Maximum Student Engagement, Minimum Instructor Setup: UDL versus the HyFlex Design Model

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Hybrid-flexible design, or HyFlex, has been around since 2006. Colleges and universities are adopting HyFlex more broadly, in response to variable student access circumstances. Learn the neuroscience behind why HyFlex works, and how to use universal design for learning (UDL) as a “shortcut” to attaining HyFlex goals.


Thomas J. Tobin, PhD, MSLS, PMP, MOT, CPACC is the Program Area Director for Distance Teaching & Learning on the Learning Design, Development, & Innovation (LDDI) team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as an internationally-recognized speaker and author on quality in technology-enhanced education. His books include • Evaluating Online Teaching: Implementing Best Practices (2015). • The Copyright Ninja: Rise of the Ninja (2017). • Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education (2018). • Going Alt-Ac: A Guide to Alternative Academic Careers (2020).

Extended Abstract

Session Topic: Since its introduction in 2006, the Hybrid-Flexible, or HyFlex course design model offers learners and instructors options for attendance, interaction, practice, and skill demonstration that blend in-person, technology-mediate live sessions, and asynchronous online learning. Essentially, HyFlex courses allow students to choose how they interact from moment to moment: “for each and every class meeting they can choose to sit in the classroom or to join via videoconference . . . in real-time, or they can watch the recording and complete online activities later” (Kelly, 2020).

The HyFlex model has been lauded recently as a possible way to be best prepared for the uncertainties of the COVID-19 “new normal” in higher education, with campuses needing to be able to shift rapidly from in-person to remote instruction while maintaining the quality of instruction throughout. The values of the HyFlex model—“learner choice, equivalency, reusability, and accessibility” (Beatty, 2019)—are aspirational goals for the design of any college and university offerings.

But is the HyFlex model attainable, sustainable, and scalable, given the restricted time, funds, people, and resources that higher education has at its disposal for creating offerings that can adequately address our new normal? The HyFlex design model has “substantial technological requirements for running a mixed-modality course,” and requires teams of people to assist instructors with “the difficulty of juggling both the in-class and live online students” (Maloney & Kim 2020).

In this Education Session, we will explore a different design framework that includes the core aspects of the HyFlex model—learner choice, reusability, and accessibility—and is much easier to set up and implement incrementally. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a design framework that creates flexibility within existing teaching and learning interactions, without adding complexity to the work load of the instructor.

UDL guides designers and instructors in creating multiple means by which learners stay engaged, take in information, and demonstrate their knowledge and skills (CAST, 2014), via paths for learning that respect their variable learning situations, skill sets, and technological affordances (DeSilva, Nemeroff, & Lopez, 2017).

In our conversation for this session, you will learn the core elements of the HyFlex design model (EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, 2020) and the Universal Design for Learning framework (Tobin, 2014), crosswalk the two models to determine the best fit for your institution’s needs (Ableser & Moore, 2018),  and create a plan for building increased engagement and flexibility for your learners, colleagues, and program—one that work within your existing staff, funding, time, and resource allocations (Barre, 2020; Tobin & Behling, 2018).


Community Relevance: Both the HyFlex and Universal Design for Learning frameworks directly support the OLC mission of increasing the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) of technology-enhanced and technology-mediated learning. By lowering barriers of distance and time (Liu & Rodriguez, 2019; Bowery & Houston, 2017), both HyFlex and UDL approaches provide learners with choices and flexibility about how and when they participate in course learning interactions, and students have greater agency and choice regarding the paths they take through our course offerings. UDL addresses the diversity of student populations in its most radical definition: learners are variable in all definable aspects (Moriarty, 2018), and we should design our experiences to account for such variability. Hyflex courses help to lower equity gaps by creating space for learners whose off-campus access to technology affordances is highly variable (Binnewies & Wang, 2019). Both the Hyflex and UDL models center the student experience and position course designers and instructors as advocates for student learning processes (Beatty, 2013; Tobin, 2019).


Interactivity: This Education Session about highly engaging and interactive design is itself designed to be highly engaging and interactive. As learners, session participants will experience both HyFlex and UDL components in action (options for learner choice, equivalency, reusability, accessibility, engagement, representation, and action/expression). You will select case-based examples that most closely mirror your own design and learning challenges, work with both nearby and remote colleagues to craft your design plan (a feature made possible by the new dual-attendance, and dual-presentation formats for the 2020 OLC Accelerate conference), and engage with the presenter and session colleagues to share good practices and build examples together.

Specifically, we will use three engagement and interactivity methods:

Time for Telling: Following the “intentional tech” model (Bruff, 2019), the session will open with a real-world narrative from colleagues who adopted HyFlex and UDL methods, sharing their open-ended experiments in each design framework. Based on these narratives, participants will contribute to a shared online document to predict the ways in which either framework might fit their needs.

Spaced Iteration: Following the “interleaved practice” model (Miller, 2016), at three key points throughout the session, we will revisit the application exercise document and build on one another’s ideas and plans, using flexible spoken, written, and video active-learning methods that incorporate tools ready to hand, such as pen and paper, mobile devices, and remote computer connections.

Learner Choice: Following both the HyFlex and UDL models, participants will select from among several options how they interact with session materials, with one another, and with the session presenter.


Takeaways: By participating in this Education Session, attendees will be able to

  • define the core elements of the HyFlex and Universal Design for Learning course-design frameworks;
  • given their college or university’s available time, staff, funds, and resources, determine the best course-design mix for increasing flexibility and student choice; and
  • create a plan for implementing the first steps toward a UDL or HyFlex across all offerings for current and upcoming offerings.


Alignment: This Education Session aligns with the OLC Accelerate theme of  “20/20 Vision” in several ways. By sharing practical applications of HyFlex and UDL principles, we will test the vision of two design models for technology-enhanced and technology-mediated education (Lakhal, Khechine, & Pascot, 2014) in order to determine the correct prescription for participants’ various scenarios. Our session also creates new frames for defining and designing online educational interactions (Stachowiak & Tobin, 2018). Further, by simplifying two complex theoretical approaches, our session focuses our vision on practical, achievable outcomes (Johnson & Lewis, 2019), based on our available resources and support structures.



Ableser, J. & Moore, C. (2018, September 10). Universal design for learning and digital accessibility: Compatible partners or a conflicted marriage? EDUCAUSE Review.

Barre, B. (2020, May 6). Can we talk about hybrid-flexible models for the fall? POD Network Open Discussion Group.!topic/discussion/xFpt....

Beatty, B. (2013). Hybrid courses with flexible participation: The HyFlex course design. In L. Kyei-Blankson & E. Ntuli (eds.), Practical Applications and Experiences in K-20 Blended Learning Environments (153–177). IGI Global.

Beatty, B. J. (2019). Hybrid-Flexible Course Design: Implementing Student-directed Hybrid Classes. (1st ed.). EdTech Books.

Binnewies S., Wang Z. (2019). Challenges of student equity and engagement in a HyFlex course. In Allan C., Campbell C., Crough J. (eds.), Blended Learning Designs in STEM Higher Education (209-230). Springer.

Bowery, R. & Houston, L. (2017, December 4). Reaching All Learners by Leveraging Universal Design for Learning in Online Courses. EDUCAUSE Review.

Bruff, D. (2019). Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

CAST. (2014). Universal design for learning in higher education—a guide. UDL on Campus.

DeSilva, E., Nemeroff, A., & Lopez, P. (2017, December 4). Igniting a universal design mindset on campus. EDUCAUSE Review.

EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. (2020, November 9). 7 Things you should know about the HyFlex course model. ELI 7 Things series.

Johnson, J. & Lewis, R. (2019). Adopting a plus one approach to course revision. Ed Tech blog. Cheney, WA: Eastern Washington University.

Kelly, K. (2020, May 7). COVID-19 planning for Fall 2020: A closer look at hybrid-flexible course design. Phil On Ed Tech blog.

Lakhal, S., Khechine, H., & Pascot, D. (2014). Academic students’ satisfaction and learning outcomes in a HyFlex course: do delivery modes matter? Paper presented at the E-Learn: World Conference on E-Learning. New Orleans, LA.

Liu, C. A. & Rodriguez, R. C. (2019). Evaluation of the impact of the HyFlex learning model. International Journal of Innovation and Learning, 25(4).

Maloney, E. J., & Kim, J. (2020, May 10). Fall scenario #13: A HyFlex model. Inside Higher Ed.

Miller, M. (2016). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Boston, MA; Harvard University Press.

Moriarty, S. (2018). Building a culture of accessibility in higher education. EDUCAUSE Review.

Stachowiak, B., & Tobin T. Reach everyone, teach everyone. Teaching in Higher Ed podcast. Episode 227.

Tobin, T. J. (2014). Increase online student retention with universal design for learning. Quarterly Review of Distance Education 15(3): 13-24.

Tobin, T. J. (2019). Universal design for learning: Three aces up our IT sleeves. EDUCAUSE Review.

Tobin, T. J. & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia UP.