There is much buzz around my university at the moment about the promise of the flipped classroom. The idea is that the lecture is not an effective method of delivering content, relative to the alternatives we now have. We can deliver content better via videos, Khan academy style, and we can then use our class time for more interactive work with students. Give them questions, have them complete assignments in class, work with them one on one, or get them into small group discussions. So content delivery becomes homework; homework becomes classwork.
There is currently so much confidence that this is a better way to teach that I have more than once heard administrators speak as though the adoption of a flipped classroom paradigm is evidence, in and of itself, of superior teaching quality. No doubt, that is exaggerated. Any pedagogical approach can be implemented badly.
But scepticism aside, many aspects of the flipped classroom are very appealing. Of course we should be using class time in ways that make the most of interactions between teacher and student, and many of us no doubt are trying to do that already. What began to excite me about flipped learning was when I experienced firsthand how powerful a series of short screencasts can be as a means of teaching content. My first exposure was teaching my daughter some mathematics, using the Khan academy. I could see how empowering it was for her to have a series of short videos that could be paused and reviewed at her own pace. I then taught myself some game theory usingGameTheory101.com, created by a PhD student in international relations. The question then became more pressing: if the sort of material I present in lectures can be presented just as well, or possibly better in this online format, then why not use class-time for more constructive, interactive encounters between students and teacher?
So since then I have been toying with changes that would begin to “flip” my own classroom. I experimented with making a few screencasts last year to accompany my lectures in political philosophy and an interdisciplinary unit, which covered topics such as economic efficiency in the context of climate change.
But as I thought further about this model, I wondered: haven’t many of us already, in effect, flipped our classrooms?
When I first drafted this post, I had recently given a lecture in a large 3rd year class called “Poverty, Ecology, and International Justice”. The lecture attendance was fairly typical for the end of semester in my Faculty. I would estimate that attendance was somewhere between 15 and 25% of the enrollment, in a class of about 250. This happens consistently – not just to me! – despite teaching evaluations that suggest the lectures are very well appreciated by students.
Like many of my colleagues, I allow the University to automatically record both the slides and audio of the lectures, which the students can then vodcast or stream online. And a large proportion of students are evidently relying on those recordings, rather than coming to my lectures. While this hurts my ego a little, I must admit that, if I were in the position of the students, I would probably do the same. Even for a lecture by the most charismatic, fascinating lecturer, I doubt I would trade the convenience of being able to view the lecture from home, at my own convenience, for the modest benefit of seeing the lecturer live.
By providing such high quality online resources, we have effectively given students the opportunity to obtain the content from lectures at home. It may not be as appealing as a set of shorter videos, but the upshot is the same. This is half of the flipped learning paradigm. The second half is to use class time for more interactive, constructive work – and that is pretty much what we do in tutorials (our small discussion classes) already. Tutors are urged to avoid lecturing to the students, and instead to lead discussions, to set small group tasks, to give advice to students on how to approach homework assignments, and so on.
(Just for the record: Trying to make lectures more interactive is something I have tried to do too. In particular, I have had good results using peer instruction techniques for several years now. But clearly this is not enough to make students feel that the lecture is a “must attend” event.)
Students do still attend tutorials. Partly this is because we penalise non-attendance at tutorials in various ways, but past experience, when we had more permissive policies on tutorial attendance, confirmed that even when a large proportion of students don’t attend lectures, the clear majority continue to attend tutorials.
So a large proportion of our students are:
- absorbing lecture content by a combination of reading and watching lecture recordings online
- attending small classes which are much more interactive than a traditional lecture.
Two different concepts are implicit in most discussions of flipped classrooms:
- A technological understanding: flipped classroom = using videos for homework. Obviously this is too shallow to be an interesting definition. While the paradigmatic examples of flipped classrooms involve particular technologies, those technologies are neither necessary nor sufficient to obtain any interesting pedagogical effect.
- A passive/active understanding. We assume that at least some learning, in a typical class, is “passive” while some is “active”. Doing homework is active; listening to a lecture is – allegedly – passive. The flipped classroom is then the idea that the active phase of learning should be done in the classroom, with the teacher present, while thepassive phase can be achieved by the student working alone.
If the second way of understanding the flipped classroom is roughly correct, then I draw two conclusions: first, by providing students with recordings of lectures, and by trying to make class time relatively interactive, we have already made substantial progress towards the flipped classroom, without explicitly setting out to do so. Second, I suspect that students strongly prefer the way we teach classes now to the way we did in the past. In which case, the flipped classroom may be coming, whether you like it or not.