students sit in an innovative classroom setting
Story Student Success

The Future is Flexible

Hazel Kelly

Dedicated CSU faculty and staff continue to employ flexible pedagogy and leverage technology to support more equitable learning, both online and in person.

students sit in an innovative classroom setting

​Court​esy of Cal State Long Beach


​Online learning. In-person classwork. Hybrid and multimodal courses. Wherever students are learning today, the California State University is making strides to meet them where they are. Across the CSU's 23 campuses, faculty and staff are learning new ways to embed equitable learning practices into their teaching and course design to address students' diverse learning needs.

During the summer of 2021, the CSU Chancellor's Office Academic Technology Services and Innovative Teaching & Learning Programs engaged consultant, author and long-time San Francisco State faculty lecturer Kevin Kelly, Ed.D., to develop and facilitate the Flexible Course Experience Institute for CSU faculty and staff to learn strategies for increasing flexibility in course structure, managing multiple technology platforms and workloads, and creating equivalent learning experiences for students engaging at different times and places.

“Flexible courses support teaching and learning across multiple delivery methods, and the combinations of methods differ by campus and instructor," says Dr. Kelly. Various flexible course delivery c​ombinations can now be found throughout the university.

Kelly created the Flexible Course Experience curriculum on Canvas Commons for all CSU campuses, who may adopt or adapt it for their own trainings. Kelly also helped launch the Flexible Course Delivery website, designed to support faculty and staff as they explore flexible, multimodal courses. 

​What Makes a Course Flexible?

Instructors can make courses more flexible by combining two or more delivery methods at once, such as in-person, real-time remote, or online on your own time. But the delivery method is just the starting point of flexible teaching and learning, Kelly says.

“We can consider the course delivery method as a start, and we can build on that by creating flexible ways of teaching and learning within the course elements, activities and assessment," he says.

“The course delivery method is a start, and we can build on that by creating flexible ways of teaching and learning within the course elements and activities.”
—Dr. Kevin Kelly​, San Francisco State

​Kelly explains that beyond the modality of a course there are other fundamental values to consider, including the need to create equivalent experiences for students, no matter which modality they are using. “How do we change the way we deliver content to students, so that it's just as easy for a 35-year-old parent who's got two kids and is working full time and needs to learn asynchronously—not by choice, but because that's the only way to continue on their academic path to support their social mobility goals."

It should be noted that creating and facilitating flexible courses requires real effort by faculty and campus staff alike.​

​Flexible Learning Anywhere

The beauty of flexible learning pedagogy is that many of the principles can benefit all learners, whether in a traditional face-to-face class or learning asynchronously on their own time, or somewhere in between.

As an example, Kelly points to the use of social annotation/reading tools as a flexible practice that can take place in any learning modality. Social annotation enables students and teachers to have conversations in the margins of digital texts, fostering a deeper understanding of readings while building a sense of community in the classroom—whether online or in-person.

Social reading tools allow instructors to provide prompts for the students so they understand why they are reading a particular text, what they are supposed to take away from the reading and how they might get there with a set of inquiry-based questions, he says.

“It's providing structure around activities that are pretty status quo and extending them by making them collaborative instead of individual," Kelly says.  

Collaboration and building community are key facets of flexible course pedagogy. In fact, Kelly says one of the top questions instructors have is how to create opportunities for students to connect with students who may be in a different place or a different time—or both.

“You have to create reasons for students to make these connections," he says. “If you're going to have small group activities, make sure that you're allowing for the fact that some students are parents or fully employed and aren't going to be able to participate in synchronous activity, so there should be an asynchronous pathway for students to contribute."

​Preparing Flexible Learners

Can we prepare students to be better online/flexible learners? Kelly says we should be supporting students to become better learners—period—regardless of the modality.

Kelly teaches a course at SF State called “How to Learn with Your Mobile Device," which helps students use technology to enable metacognitive strategies—such as using an app to master the Pomodoro Technique.

“When we are teaching in flexible methods, we need to prepare students by letting them know what to expect, how to be successful and then supporting them.”
—Dr. Kevin Kelly, San Francisco State

​To set students up for success, Kelly recommends that instructors are upfront about the modalities they'll be using, and then give students strategies that will help them be successful. “When we are teaching in flexible methods, we need to prepare students by letting them know what to expect, how to be successful and then supporting them."

CSU Campuses Flex

Many CSU campuses are also creating their own campus-specific professional development programming to expand flexible course options. In 2021, Chico State launched a pilot program called ChicoFlex, in which faculty taught students in person (roomers) and students online (Zoomers) at the same time. ChicoFlex classes are offered in special classrooms configured with cameras that follow the instructor around the room, microphones for Zoomers to hear voices in the classroom and speakers so roomers can hear Zoomers when they speak. ChicoFlex instructors are encouraged to attend GoFlex, a five-day professional development session that provides hands-on practice teaching in a specially equipped classroom to both in-person and online participants.

Several Chico State instructors have shared their experiences after attending GoFlex and posted videos with their takeaways. Katie Mercurio, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Chico State College of Business, shared her reflections in an August 2021 video: “The value of GoFlex is that it forces you to think more deeply about achieving learning objectives—not only for the people who are in room, but also for the people who are attending on Zoom. I need to create an equitable learning environment and I need to create equitable assignments for the students."

“It forces you to think more deeply about achieving learning objectives—not only for the people who are in room, but also for the people who are attending on Zoom.”
—Dr. Kate Mercurio, Chico State

​“I feel incredibly fortunate that I have this opportunity to use the flex technology because I truly believe this is going to become the dominant teaching modality of the classroom as we move into the future," Mercurio said.

“This new flexibility that we're all evolving into is going to allow me to better serve my students," said Chico State lecturer Adrienne Edwards in her GoFlex learning recap video. “It will offer them greater flexibility, more learning options, modes of instruction, and skills that can carry into the future, not just in the field of teaching, but also for skills that the students are going to take away from college as well."

With a focus on student success, more flexible course options provide new learning pathways for students who have competing obligations like going to work or caring for children. The CSU remains committed to providing more equitable access to high-quality education for all students.


Learn more about Flexible Course Delivery at the CSU.


​Opening the Door for Innovation

During the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, faculty and staff across the CSU heroically converted more than 70,000 course sections over a two-week period. “This really opened the door for future innovation," says Emily Magruder, Ph.D., director of CSU Innovative Teaching & Learning Programs. “We now have a deeper understanding of what can be accomplished when flexible courses are thoughtfully designed ahead of time, and a broader understanding of learning design for all modalities."​