Education at Binghamton University: Bingflex courses provide flexibility

Students in courses on an alternating in-person/online cycle will be able to take Bingflex classes

Binghamton University students in many classes will alternate between in-person and online sessions due to the necessity to reduce density in classes. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Binghamton University students in many classes will alternate between in-person and online sessions due to the necessity to reduce density in classes.
Binghamton University students in many classes will alternate between in-person and online sessions due to the necessity to reduce density in classes. Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

As the entire world has adapted to a different way of life due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so has the academic world. Binghamton University and institutions across the nation quickly moved all classes online in the spring, but, as Binghamton plans for students to return for the fall semester, students in many classes will have more choice about how they attend class.

“Our faculty did an exceptional job switching so quickly from in-person to online education this past semester,” said Donald Nieman, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. “As we prepare for the fall semester, we’re working to give our faculty the tools they need to engage our students whether they are in a socially distanced classroom setting, or participating in classes from a remote location. One of the formats we are instituting is called Bingflex, which provides students with options for attending class.”

“Students in courses on an alternating in-person/online cycle will be able to take Bingflex classes,” said James Pitarresi, vice provost for online and innovative education. “If a class is being taught on campus, it will probably be taught in Bingflex with a few exceptions for courses, such as performance-based courses or some labs, that can’t be taught online.”

Bingflex courses will combine both in-person instruction with real-time (synchronous) video-conferencing, so students can interact with the instructor and other students whether they attend the class in person or participate remotely. Students in Bingflex courses will determine which mode of instruction they will participate in for the entire semester. Some will prefer in-person; others will select synchronous online.

“The key is that it’s going to be the students’ choice of how they can best engage in the course and remain safe with COVID,” said Andrea MacArgel, director of instructional design services for the University. “This is not a new methodology. It’s been around for a while and it gives the students a choice. If they best engage online, they can attend a synchronous class. If they best engage in person, they can attend in person.”

For students attending in person, there will never be a situation where there are more students than can be acceptable under social distancing guidelines, MacArgel said.

However, students who have opted to take a Bingflex course in person can revert to synchronous online learning if they become ill.

“The whole part of Bingflex is that it is flexible. If, in the middle of the semester a student gets sick, that student can go online. Everything is flexible in that sense,” said MacArgel.

Another key for Bingflex courses to be successful lies with how they are designed. Faculty won’t have to worry about the technology, MacArgel said, because course assistants are being assigned to each Bingflex classroom or faculty member so faculty can focus on teaching. But classes will need to be designed to be engaging to students both in person and online.

There is help available.

The Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT), University Center for Training and Development (UCTD), and Information Technology Services (ITS) are working across divisions and departments to provide support for faculty as they enter the Bingflex world.

“CLT instructional designers (there are three plus MacArgel) will help faculty map out a course,” she said. “Educational Communications will provide hardware solutions, the UCTD will provide training on the software and ITS will continue to provide training in myCourses, Binghamton’s learning management system. We will be using Zoom and Panopto because they are already systems that our faculty and staff are familiar with and function well.”

There will be faculty workshops over the summer and faculty can meet with CLT staff one-on-one if they wish, MacArgel said. “And, thankfully, we have folks in the UCTD and ITS who do the tech training. We’re not tech trainers in CLT. We’re here to talk about pedagogy!

“I can’t emphasize how wonderful this worked in the spring among us. We’re not in the same positions, don’t report to the same vice president — but we worked as if we were one unit and it helped us be stronger cross divisionally. It helped us reimagine how we help the faculty.

The opportunity to work together in a way they hadn’t done before has been foundational, MacArgel said. “That’s what we’re here for — our students, our faculty and our research. This is our purpose; let’s do a good job.”

To prep for Bingflex, some classrooms already have the necessary equipment, such as cameras, and additional equipment will be purchased prior to the fall semester. It’s uncertain yet whether all of the equipment will be installed or assigned to a faculty member, or a combination of both scenarios, but that will be determined well in advance of classes starting in August.

“This is extremely beneficial in terms of keeping the continuity of their education,” she added. “In the Bingflex environment there is no priority given to the in-class student. When faculty are planning their lesson, they’re thinking of all of their students in both in-person and synchronous settings and how they’re going to engage. The quality of that engagement isn’t diminished because you choose one modality over another.”

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