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Considerations of Instructional Modes for Fall 2021

The pandemic has disrupted teaching and learning for more than a year. Despite best efforts to plan, it is possible those disruptions will continue into Fall 2021. As colleges begin to transition back to in-person instruction, the boundaries between “in-person” and “online” may blur at times. 

This document was crafted by the Carnegie Educational Technology Fellows to help CUNY Graduate Center faculty prepare for their Fall 2021 classes. 

How this document is organized:

We discuss four instructional modalities that are expected at the Graduate Center in Fall 2021: 

  1. In-personclass meets on campus for regularly scheduled meetings.
  2. In-person with some remote participationclass meets in-person but some students participate remotely. Also known as blended synchronous or HyFlex.
  3. Hybridclass meets at least five times in person and meets online for other sessions
  4. Fully onlineall class sessions and activities are remote.

For each modality, we have identified some overarching considerations to help faculty plan their courses. These are grouped into the following five categories:

  • Technology – any aspect of the classroom or online environment including physical space, online platforms, whiteboards, hardware, and software.
  • Accessibility – considerations around accessibility related to inclusivity, how students access class materials, and how to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities to learn. 
  • Pedagogy – issues related to lesson planning, learning goals, in-class dynamics, and grading. 
  • Time-Management – the potential demands on time for both instructors and students.
  • Discipline-Specific Considerations – considerations on how instructional modes may impact the pedagogical needs of different disciplines, such as access to a lab or on-site materials.

We encourage all faculty to prioritize the following, regardless of the instructional mode of their classes: 

  • Ensure that in-person spaces can be safely inhabited. Regardless of approach, managing the safety of shared indoor spaces is an added instructional responsibility. Be prepared to maintain safe distances between students, as well as to facilitate discussions about mask-wearing. Stay updated on current Graduate Center and CUNY policies. 
  • Continue practicing flexibility and empathy in your classrooms. Despite the availability of vaccines and the gradual re-opening of spaces and activities in the US, billions across the globe remain unsafe from COVID-19 and are still traumatized by the pandemic. Approximately one quarter of all Graduate Center students are international students, with many from the Global South where COVID-19 infections are on the rise. Do not presume the pandemic is behind us this fall. 
  • Have a contingency plan. It is possible that the return to in-person instruction will be interrupted at some point in the next year, and faculty should anticipate and prepare for the possible switch back to emergency remote instruction, or for some forced blending of modes during the semester. 

You can keep up to date with the information provided by the Graduate Center in the reactivation plan and biweekly newsletter.

The Carnegie Educational Technology Fellows can assist you as you plan your fall classes. Our office hours and consultations will resume on August 16th, 2021.

On-Campus and In-Person

Returning to in-person teaching from emergency remote instruction will be challenging. Along with maintaining health and safety guidelines, faculty should consider adapting their pedagogy for a transition to a face-to-face classroom amidst a continuing pandemic and varying student needs. Some international students may be delayed in arriving to the US or in securing vaccination in time to attend the first few class sessions. Students who teach at CUNY may be managing chaotic contexts on their teaching campuses, or face delays getting to and entering the Graduate Center. Other students may unexpectedly be unable to attend one or more sessions—and, in fact, if students are feeling unwell, they should be strongly discouraged from attending in person.

Even as you prepare for an on-campus in-person course, be aware that conditions may compel you to integrate elements of the blended-synchronous guidance offered later on in this document. 

Other steps you might take to ensure equitable access include:  

  • Documentation of Class Activities 

You may use the CUNY Academic Commons, Blackboard, DropBox, or Google Suite to document class activities. These include:

  • sharing recordings of lectures/discussions (with participant consent)
  • uploading notes and fieldnotes based on discussions (google doc; group note-taking)
  • posting asynchronous assignments, such as written reflections and allowing for shared annotation of readings via programs such as Hypothes.is and Manifold. 
  • In addition, you may choose to distribute materials to be used in class prior to the start of the meeting.

Since not all GC instruction occurs on the physical GC campus, in-person classes may be subject to additional access policies (such as those of senior campuses, the Advanced Science Research Center, the New York Botanical Garden, etc.). It is important for faculty to know these policies and keep students abreast of any changes. Moreover, consider whether you or your students will be teaching or learning on other campuses or outside of CUNY, and how that might impact health protocols.

Technology Considerations

  • Nearly all classrooms at the GC remain equipped with the same technologies that were in place before the pandemic. If you intend to facilitate remote connectivity in your classroom, consider requesting assistance from IT Services to make sure your needs are met.
  • You should remain up to date and be prepared to enforce all CUNY and governmental mandates for ensuring that spaces are safely inhabited. These include social distancing, mask-wearing, and any cleaning protocols for shared equipment. Graduate Center-specific information can be found here.

Accessibility Considerations

  • If a required course is scheduled as in-person, students who cannot or wish to not physically return to campus may reach out to request accommodation.
  • Physical access to buildings may be limited or difficult due to heavy reliance on elevators and entrance procedures. Be aware that students may not have the ability to control their arrival time. 
  • Consider sharing presentation slides in advance, explicitly reducing student anxiety about “tardiness,” and other steps to help students who may want to be present but do not feel like full members of the class. 
  • Consider how mask-wearing may impact clarity of communication, particularly for students who have hearing loss, and take steps to ensure that all students have the capacity to communicate fully. 

Instructional Considerations

A return to face-to-face instruction does not necessarily mean a return to normalcy in terms of student capacity for managing and balancing workload. 

  • Consider reevaluating your expectations for your courses and prepare to be flexible.
  • International students with families in places with higher infection and death and lower vaccination rates may require additional support. 
  • First and second-year students especially may need some time to adjust to in-person instruction at the GC. Consider introducing additional check-in points and supports throughout the semester for these students especially.
  • Consider including the link to the GC’s Wellness Center on your syllabus and in your course Commons/Blackboard page.

Discipline-Specific Considerations

  • What policies will be in place for ensuring safe access to instruments, devices, and other class materials? 
  • Assuming social distancing is still in effect, how will you balance safety concerns with the need for access to specialized equipment? 

Time Management Considerations

  • Since the majority of instruction at the GC was in-person prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, this instructional mode may have the smallest impact on time management in terms of preparation, but could require added time to access campus facilities, move through the building to the classroom, and establish accommodation for students whose attendance is impacted by unforeseen challenges. 
  • We encourage all faculty to have a contingency plan anticipating a sudden need to close campuses and return to fully online instruction.

Resources (links)

Carnegie Educational Technology Fellows

The Teaching and Learning Center

Trauma-Informed Teaching during Covid-19

More on Trauma Informed Teaching

In-Person with Some Remote Participation (aka blended synchronous)

The blended synchronous approach assumes an in-person class with some students participating remotely. This mode is distinct from a “hyflex” model, which allows students and faculty to move seamlessly across face-to-face, remote synchronous, and asynchronous modes. A blended synchronous approach presents unique technological and pedagogical challenges that are important for faculty to consider before the start of the semester.  

Technology Considerations

  • Quality of internet speed: this applies to both your internet and that of your students (adding further complications for international students, for example). If your in-person students are also joining via Zoom (so that all students can see each other), the WiFi signal in the classroom has to be strong enough to support multiple devices on the same network.
  • Audio quality: Audio quality is crucial — faculty and students should be able to hear each other clearly. You may choose to invest in an external microphone to improve the sound quality of your voice, especially if you tend to move around the classroom. If you don’t, you may be limited to staying at a close range to your computer’s microphone throughout the class.
  • Audio/visual materials: if you use a slide deck, you can share via the “share screen” option from the video conferencing platform you are using. Doing so will unfortunately limit what students can see from your camera. Another option is to distribute all materials prior to class and to try to allow remote participants to see a wider view of the classroom through the placement of your laptop.  
  • Remote participation: Take care to ensure that students joining remotely can equally participate in class and contribute to discussions. Check settings to make sure that they will be able to project their faces or profile pictures for in-class students to see, as well as share sounds, their screens, or other media. 

Accessibility Considerations

Students joining class remotely may be at a disadvantage as they will be reliant entirely upon the available audio and video quality and do not have equal access to the range of communication cues that are common in an in-person classroom space. They may have difficulty hearing what is happening in the room, intervening in discussions, or may grow wary of asking for assistance. 

Here are some suggestions for fostering an inclusive blended synchronous classroom:

  • Ask for a volunteer or assign a student the role of monitoring the Zoom chat and signaling to the in-class attendees when a remote participant wishes to engage.
  • Have IT’s contact information handy at all times to help with technical problems such as WiFi connectivity issues or software/hardware issues with students’ computers at home.
  • Do a trial run before the first day of class to troubleshoot how students in the online classroom will be able to hear/see the professor and their classmates.
  • Consider having all in-person students bring their computers to class and join the virtual classroom.  

Instructional Considerations

A blended-synchronous approach will require that instructors, once again, rethink the ways class content is discussed while simultaneously engaging two different instructional modalities. 

    • Prepare content to be engaged in two modalities at once: delivering content for both in-person and online synchronous modalities at the same time is different from teaching exclusively in either modality. For example, every class activity should be designed in ways that can equally engage those in-person and those joining online. Any in-class presentation will involve extra efforts to ensure that remote participants can also see and hear what is taking place and ask questions. 
    • Establish expectations for how the class will run: Online students should understand how they can signal to participate—whether raising a virtual hand, writing in the chat, turning on their microphones, etc. You may want to set up a rotating moderator (or two) among the students each meeting; moderators can signal that new questions or comments are in the chat and ensure that requests to participate aren’t missed. For further recommendations about how you could organize sessions for student engagement and course equity, check out our synchronous session accessibility recommendations.
    • Set up different opportunities for participation: Students working online could be encouraged to engage by a few set modes of participation, including moderation, note-taking, sharing their screens, or utilizing screen annotation functions on a platform like Zoom. Asynchronous communications such as message board posts can help bring all students together into a discussion—and inviting recorded audio or video for posts could humanize the experience further. 
  • Avoid merely broadcasting what’s happening in the classroom: “Live-streaming” your in-person lecture without explicit opportunities for remote participation can alienate online students and will not foster an inclusive learning experience.

Discipline-Specific Considerations

  • Discussion-based classrooms: the complexities of ensuring a level field for student participation between those in-person and those joining remotely make blended synchronous an instructional mode particularly challenging for discussion-based classes.
  • Non-discussion based classrooms: make sure that everyone has equal access to the content delivered in the in-person class, such as that students joining remotely can ask questions and have them answered. 
  • Classes with audiovisual components: involve additional considerations regarding the quality of engagement that remote students may have, especially for activities such as in-class demonstrations or analysis of audiovisual media. Links or recordings of the audiovisual class component should be provided to those unable to attend in person. 
  • Classes that rely on whiteboards: will require additional efforts to ensure that students attending remotely can see and fully engage with what is being presented on the board. This means for example making sure that the camera through which students access the classroom is adequately positioned to include the whiteboard in the frame. Another strategy can be to take pictures of what was written and make it available online.

Time Management Considerations 

Incorporating a blended-synchronous approach will be very demanding for instructors. Some things to consider in this regard are:

  • Time for planning lessons that effectively incorporate learners who are present and those who are remote. This may require some adjustment for rhythm and pacing in class meetings, as these are factors that differentiate the experiences of remote and in-person students. For example, remote students may require pauses, recognition, and patience when they engage outside of the more predictable rhythm of the in-person class. 
  • Time for designing activities and assignments that can be accessed and achieved in equitable ways by those attending in-person and those joining remotely.
  • Time for pre-session troubleshooting, which should be a crucial part of the day-to-day management of the class. Instructors should attend class with ample time to deal with any issues of connectivity/audio/visuals before the class begins. This may require time to contact students who may be having individual problems or need to work with IT staff. 
  • Time for making class contents available online, which could be a recording—with consent—of the class itself, links or accessible files to class or related media, or things written on the whiteboard during class. Instructors can also rotate responsibility among students for monitoring Zoom and use collaborative note-taking documents.


In this model, the class meets both online (synchronously and/or asynchronously) and face-to-face, with a pre-established number of in-person sessions. This is distinct from “blended synchronous” because all class participants meet in the same modality at the same time, whether face-to-face or online. The schedule for the in-person meetings is set from the start of the semester (e.g., the first Thursday of every month). At CUNY, courses in this mode are expected to meet face-to-face for at least one-third of class sessions throughout the semester (meaning at least 5 times at the Graduate Center).

Technology Considerations

Instructors should consider both online and in-person technologies that will aid instructional goals, while connecting online and face-to-face sessions.

  • Prepare for flexibility: Given ongoing disruptions, students may not be able to attend some pre-scheduled face-to-face meetings. Faculty can build flexibility into in-person meetings by distributing session plans, assigning note takers, recording the meeting (with consent), and enabling live transcripts on Zoom. Check out GC Online’s tips for video conferencing best practices, and this piece from Baruch College’s Active Learning project on collaborative note taking formats.
  • Intentionally connect online and face-to-face sessions: It is important that students and instructors are prepared for the changes of modality beforehand and the goals of online or face-to-face meetings are clear for all. Many faculty use the CUNY Academic Commons to help students visualize the course as a whole and to understand how different sessions fit into the broader instructional goals of the semester. 
  • Use collaborative learning technologies: Seek and select technologies to use in your course that can facilitate connections between students and across different moments in the class.   
  • Google Docs: Collaborative note-taking, low-stakes assignments, etc.  
  • CUNY Academic Commons Group Forums or Blackboard Discussion Boards: prepare students for in-person sessions through reflection prompts and responding to classmates’ posts. 
  • Slack or Discord: private communication platforms that can help you bring your class messaging into one place. Students and faculty can share messages and files either in public or private channels. 

Accessibility Considerations

Hybrid courses, because they mix modes, can offer particular challenges to students who may have difficulty switching from one modality to another. Faculty should be aware that students may need ample time to make arrangements to arrive in-person if they are able to do so. Faculty should also be clear about policies regarding missed live sessions. Faculty should also take extra care to ensure that the modes of interaction are clear and regularized for students. 

See this guide from colleagues at Baruch College to think through how to make sure your hybrid course is fully accessible.   

Instructional Considerations

Faculty may want to focus in-person meetings on activities that are difficult to do online. Examples of this may be facilitating access to on-site material collections, instruments, labs, collaborative research projects, etc. Instructors should prepare students well ahead of time for what will be expected of them during in-person meetings in order to ensure the best use of limited time in a shared physical space. 

Faculty will have to decide whether the online learning will be synchronous or asynchronous. 

  • The synchronous option permits immediate feedback and interaction between faculty and students. This model can be the best option for discussion-based classes. While this model enables faculty to better keep track of students’ academic progress, professors should consider that some students might not have the most adequate learning environment at home.
  • The asynchronous option allows students to learn on their own time and schedule. While real-time interaction is compromised with this model, it permits more flexibility. See this page for additional guidance.  

Disciplinary-Specific Considerations

Certain disciplines and courses will have more urgent reasons than others for needing in-person sessions. Carefully structuring and scaffolding in-person classes to fit into instructional goals and best utilizing the materials and tools available only in-person can ensure that online and in-person sessions are fully integrated and make the best use of class time.     

Time Management Considerations

The hybrid modality may require a considerable amount of planning, both before and during the semester. Instructors should prepare students in advance for the different objectives and expectations for in-person and online learning spaces. Instructors should also be aware of the obstacles that may arise for students who are juggling other obligations and risks before and after the in-person session, making in-person meetings more time-consuming than online. Consider using Slack or Discord as a central place to communicate with students. Collaborative note-taking and recording in-person meetings may help students stay abreast with changes in modalities, while also delegating some of the time-consuming tasks to students.  

Fully Online

The same opportunities and limitations that have persisted since March 2020 will be in place for fully online courses. Many resources now exist to support remote learning, including our GC Online Quick Guides.

Technology Considerations

Zoom and other virtual meeting software have several features that can enhance student participation, such as breakout groups, polling, and virtual whiteboards. Additionally, faculty can incorporate asynchronous teaching resources in their courses, such as the CUNY Academic Commons and Manifold.

For classes that require specific space or instrumental considerations, the online environment may pose difficulties. If you intend for your students to use specialized equipment, aim to ensure safe access to instruments, devices, and tech and prioritize materials that don’t require students to pay out-of-pocket—or offer alternatives to doing so.

Accessibility Considerations

Online classes can aid instructors in making their classes more accessible if the minimum requirements for technology are met (check out some of our tech and pedagogy recommendations for accessible synchronous teaching). It’s important to note that CUNY students often use shared devices, or access class materials on their smartphones. Faculty should not assume that all students have personal computers, or that the devices they do have are equipped with microphones, cameras, or the latest operating systems. Some Zoom features are not available for older operating systems (such as virtual or blurred backgrounds).

Instructional Considerations

Given the context of the ongoing pandemic, reading-intensive coursework can lead to student burnout and cause them to fall behind. One of the most important lessons for syllabus design is “less is more” in deciding how much to cover in any one class meeting and the overall course. It can be helpful to have some catch-up weeks designed into the semester’s schedule.

Discipline-Specific Considerations

Faculty should consider how disciplinary knowledge previously gained through in-person experiences in spaces such as labs may be approximated in an online environment through virtual simulators and other technologies. Faculty should note that online students may not be in New York City, making library access difficult.

Time Management Considerations

Fully online courses run best when everyone knows what to expect from a schedule of meetings, asynchronous engagement, and deadlines. Your syllabus is an ideal space for articulating a meeting schedule, as well as expectations as to how much time students will need to invest to complete course tasks like participating in a written or oral discussion, submitting paper drafts, and responding to course reading in other forms.