Tips for Planning for Flexible Learning in 2020

Rebecca Rozakis
Updated September 9 2020
young woman with laptop in flexible learning environment
Rebecca Rozakis
Updated September 9 2020

As we head into fall 2020 (spring 2020 for folks in the southern hemisphere), most schools have chosen at least an initial strategy for handling the enormous hurdles presented by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. But 2020 has taught us nothing if it has not taught us that plans need to be flexible.


It’s already clear that the situation will continue to change, rapidly, and probably for a long time to come. What will the 2020-2021 school year look like? Remote? In-person? Hybrid? Let’s take a look at what different schools around the world are planning, at what some of the options are. Along the way, we’ll talk about some strategies for schools, not just for learning but for everything that keeps a school alive—student life, admissions, alumni relations, and more. Last semester was about short-term survival. Now we’re in it for the long haul.


How to Make Flexible Classrooms Work

Few campuses will choose to start fully online and then somehow transition back to in-person during the semester. (Although many are hoping to do so in the following semester.) But for those that choose any kind of in-person activities, they will need the ability to shut down not only the entire campus on a day’s notice, but individual classes. If one pod of students becomes potentially infected, it may still be possible to keep other pods running in parallel, if only they can be separated. It may also be possible to spin live classes back up after quarantine periods. Schools with live classes will need to adjust to the idea of constantly switching between in-person and online classes for each individual group as flare-ups and scares pop up all over campus throughout the semester.


Flexibility also needs to apply to students’ needs as well as the communities’ needs. Students will have very different risk tolerances, and forcing them to disclose reasons they might be particularly vulnerable (including pre-existing conditions, caring for vulnerable family members, and more) is not only cruel but may have legal ramifications. In addition, you absolutely want students to feel that they can self-isolate at a moment’s notice without being penalized. Draconian attendance policies just increase the chance that students will either come to class sick (and risk everyone’s health) or drop out (and risk your bottom line).


That said, flexibility should not apply to safety. Masks in shared spaces should be mandatory. For people unable to wear a mask, distance learning should always be an option.

instructor pulling books from university library wearing a mask during coronavirus

Tips for Flexibility in Education in 2020

  • Create system-wide policies. For example, if you’ve declared that on Monday, half the students will be in person and half will be attending online and on Wednesdays they’ll switch, don’t leave it to individual professors to have to decide who is in which cohort. Make a blanket ruling (Last names A-M on Mondays, N-Z on Wednesdays, for an arbitrary example.) Forcing professors to individually create policies will result in a confusing patchwork across the school. Remember that most students take classes from more than one department, as well.
  • Then create a simple and transparent system for requesting exceptions. (Exceptions apply to non-community disruptive activities. “I need to be in the Wednesday in-person cohort instead of Monday” is reasonable. “I don’t like wearing a mask” is not.)
  • Give extra thought to how to handle individually disrupted semesters. If someone has a fever and has to self-isolate for two weeks, will that imperil their scholarship? The next few years will be a major headache, but if you’re too inflexible, you risk losing a lot of your student population.
  • Don’t cross your fingers that a class won’t have to go into lockdown. If a lab course has a flare-up, you won’t get much warning. Have plans in place ahead of time. Assume every class may be a repeat of last semester’s sudden changes. Students will be less patient this time around.

How to Make De-Densification Work

For on campus activities, the key will be reducing the number of people who can come into contact with each other. There are a lot of ways to do this, and a combination will probably be necessary.

Large Lectures

Large in-person lectures are obviously out. The most dangerous mode of instruction is fortunately the easiest to move online. But even here, there are a number of different ways to approach this.

  • Lectures can be pre-recorded and offered on demand.
  • Lectures can be broadcast live from the instructor’s home office.
  • Lectures can be broadcast live from an empty lecture hall.
  • Lectures can be held with a small number of students physically present and well-spaced, and recorded via lecture capture for on-demand access for the rest.
  • Lectures can be held with a small number of students physically present, while being captured via lecture capture and broadcast live to the rest of the class online.
  • Lectures can be held across multiple classrooms and once. For example, a class may be divided into three segments, each in a different room on campus. The instructor is physically present in one while simulcasting to the other two rooms. Which group gets to be physically present with the instructor rotates. A TA can be present in the other rooms to help run the class.

Classes and Seminars

Smaller classes are more difficult. Even in-person classes will need some kind of online component, to allow for self-isolating and in the event the entire class needs to be quarantined. Traditional lecture capture is unlikely to work here; a virtual classroom will be necessary.

Labs and Experiential Classes

Labs and experiential classes are the most difficult to replace.

  • Some schools are opting to skip any kind of experiential learning for the next semester, reordering schedules to make this semester purely focused on the theoretical and pushing all practicals to next semester or even next year. It’s a gamble, of course, as no one knows when “normal” will resume. And it’s highly disruptive. But it may allow schools to bypass the issue entirely.
  • Another option is to have the instructor perform all practicals as demonstrations. This can be done live (so students can ask questions) or recorded for on-demand. Students will obviously miss the hands-on element. (Unfortunate but possibly acceptable for first level chemistry labs; rather more of a problem for late stage proficiency, from surgery to welding.)
  • For classes where the practicals are less about physical skills and more about the decision making, interactive videos offer an in-between option – students can watch a demo up until a decision point. They can then choose from several options in a decision tree, and see the results of their decisions. These don’t have to be high production affairs—there’s no reason it can’t be homemade, whether that’s deliberately messing up an experiment and showing the results, verbally explaining to the camera why that decision was wrong, or even just throwing up a hand-drawn skull and crossbones. The point is to give students a chance to try making decisions, not to create a Hollywood blockbuster.


Tips for Making Remote Learning Work Better

As discussed above, every class will need a remote learning aspect at this point. It’s better to accept that from the beginning and plan for it than to cross fingers that it won’t happen. In the rush to remote learning the first time around, a lot of lessons were learned, and it’s wise to take advantage of them.


  • Have a plan. Assume every class, no matter what, will need to meet remotely at least once, with less than 24 hours’ notice. What will you do?
  • Not every student will be able to make it to every class, especially since many are no longer able to be on campus. Make as much available on-demand as you can. Your video analytics can help you figure out who is actually watching.
professor working in remote learning

Personalization and Interactivity

  • Start out with personalization. Professors can send a video email at the beginning of the semester introducing themselves before the first class. In smaller group settings, having everyone send the class a video introduction can make it easier to bond as a cohort.
  • For on-demand videos, using interactive quizzes to add questions or reflection points, where a student must answer a question to proceed, can ensure students don’t start a video and wander off.
  • Or include fully interactive branching videos that change depending on viewer choice and allow students to explore multiple scenarios or focus on the information that interests them most.
  • For live sessions, polls can serve a similar purpose—students must participate in the poll to have their attendance counted.
  • Some schools have chosen to ban putting students on camera for privacy issues. While very understandable, this substantially reduces interactivity. In this case, make extra efforts to include opportunities for students to interact with the instructor and their peers.
  • Make sure instructors hold virtual office hours. If you’re using a virtual classroom, it can even be in the same room. But give students a chance to ask questions outside of class in a structured, live format. (You know they’ll be tracking instructors down on social media in the middle of the night if they don’t have an official way to ask questions.)
  • Provide students with resources or virtual spaces to easily form study groups.

Access and Accessibility

  • Remember that many students may struggle with access to technology or internet off of campus. While it is beyond the resources of most institutions to fix what is clearly a societal problem, anything you can do to help, will help. Are loaner or rental laptops a possibility? Sign ups to use computer labs in small enough groups to be safe? Do any of your parking lots fall into a wi-fi zone—can people park their cars there to access the wifi? What about unused sports facilities—do they have wi-fi, and can you set up well-spaced folding tables and chairs and let people sign up to use them in a responsible manner? The more creative you can be, the more students will be able to participate.
  • Do not forget accessibility. Whether that’s sign language interpreters, captions, audio descriptions, transcripts, accessible players and pages, or more, do your best to keep all your students in mind. If you can’t afford to do this for every class, make extra sure that procedures for requesting accommodations on a case-by-case basis are transparent, simple, and easy to find.


  • Help your instructors support each other. Houston Community College, for example, created a Faculty Video Lounge last semester to help most experienced online instructors to help get their peers up to speed. They also staffed, with volunteers, a Faculty 911 program for 1-on-1 support in transitioning. (Watch a webinar in which they explain their process )

This year will be different from any we’ve seen before (including last semester). Let’s make it a good one anyway.