted to attend IELOL for years, and I was thrilled that this year I was not only selected to go, but that Arizona State University was the site, co-host, and program partner. Further, this year’s program was offered in a Hyflex format, which brought together a virtual and onsite cohort for collaboration, networking, and learning.

Hyflex and blended teaching strategies weigh heavy on the mind of the OLC community in these days of inoculation unknowns, changing safety protocols, and raging COVID variants. To experience an intentionally designed, high-stakes professional development program in a Hyflex format was an incredible form of immersive learning. So, being me, I went in full force – I was going to experience every single scrap of opportunity that was in front of me.

To experience an intentionally designed, high-stakes professional development program in a hyflex format was an incredible form of immersive learning.

Onsite and virtual at the same time? Yes. Group work and networking? Yes. The most sophisticated Virtual Reality experience I’ve ever seen in my life? YES. More on that later – and you’ll want to stick around for it.

Leading up to the on-site experience, my cohort and I participated in three weeks of fully online learning, preparing us to meet for the one-week immersion experience. And it was wonderful!

In some ways, I feel like even though I was an on-site participant, I got to know some of the fully virtual participants better via Zoom and Slack than I did many of the folks I was physically located with!

As an introvert who presents as an extrovert this doesn’t surprise me all that much – but to have an opportunity that allows for choice like that is so rare and was so welcome. My human interaction skills are still what you might call “in progress” after 18 months of isolation.

But the entire cohort was lovely, and my small group (shout out to group #4 Karen Gebhardt, Craig Caplan, Scott Herriott, and Lauren Leo!) challenged me to in whole new ways about several things I’d never really had the chance to dig all that deeply into before, such as strategic budgeting and presenting fiscal numbers in different ways for different audiences. Y’all, I was living my best life. Then came “the choice.”

Tuesday, at lunch, my small exploration crew was packed up and led to ASU’s gorgeous Dreamscape experience, a beautiful and incredibly advanced virtual reality installation. We were going to experience the Curse of the Black Pearl and visit an Alien Zoo for some virtual research. As an avid video gamer, I was thrilled – I’ve always been a little too hesitant to purchase virtual reality equipment of my own so was beside myself with excitement.

Do I get motion sickness? Yes. Did I think it would matter? No. I was confident! Bold! Living life!

We were suited up and sent in. Words can’t accurately capture the care and consideration the knowledgeable ASU students took in helping us with our equipment and preparing us for what we were about to experience. They were confident and encouraging, obviously incredibly invested in their work. Students are the best, aren’t they?

My foursome and I were sent in, and as the experience began we were almost immediately separated. It was amazing, like my partner Cynthia and I were truly exploring an old ruin circa the 1920s like Indiana Jones.

We had a torch! There were bugs! We tumbled and roller coastered and then were flying in a mining cart (no spoilers, y’all just trust me)! It was incredible. Was I dizzy? A little! But hey! Confidence overcomes any obstacle, right?

Onward to the Alien Zoo! Next, we were suited up again but this time to be “placed” in little alien pods, where we flew around and looked at alien dinosaurs in space and did research to figure out why different things were happening in the environment!

It was a really fun, creative way to explore scientific thinking. The problem was – I was now SICK. Like. Sick. As I left the alien zoo experience I found myself wondering two things: where was the closest restroom and how could I get myself there upright and without incident.

It turns out that some things can’t be ignored. Like motion sickness. No, you’re probably not going to make it through that financial session, even if you try.

So what’s a learner to do? I was heartbroken: this was the program I’d waited years to go to, and I was not willing to miss half of a day. Nor was I willing to submit my colleagues to my sweaty, pale, and decidedly unpleasant presence that was steadily deteriorating.

OH WAIT. Did I mention that the IELOL experience was done in Hyflex this year? Here’s what happened: I called a Lyft (another shout out to Miguel for letting me in his car even though when he pulled up I could tell he VERY NEARLY drove away) and went back to my hotel room.

I was able to join my virtual colleagues and participate in the remainder of the afternoon’s learning in a way that was as robust as it was when I was in the room itself. And, I was able to do it while I lay on my bathroom floor wondering if this was the end.

I was able to join my virtual colleagues and participate in the remainder of the afternoon’s learning in a way that was as robust as it was when I was in the room itself.

I unintentionally had the opportunity to experience both versions of IELOL. It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t even necessarily enjoyable given the context – but it was WONDERFUL.

I am moved by how freely both the onsite and the virtual participants interacted and welcomed others. I am moved by the work that ASU put into providing an excellent Hyflex experience for this institute. The sound was wonderful, the video quality was wonderful; the lift to make it happen was not small, but the outcome was really something amazing to see.

I find myself thinking of Hyflex differently after this week. I felt such gratitude for the ability to join in and not miss out on critical learning and development. I genuinely don’t know what I would have done otherwise.

When we talk about access – this is one of the things we mean as a part of that conversation. I wasn’t trying to opt out, I had no choice. Hyflex gave me that choice. And that choice has changed my perspectives a bit. The access discussion is so much deeper, and I am so privileged to be writing this piece today – but when it comes to embodied learning experiences, last week was a brilliant case study.

I’m at the point in this post where I need to land the plane, as it were. This is a gratitude post, but also a reminder to us as scholars and practitioners.

I’ve seen a lot of “hyflex is impossible” or “can’t be done” or “shouldn’t be done” and a number of analyses and discussions both for and against it as a teaching method. But, I’ve yet to see one from a student voice.

And, while the scale of a full campus hyflex initiative would be massive, I think when undertaken in the purposefully designed way such as I experienced with IELOL – it could be a real benefit to some folks who struggle with timing or transportation or even the ability to navigate a campus in times of unknown health and safety considerations.

Beyond hyflex alone, if my sharing the humiliation of passing out virtual reality-style can encourage us as a field to be more purposeful about seeking student input, or in shifting a narrative away from “but it’s so hard and expensive” to “but if it works what could we shift resources from that isn’t working” then I’m all for it.

The Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning offers participants the opportunity to work with colleagues from around the world to explore both the opportunities and barriers to advancing local and global online learning. Applications for the 2021 Global Program are being accepted through August 13, 2021.

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Jessica Knott

Jessica L. Knott

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