Before COVID-19, colleges and universities were feeling the strain of intense demographic, financial and cultural pressures on their economic models.

Many institutions responded by launching online learning programs to enroll more adult learners who couldn’t otherwise participate on campus. However, most of these online-only programs operated alongside traditional face-to-face programs, creating separate and often competing business models that didn’t fully address the institution’s core challenges.

But now that most schools are operating almost entirely remotely due to the pandemic, there’s a real opportunity to rethink online education and instead offer “ubiquitous education” – or in other words, education that is anytime, anywhere and any way.

Shifts in consumer mindsets, increased demand for student-focused learning and advancements in digital technology have now converged, creating the right conditions for institutions to successfully offer education that is responsive to the student in whatever modality they want or need.

As COVID-19 normalizes people working and learning remotely, this focus on flexibility and student choice could be key for institutions to emerge stronger after the pandemic. A persuasive signal for this shift is best seen in the rapidly growing success of Peloton – a boutique hardware fitness company that shares many surprising parallels to higher ed.

What lessons can higher ed learn from Peloton?

Like the online-only learning programs seen in higher ed, Peloton’s online fitness programs were first designed to allow people who couldn’t physically attend classes to participate at home. Peloton saw the potential in the boutique fitness gym trend that charged a premium for classes at location-specific studios and developed a new model.

By purchasing Peloton’s in-home bike and monthly membership, subscribers have access to their high-quality trainers and are invited into their engaging fitness-focused community without stepping foot outside their homes. Peloton members, who number in the millions, have the option to participate in daily live classes (both at home and at their physical studios) or in solitary, on-demand online classes.

What makes Peloton’s model so successful, however, is not just its flexibility but also the intense focus on bringing the community and excitement of boutique gyms – including the instructors and social elements – into the home.

Embrace flexibility, community and student choice with HyFlex learning

By following a similar model to Peloton, higher ed institutions have the opportunity to leverage technology and expand upon the recent widespread adoption of online and hybrid instruction to offer a similar premium learning experience to their students.

Short for “hybrid flexible,” HyFlex learning is a variation on hybrid programs. It includes in-person, synchronous online and asynchronous online options for every course. For example, in a HyFlex course model, students can choose to sit in the classroom, join via videoconference in real time or watch the recording and complete collaborative online activities at a later time.

Notably, the goal of HyFlex learning is to make both the online and in-person experiences equal. Online is not meant to be a diminished experience but rather an alternative.

HyFlex courses are growing in popularity – for both students and schools. They offer students the chance to customize their educational experiences and tailor coursework to their individual needs and learning preferences. They also offer institutions the ability to create an environment where students can move seamlessly between in-person residential and remote learning – without disruption. For example, schools such as Arizona State University, Boston University and The University of St. Thomas have developed robust HyFlex courses that they’re starting to deploy at scale.

A few considerations for adopting a HyFlex model

It’s easy to see the appeal of this alternative delivery model – especially during a pandemic. But a successful HyFlex course hinges on helping faculty navigate the challenges of teaching both in-person and online students, while also leveraging the right digital solutions that enable collaboration. To take full advantage of the technology and focus on teaching, faculty need support – both through in-class assistants and 24/7 tech help.

Although HyFlex models require a lot of time and resources, there are obvious benefits to the institution. Schools can enroll more students in a course without the risk of overcrowding classrooms, courses and programs can be shared between universities, and students can improve their learning outcomes and satisfaction levels.

To get started offering this model, every program that is fully or partially online needs a number of key elements:

But beyond these basic online education needs, HyFlex courses do require thoughtful planning and development, robust technology and faculty training since they’re being delivered in person, synchronously online and asynchronously online.

Get the support you need to adopt a HyFlex learning model

Fortunately, institutions don’t have to implement this complex model all on their own. Collegis Education offers institutions the expertise, capabilities, technology and resources needed to design, deploy and support HyFlex models. We can help colleges and universities connect to learners anytime, anywhere and however they need – and that is the true value of higher education.

Author: James Cowie

President and Chief Executive Officer, Collegis Education, as well as Trustee Emeritus of Colby College and Life Trustee of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Education: Colby College and Stanford University