HyFlex Learning Making Strong Inroads in Universities

A blended mix of in-person and virtual/remote classes has demonstrated to give college students and faculty the flexibility that supports productivity, better use of their time, more work/study/life balance, less stress, more sleep and resting time, and yet maintaining social interaction while saving commuting money.

Not surprising, a recent study published by Educause shows that college students prefer hybrid learning. This reality is prompting colleges and universities to respond to students’ preferences in a bid to maintain and improve student enrollment as well as to enhance recruitment of quality faculty and staff. 

Both North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) implemented hybrid flexible (HyFlex) learning models through a strategic partnership with Cisco during the pandemic; they have never looked back ever since.

Leah Kraus, CIO at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and Steven Ferguson, CIO at Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG), shared their journey to embracing and solidifying digital transformation and hybrid flexible learning in their institutions in less than three years. 

Fierce Education: How has the process of building out hybrid education been like since inception?

Leah Kraus: Prior to higher education’s pivot in 2020, NCCU already had a very strong network infrastructure built on Cisco technologies in place in addition to familiarity with collaboration tools, such as WebEx (a multi-functional desktop video/audio conference call application). As a result, we were able to capitalize on that strong IT foundation in our transition to hybrid education delivery. At the beginning of the pandemic, our focus was on assisting students and faculty in using the technology to deliver the same level of learning and programming, and we needed to rethink administrative services. We knew that whatever we did needed to prioritize the sense of community that is so strong at NCCU.

Our original pivot was to deliver all courses and as much programming as possible virtually. We kept our community feeling by leveraging technology to. continue to offer students programming such as classes, yoga classes, listening sessions, and conversation sessions safely. We also spent the first year of the pandemic building out the technology to deliver coursework in a hybrid mode in preparation for a return to in-person or HyFlex learning, making sure that the technology to do so was accessible and user-friendly.

NCCU chose to embrace technology and utilize it to its fullest potential to make sure we maintained the interactive touch points with our campus community early in the pandemic. This continues to be our mindset. We’re really in a chapter of hybrid living, and what we built three years ago is still being used and expanded. We now have faculty using the classroom technology to deliver HyFlex courses, and we continue to host meetings, town halls, and other activities online. In many instances, collaboration tools have taken the place of email. We have taken the best of the pandemic ‘pivot’ and used it to create more opportunities to build community. 

Steven Ferguson: When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, TCSG — like many educational institutions across the globe — needed to quickly ensure educational continuity. We developed our eCampus platform, leveraging Cisco’s networking infrastructure, so that students across Georgia would have access to online learning regardless of location. Simply where you are born affects the opportunities you are going to have in life. We know that. But talent is not discriminatory. What eCampus does is create equity of access, overcoming the resource divide so that those in rural, often overlooked communities across Georgia, have access to the same high-demand educational courses and programs available in metro areas

What was developed as a response to a global crisis turned out to be strategically beneficial for our communities, unlocking programs that would not have been available for many students at their home technical colleges in more rural areas. eCampus allows us to aggregate the pockets of student demand across the state for a course — 10 students here, five students there — and connect them with the right instructors over WebEx by Cisco.

From the fall of 2020 to this spring 2023 semester, TCSG’s eCampus course offerings have increased from one course to more than 370 courses currently offered. Additionally, student enrollment has grown from serving seven students at three colleges to over 2,000 students across 22 colleges. And while in-person learning options have resumed in much of the United States, we have every intention of further scaling our eCampus offerings, because investing in hybrid learning is not only a good business decision but one that meets the needs of Georgia’s diverse student population. Having a remote learning component provides students with more control over when and how they learn and significantly reduces operational costs. For many in rural Georgia, access to world class instructors often based in larger metropolitan campuses via video conferencing on Webex by Cisco is the differentiator between whether or not students complete or even pursue higher education. 

Fierce Education: What have been the takeaways/learnings that you can share with us which could potentially be useful for other education technologists?  

Leah Kraus: Hybrid living is here to stay, and NCCU will continue to embrace this mindset as it drives student retention, attracts quality faculty and staff, and helps build community. I don’t really see us going backwards. Student and faculty preferences have evolved and in many ways they are helping to drive creative thinking on how to bring innovative technology into the higher education environment, even beyond straightforward teaching. Hybrid living helps NCCU deliver on our Eagle Promise. We’re all invested in creating an innovative, dynamic learning environment. 

Steven Ferguson: One clear takeaway from building out eCampus in the early days of the pandemic to now making hybrid learning a core part of our strategy is the importance of challenging limiting mindsets. It is essential that higher education models adapt to better serve non-traditional learners and connect both faculty and students where they are at. Traditional in-person educational offerings have to change to recognize that online and in-person instruction can be complementary, so that didactic learning can be done over collaboration platforms like WebEx and the in-person, hands-on components can be tailored to make the best use of students and faculty’s time on campus. TCSG prides itself on hands-on experiences as we train Georgia’s future phlebotomists, mechanics, welders,  commercial truck drivers, and hundreds of other skilled professions. But there are didactic forms of education in all of those programs, and the theory and lectures can absolutely be done over WebEx, so that when students are required to be on campus — perhaps pulling them away from their families or jobs — it is for intentional time in the lab for hands-on work. Giving students the ability to come onto campus fewer times in a semester for their practical training while doing lectures and asynchronous work from home might be what they need to complete their degree.

Fierce Education: Can you tell us about the tools and technologies that made your transition into hybrid learning possible?

Leah Kraus: Continual investment in a strong technology foundation is the key to NCCU’s success. We had prepared with an upgraded network infrastructure and a strong partnership with Cisco ahead of time. Since then, we have built upon that partnership and have expanded to include other cloud technologies. Our approach is the right tool for the right challenge, and while we can’t support all tools, we do focus on those that support our living learning environment and student success — whether that be WebEx, Zoom, 0360, or Google. WebEx was the first enterprise license tool that was made available and has continued to be a go-to for our campus community. We know the quality and security of our Cisco network infrastructure is going to support the technology needed in the classrooms today and in the future if we have the need to pivot again. We look back to our investment in our IT strategy and planning as what made this transition and our success possible.

Steven Ferguson: In my role, I’ve had the opportunity to find great partners in industry to help solve our biggest technology problems and help TCSG realize some of our biggest and most aggressive ideas. Cisco is one of these companies. The groundwork we laid with Cisco helped our transition to remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic. Cisco provides the underlying network and data center infrastructure that enables video delivery via WebEx and has allowed us to further implement a leading CRM solution, identity management software, automation, and data analytics solutions in order to make the eCampus experience as seamless as possible for students.