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Where has HyFlex learning come from?

Read about the development of HyFlex learning and what it means in the current learning context in this article.
© University of Southern Queensland

HyFlex is a term that has gained in popularity in recent years, particularly during the COVID pandemic.

Brian Beatty is credited with coining the term back in 2006. At that time, San Francisco State University was exploring opportunities to increase their design and facilitation of online learning experiences, and Beatty wanted a term that reflected a particular approach.

What Beatty was hoping to describe was not just an online experience but one in which the student had choice, and therefore flexibility, in the ways they studied without any compromise of learning outcomes.

“Clearly, a traditional blended learning approach was not going to meet our requirements. We decided that we needed a “bridge” to online; an approach to serving fully online students without abandoning our current classroom students.” Beatty, 2019, p.17

Learning remotely, whether online or as distance education, has been an option for many years. The now ubiquitous access to networked technologies has helped facilitate the online experience, but prior to this, students would receive documents in the post. These resources and learning experiences were replications of the on-campus experience. While that might sound like a reasonable substitute and perhaps even an equivalent experience, it has become clear that this is not the case. Regardless of the type of experience, students are choosing to study remotely, which is creating a need for greater thought to be applied to fully utilising the technology that can facilitate a truly equivalent experience.

You have come to study this short course due to your interest in HyFlex. Many of you may already work in the online environment, and if not, you most probably did during the height of the COVID pandemic. You are here as an online learner, which means you have a glimpse at what these experiences will be like. We can start this HyFlex story by looking at the strategies, theories and practical approaches that have come before, with an emphasis on the people working in the field as online technology supported learning has grown.

Wenger (1999) coined the term “communities of practice”, and this has been a significant conceptualisation of how people learn. Importantly, there was an emphasis on how adults learn in the workplace. The premise of legitimate peripheral participation reflects the type of online learning that is flexible. The learner is making choices about how and why they learn, and the learning is often done through interactions with a community. This approach is different from one where the teacher is directing what, when and how the learning will occur. Wenger’s (2020) more recent work frames these ideas within Social Learning Spaces, again recognising the varied ways that we learn outside of the on-campus teacher-centred spaces.

Presenting a paradigm shift, Garrison argued in 1985 that technology had a significant impact on distance education and the way it was delivered/received. Garrison continued to focus on exploring the dynamics between technology and learning with the seminal text for online higher education first published in 2003 with his colleague Anderson, E-Learning in the 21st Century. This is where the framework of three presences was discussed, and it has gone on to be adopted and adapted by online teachers across the globe. You may have heard of social teaching and/or cognitive presence. These all sit within the community of inquiry framework.

You may be curious about why communities have featured in these theories, and we will unpack this in one of the later weeks of the course. For now, consider whether the learning environment you work in is a community.


The first part of the term HyFlex is referring to hybrid. That means the learner experience for the student will be a blend of modes. Usually that is the on-campus (face-to-face) experience with some form of technology-enhanced learning. With the rise in the use of learning management systems in higher education, the ease with which resources can be housed and accessed has increased. But as mentioned earlier, that does not always equate to a good experience or use of the technology. The key point here is that hybrid would not exist if we did not have the technology to support it.

Bonk and Graham edited the Handbook of Blended Learning in 2006 with subsequent reprints. You will find this is a useful text to explore if you want a bit more history of hybrid, blended, and distributed e-learning. You may have noticed this text is from the same year as Garrison and Anderson. This was a time when significant uptake in online learning was happening and when teachers were trying to find ways to improve the experience. Supporting this was access to the new and exciting “Web 2.0” tools such as blogs, wikis, podcasts and early video conferencing tools such as Skype. These digital tools allowed for participants to create, not just consume.


The second part of the term is referring to flexible, and this is the real point of what HyFlex is or should be. This is what makes it more complicated than simply being hybrid or using technology. We are going to explore this aspect of HyFlex in more detail, but for now, consider whether the courses you are designing meet some or all of Beatty’s Four Principles of HyFlex:

  1. Learner Choice
  2. Equivalency
  3. Reusability
  4. Accessibility


Undoubtedly, the COVID pandemic has impacted and changed the way education is viewed. Learners already had expectations that were not being met, and enforced online learning experiences put a spotlight on what could be done to meet this expectations. The will to create a student-centred hybrid model has been driven by those who are at the centre, which is the students. Educators who embrace HyFlex learning will forge ahead as they provide relevant, flexible learning experiences, and students will vote with their virtual feet.

Beatty, B. Hybrid-flexible courses design: Implementing student-directed hybrid classes.; 2019.
Bonk, C. J., & Graham, C. R. The handbook of blended learning: Global perspectives, local designs. John Wiley & Sons; 2006.
Garrison, D. R. Three generations of technological innovations in distance education. Distance education. 1985;6(2):235-241.
Garrison, D. R. & Anderson, R. E-Learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. Routledge; 2003.
Wenger, E. Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press; 1999.
Wenger-Trayner, E., & Wenger-Trayner, B. Learning to make a difference: Value creation in social learning spaces. Cambridge University Press; 2020.
© University of Southern Queensland
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