6 Hybrid Teaching is Not a Limbo Nor a Multiverse

Lessons from a HyFlex experience. Humanistic ideas for a blended future

Victor Azuaje

Welcome to the fall semester of the pandemic academic year of 2020. Twenty-five students are enrolled in your class. (This is a Spanish language course.) On Mondays, you teach half of them face-to-face and half of them online. On Wednesdays, you reverse their roles. On the other days, you interact with all of them asynchronously through content and exercises in the learning management system.

Let’s assume you’re lucky. On Mondays and Wednesdays, you have a desktop and a laptop in the classroom. To teach both groups simultaneously, you open your first Zoom account on the laptop to share audio and video with the online students and log in to your second Zoom account on the desktop to join the session and share the same audio and video with the face-to-face students. All this nightmarish juggling, however, solves only half of your problems: you still have to work with your students asynchronously using the learning management system. To set up the perfect storm, add two other paradoxical disturbances. First, you’ve been asked to keep your students engaged in every session and modality―but most researchers claim that engaging students face-to-face has few similarities with engaging them online. Second, your students didn’t choose this setting: it was imposed on them because of COVID-19.

For the same unforeseen reason, you haven’t been provided with a full-fledged HyFlex classroom. There was probably none. HyFlex courses weren’t the outcome of an academic hype or an institutional project. In 2019, only a few institutions of higher education were offering HyFlex as an option for their students; in 2020, COVID-19 pushed many of them to place it at the center of their offerings. Because of this abrupt move, the term became the umbrella for any combination of online and face-to-face modalities. In some cases, HyFlex wasn’t even a modality: it was a technical shorthand for the blender of face-to-face and online settings where anxious administrators poured in students, classrooms, and instructors, following an unsteady recipe of shrinking optimized spaces, weekly apocalyptic moods, and updated CDC guidelines. And though “HyFlex” stands here for the experience I described in the beginning, it will also refer to that manifold of mixed modalities and pedagogical practices, and their intended or improvised amalgamation.

If it is unfair to privilege HyFlex over other hybrid modalities, it is also unfair to consider on equal footing hybrid instructors and face-to-face or online only instructors. The whiteboard on Zoom isn’t the whiteboard in the classroom, yet for the hybrid instructor, the two must work in tandem. But more than a divide among instructors about technology, the pandemic revealed a divide between many instructors’ assumptions and most students’ expectations about courses blending physical and virtual environments. Many suddenly appointed HyFlex instructors assumed a motivational and communicational gap between online and face-to-face instruction, envisioning a hybrid modality either as a limbo equipped with 14-inch-monitors and built-in microphones or as a multiverse, as separate worlds linked by rotations in the schedule and an unmanageable influx of students’ messages. On the other hand, most students expected engaging hybrid instructors and consistent learning experiences across modalities, imagining instructors as producers and hosts of seamless multimedia and multi-presence shows. However, if Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon weren’t successful at moving their TV personas from the studio to a room in their houses with their families as live audience, why did we expect better performances from instructors switching between a classroom in their institutions and a room in their houses with no script for engaging face-to-face and synchronous plus asynchronous online audiences simultaneously?

A Unified Approach to Face-to-Face and Online Engagement in Mixed Modalities: The Hybrid Teaching Identity

Talk show hosts had it easier in the fall of 2020: they needed to keep their charm and humor in a room without a live audience. HyFlex instructors, for their part, had two types of audiences in the same room and lost more than one tool to work with half of them. There are two facts about online teaching: you can’t rely on your charisma, and humor rarely works. Online students are a tough crowd. (In the 2020 fall semester I received less than twenty LOLs, and only one student wrote, “I actually laughed out loud and choked on my food when I read this email.”) Extremely charismatic HyFlex instructors could then expect to be effective only half of the time with half of the crowd―the face-to-face students. Online students? They are left to an unengaging fate.

Since charisma is unreliable and a limited resource, educational researchers have focused instead on teaching identities. For the face-to-face modality, Kristy Cooper Stein et. al (Cooper et al., 2016), Rebecka Black (Black, 2018), and Tina Gutierez-Schmich (Gutierez-Schmich, 2016) offer a thoughtful survey. For synchronous and asynchronous online settings, Jennifer Richardson and Janet Alsup summarize the findings. They also share the widespread belief that condemns HyFlex instructors to the limbo or to the multiverse: “the online teacher identity…[is] significantly and necessarily different from that of a teacher in a face-to-face class; the instructor’s sense of teacher self is not an extension from that in a traditional setting, but rather it is a unique creation specific to the online context” (Richardson & Alsup, 2015, p. 144). The logical fate of Hyflex instructors is sealed. If you are a face-to-face instructor, create your teaching identity. If you are an online instructor, create your unique identity. If you are a HyFlex instructor, break yourself in two—if you’re a HyFlex student, say hello to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Richardson’s and Alsup’s account takes for granted the gap between face-to-face and online teaching. But in the HyFlex context, this assumption dooms any teaching identity effort because it undermines one of its essential goals: a teaching identity, “consists of sub identities that should somehow harmonize” (Beijaard & al. qtd. in Richardson & Alsup, p. 146). Radically separating sub-identities is not part of a teaching identity project, and HyFlex instructors should not be considered an exception. They should somehow harmonize their face-to-face and online sub-identities. In doing so, however, HyFlex instructors need to find a way to incorporate Richardson’s and Alsup’s and similar contributions without assuming an insurmountable gap between face-to-face and online teaching. This task has now become more pressing since, “mixed-modality models, such as hybrid learning, will remain in force even as universities look beyond COVID-19″ (Stone, 2021).

For my hybrid courses, I started that project by adopting the dialogical perspective promoted by Paulo Freire and the autonomy-supportive teaching style that Johnmarshall Reeve presented in, “Autonomy-Supportive Teaching: What It is, How to Do It.” Freire’s reflections on dialogue laid the common ground for a unified face-to-face and online identity. Reeve provided a set of instructional behaviors compatible with Freire’s dialogical attitude, with my students’ need for engagement across modalities, and with my concern for their emotional health in the times of COVID-19 (Reeve, 2016).

Closing the Gap Between Face-to-Face and Online Engagement: Start by Creating Your Teaching Persona

“Know thyself” may not be part of the Socratic method, but Socrates made it a relevant concern of his inquiries. Many instructors consider the search for self-understanding an indispensable practice for the profession, but for all of them, like for Socrates two thousand years and more ago, the “thyself” remains elusive. Faced with the puzzle, educational researchers have put forth proposals whose specifics are as many as the differences in the philosophical or psychological perspectives put together by theorists. Some researchers choose to work with a set of features―beliefs, values, roles―or with a more restrictive idea, the teaching persona. Both approaches are exemplified by Nancy Coppola, Starr Hiltz, and Naomi Rotter in their article, “Becoming a Virtual Professor: Pedagogical Roles and ALN.” The authors are torn in two directions―e.g., the term “teaching persona” is equated with both teaching roles and teaching style―but their insights about communication highlights our need for what the Brazilian philosopher and pedagogue Paulo Freire called the dialogical attitude (Coppola et al., 2014). Before we examine how Freire can help us, let’s look at the problem that requires his counsel.

Coppola et al.’s noticed how from face-to-face to online environments instructors’ roles change, but they do not disappear or become indistinguishable: they remain the common denominator. And roles, in turn, have a common denominator: “Underlying the enactment of all roles is the critical factor of communication” (Coppola et al., 2014). Overt and underlying messages, from face-to-face to online environments, define the instructors’ roles or what Coppola et al. labeled “teaching style” or “teaching persona.” A teaching persona will then rise or fall on the quality of communication.

There is, however, a caveat. The asynchronous instructors interviewed by Coppola et al. weren’t naive about the prospects of successful communication. They listed many possibilities for falling back into silence or misunderstanding. Lack or insufficiency of gestures, eye contact, voice quality, body movement, facial expressions― twenty years ago Coppola et al. heard most nowadays complaints about online communication (Coppola et al., 2014). That’s why furnishing instructors with more or better gadgets or fixing their side effects should not be a post-pandemic pedagogical priority. A better 3D image resolution and stereo sound won’t improve a controlling teaching style; it will only amplify or relay more clearly its disengaging messages.

This is neither a Luddite rant nor a nostalgic chant for an utter face-to-face modality. Either one is based on a fantasy. Face-to-face was never the Eden of communication. Attitudes and nonverbal clues have always hampered instructors’ overall message. If online modalities have recently shown how disconnected students could be from instructors, face-to-face have long shown how alienated instructors could be from students. The hybrid environment only compounds the communication challenges already present in the two modalities.

Reading this, hybrid instructors may feel of two minds about communication. On the one hand, communication could mark the end of both the limbo and the two separate worlds, the multiverse, as metaphors for hybrid education. Through consistent messages across modalities, hybrid instructors can build a unified teaching persona. On the other hand, communication is not a magic pill: misunderstandings happen.

Let’s address first a way to end the limbo or multiverse: the teaching persona. Coppola et al.’s use of the word “persona” to conflate teaching roles and teaching styles could help us set aside a misplaced emphasis on authenticity when talking about teaching identity. As Jay Parini has observed, persona (the theatrical mask, the social façade, the self-presentation) “involves artifice”: “Authenticity is, ultimately, a construction, something invented” (Parini, 2005, p. 58). A romantic educational vision has highlighted authenticity or naturalness, but a hybrid teaching identity is not borne. It takes time and training to develop a new attitude.

Creating your HyFlex Teaching Persona to Engage Students: A Freirean Approach

But what kind of attitude do a hybrid instructor need to develop? Paulo Freire suggests a starting point. “Our method, then, was to be based on dialogue, which is a horizontal relationship between persons” (Freire, 2005, p. 40). Don’t be deceived by the simplicity of the statement and our familiarity with the word “dialogue.” First, the English translation has cleaned the definition of its original complexity: “dialogue, […] is a horizontal relationship between persons,” cleanly says the English translation; the Portuguese says it less clearly: “É uma relação horizontal de A com B” (Freire, 1967, p. 107) [It’s a horizontal relationship between A and B]. The original formula has the structuralist flair so common among Latin American theorists in the 1960s, but this isn’t due to the whims of a fashion. Using the sequence A-B, Freire sets out the contrast between dialogue (horizontal) and anti-dialogue (vertical). Dialogue involves horizontal relationships; anti-dialogue, “implica numa relação vertical de A sobre B” (Freire, 1967, p. 107) [“involves a vertical relationship of A over B”]. A common reading of Freire, a common structuralist mistake, is to consider A and B as poles in absolute opposition along the axes. We could see them instead as the extremes of a continuum. This point of view opens the space to different relationships of power (vertical) and to a new (horizontal), “critical and criticism-stimulating method [where] the two ‘poles’ of the dialogue are thus linked by love, hope, and mutual trust” (Freire, 2005, p. 40).

Second, Freire warns us that dialogue or the creation of a dialogical attitude is the most challenging task for an instructor because, “the difficulty lies […] in the creation of a new attitude—that of dialogue, so absent in our own upbringing and education” (Freire, 2005, p. 45). We usually complain about our personal history or lack of training; Freire is more specific: we experienced a deficiency, a shortage of dialogue in our upbringing and education. Given the countless conversations we’ve had with instructors, classmates, relatives, and friends through the years, the claim sounds implausible. It does not if we view dialogue from Freire’s perspective: a relationship mainly based on trust, empathy, and critical attitude (Freire, 2005, p. 40). Freire identified our deepest motives to hold anti-dialogical attitudes and gave us the strongest ethical reasons to let them go. He also gave us the foremost pedagogical reason to adopt dialogue as the foundation of our teaching identities: “dialogue presents itself as an indispensable component of the process of both learning and knowing” (Freire & Macedo, 1995, p. 379).

Regarding student engagement, however, Freire’s comments about the role of dialogue could be baffling:

In order to begin to understand the meaning of a dialogical practice, we have to put aside the simplistic understanding of dialogue as a mere technique. “[…] dialogue characterizes an epistemological relationship. Thus, in this sense, dialogue is a way of knowing and should never viewed as a mere tactic to involve students in a particular task” (Freire & Macedo, 1995, p. 379)

Freire aims here neither at a technique to engage students nor at dialogue as a practice that engages students. His target is dialogue as a “mere technique” to involve students. He marks the spot where romantic notions of empathy and trust are confused with a let-them-do, I-am-feeling-good, or I-like-my-teacher pedagogy. As epistemological relationship, a relationship about how we know and learn, dialogue could make instructors and students uncomfortable with the object of study and with each other. “I engage in dialogue—says Freire—not necessarily because I like the other person. I engage in dialogue because I recognize the social and not merely the individualistic character of the process of knowing” (Freire & Macedo, 1995, p. 379). Dialogue as a practice to engage students entails taking their perspective and acknowledging their feelings of discomfort, but a dialogical practice is not group therapy. Freire shed light on the unmistakable “difference between dialogue as a process of learning and knowing and dialogue as conversation that mechanically focuses on the individual’s lived experience” (Freire & Macedo, 1995, p. 381). With this distinction, he captures our sense that an instructor must empathize with her students in challenging conversations and, at the same time, assume her authority to engage them in educational directions. In this sense, Freire suggests that educators, “should avoid falling prey to a laissez-faire practice […]. On the contrary, a better way to proceed is to assume the authority as a teacher whose direction of education includes helping learners get involved in planning education, helping them create the critical capacity to consider and participate in the direction and dreams of education” (Freire & Macedo, 1995, p. 379).

Freire tells us here how the instructor’s authority must promote the student’s autonomy. Unfortunately, he’s been frequently misunderstood on this point. Promoting autonomy requires direction. “I do not think that there is real education without direction. […] To avoid reproducing the values of the power structure, the educator must always combat a laissez-faire pedagogy, no matter how progressive it may appear to be” (Freire & Macedo, 1995, p. 378). Part of misunderstanding lies on the English title of his most relevant work on the subject, Pedagogy of Freedom; the Portuguese title resonates better with our purpose: Pedagogia da Autonomia (Freire, 1996).

The difference between the subtitles is more telling. The publisher in English emphasized Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. In Portuguese, Freire chose Saberes Necesários à Prática Educativa: Necessary Knowledge/Wisdom for the Educational Practice. “Saber” is knowledge, know-how, and understanding, but also wisdom. “This theme of autonomy incorporates the analysis of various types of knowledge that I find to be fundamental to educational practice,” Freire says (Freire, 1998, p. 21). The pedagogy of autonomy calls for “various types of knowledge,” mainly know-how and wisdom. These types of knowledge/know-how/wisdom are fundamental to educational practice. And the pedagogy of autonomy is a practice for the instructor and the students: “I will know better and more authentically what I know the more efficaciously I build up my autonomy vis-a-vis the autonomy of others” (Freire, 1998, p. 87).

Autonomy-Supportive Teaching as a Dialogical Practice: A Johnmarshall Reeve’s Primer

But are there any precise steps—backed by research—to start creating this dialogical teaching persona? I suggest that we begin with the ideas and practices discussed by Johnmarshall Reeve in “Autonomy-Supportive Teaching: What It Is, How to Do It.” Self-determination theory (SDT) is a macrotheory—a group of six related mini-theories—of human motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 25). SDT’s main focus has been human psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy is the key area of research for Reeve. In his article, he explains the concepts of Autonomy Supportive Teaching (AST) style and how instructors can, “provide students with a classroom environment and a teacher-student relationship that can support their students’ need for autonomy” (Reeve, 2016, p. 130).

Reeve defines that autonomy as the “need to be the origin of one’s behavior. The inner endorsement of one’s thoughts (goals), feelings, and behaviors” (Reeve, 2016, p. 140). He outlines how experiments on motivating styles have shown that students who receive autonomy support from instructors benefit in significant ways. Students, “experience […] greater classroom engagement, higher-quality learning, a preference for optimal challenge, enhanced psychological and physical well-being, and higher academic achievement” (Reeve, 2016, p. 133). But not only students benefit from a more autonomy-supportive teaching (AST) environment, instructors themselves benefit when they learn or are trained to offer more support to their students’ autonomy: “they further report greater need satisfaction from teaching, greater harmonious passion for teaching, greater teaching efficacy, higher job satisfaction, greater vitality during teaching, and lesser emotional and physical exhaustion after teaching” (Reeve, 2016, p. 133). As a face-to-face, online, and HyFlex instructor, my experience in adopting the AST style reduced my emotional exhaustion during the pandemic, increased my job satisfaction, and teaching efficacy.

Let’s explore some aspects of AST’s principles and techniques. In doing so, I’ll point out how they align with Freire’s ideas about autonomy and dialogical attitude based on empathy, trust, and critical attitude. I’ll also suggest how an instructor can extend them to any HyFlex context as described in the introduction.

AST’s focal objective is to move an instructor from a controlling motivational style to an autonomy-supportive one. Reeve assumes that both styles are the “opposite ends of a single continuum” (Reeve, 2016, p. 132). Keep in mind that sudden transformations of motivational styles aren’t typical, “for most teachers, developing the skill […] occurs over time as a two-step process in which the teacher first learns how to be less controlling and then second learns how to be more autonomy supportive” (Reeve, 2016, p. 132). In other words, don’t expect to create a teaching persona in a week. You’re acquiring new skills; you’re training your heart.

Reeve uses a grid featuring six characteristics of an autonomy-supportive teacher:

1) Takes the Student’s Perspective

2) Vitalizes Inner Motivational Resources

3) Provides Explanatory Rationales

4) Uses Non-Pressuring, Informational Language

5) Acknowledges and Accepts Negative Affect

6) Displays Patience

For each characteristic, Reeve lists two or three behaviors that support student autonomy. For example, an instructor who takes the student’s perspective will a) invite, ask for, welcome, and incorporate students’ input; b) provide choices and options; and c) say “You may…”, “You might…” (Reeve, 2016, p. 135). Taking the student’s perspective falls under what Freire called empathy. Acknowledging and accepting negative affect (“Listen Carefully, Non-Defensively, with Understanding”) aligns with Freire’s “know how to listen” (Freire, 1996, p. 43).

These behaviors were effective in face-to-face environments. Under the assumption that they align with Freire’s dialogical attitude, they could equally permeate a combination of synchronous, asynchronous, and face-to-face modalities. In designing lessons, activities or assignments, the instructor will take the students’ perspective and vitalize their inner motivational resources—curiosity, relatedness, intrinsic goals. Face-to-face, emails, posts, and video messages will use non-pressuring language. Assignments in the learning management system will provide explanatory rationales first and then instructions, resources, and rubrics. Across every media and modality, students will perceive the same autonomy-supporting teaching persona.

Final Words

I have argued that the double-identity model for instructors teaching in hybrid (face-to-face and online) modalities is unsustainable: it requires instructors to summon a particular teaching identity for each modality. (I left aside the problem of how this logic, applied rigorously, multiplies our students’ identities and our pedagogical quandaries.) From that point of view, the limbo option looks very appealing. Against those two visions, I’ve suggested a unified approach: hybrid instructors must develop a consistent teaching persona independent of technical devices and resources. As a result, students won’t see a teaching style rift between face-to-face and synchronous or asynchronous online environments. To reach that goal, I’ve proposed that hybrid instructors adapt Paulo Freire’s ideas about the dialogical attitude and Johnmarshall Reeve’s strategies to develop an autonomy-supportive teaching style.

In following this path, however, we must resist the equation of the dialogical attitude and the ending of conflict and discomfort across modalities. It would be an error to mistake the demand for dialogue with the demand for common ground. Freire read the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who introduced many original reflections on the notion of dialogue. As Caryl Emerson has noticed, “read Bakhtin carefully, and you will see that nowhere does he suggest that dialogue between real people necessarily brings truth, beauty, happiness, or honesty” (Emerson, 2000, p. 152). Freire read Bakhtin carefully; he would tell us that dialogue is not a panacea, but it is the beginning of a humanistic way to a hybrid teaching identity.


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