Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Handfield: Reflections on the Flipped Classroom

A guest post from Toby Handfield, Monash University:

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:
  1. absorbing lecture content by a combination of reading and watching lecture recordings online
  2. attending small classes which are much more interactive than a traditional lecture.
This prompted me to wonder: does this mean our classrooms have already flipped? What exactly is a flipped classroom, anyway?

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.
(I am wary of putting too much weight on the active/passive distinction that I’ve drawn here: surely reading or listening can be done in a more or less active way. Simply stipulating that listening is passive is overly simple, but hopefully a reasonable generalisation.)

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.


  1. I'm in general agreement with this post but I think a lot of philosophy teaching was "flipped" in your second sense long before it became routine for universities to videotape faculty lectures and post those videos and slide shows online. At least at smaller colleges with classes limited to 30 students or so, the standard model has long been for students to read prior to class, so that class time could be spent analyzing, evaluating, applying, critiquing -- in other words "philosophizing" with and about -- the material. The professor's job in that setting is to mentor students as they practice philosophical skills during live discussion, not to deliver content to them.

    In saying this I don't mean to deny the added value of today's technologies. Many students enter college with limited reading skills, so things like short videos and automated reading guides are great for helping students work through difficult passages on their own. Harnessing new technologies to make it more likely that more students arrive in the classroom with at least a basic grasp of key concepts and arguments makes it possible to do more advanced philosophical work during class time.

    Still, this does make me wonder if the "active/passive" distinction really captures the value of "flipped" learning (or if flipped learning is really all that new). After all, what one student can absorb passively from a reading takes another student quite a bit of hard work to grasp. And in the classroom discussion, some students passively observe the discussion while others are active participants. In my experience, neither student type correlates in any obvious way with final grades. Some of the "passive" discussion watchers are clearly actively following and hence really learning the philosophical skills being exemplified in the discussion; and some of the most "active" participants may not be really mastering philosophical skills despite their willingness to try out ideas in class (alternatively, perhaps they lack the content knowledge that they were supposed to be getting from the reading, and hence don't have enough to reason with when asked to respond fully to a prompt on their own).

    I agree that "flipped" learning is coming, but I think that's because it gives us the opportunity to provide more help to students wherever and whenever they need it. It also means that anyone who thought the job of professors was just to deliver content will find it more and more challenging to justify that view. Some students can actively follow and hence learn from the kinds of intellectual moves that are made by the professor at the front of the room. But lots of students do not absorb content or skills delivered in any passive format (be it a book, lecture or slide show). Hence the real challenge of teaching is actively engaging students whether they are inside our classroom or out of it.

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    I think we're in broad agreement. I particularly like the reason you articulated for being suspicious of the active/passive distinction.

    Regarding how new flipping is (in the sense of making class time active, not passive): no doubt you're right. Teaching classes via lectures of 100+ is the relatively new thing, and flipping is -- in part -- an attempt to regain some of the advantages of smaller classes.

    I take it that your main suggestion is that the value of flipped learning (the technological side of it in particular) is that it broadens the range of ways we can engage with students. And by doing that, we broaden the demographic of students who get value out of our teaching. That sounds about right to me too.

  3. Hi Toby! I'm late to the discussion but I only just found this post (and the time over summer to look at it). Great points. Some quick thoughts:

    - I'm not sure how many students would prefer to watch videos at home, especially of standard lectures (not fancy Khan Academy vids), and especially lectures that involve heavy amounts of peer instruction, which students can't easily participate in at home. I for one would hate having to watch lectures. I absolutely love philosophy but I can hardly sit through 30 minutes to watch a lecture. Mostly it's because I'm alone and can access Facebook or start working on a paper if I get an idea. When I'm committed to being somewhere in person and it's "live," however, I can sit through multiple days of lectures at conferences! So, even if students prefer to be lazy, that might not be best for them. It's certainly not for me.

    - I don't think many universities in the States record lectures like they do at Monash. Part of that is different culture while part of it is cost. Most universities in the States, from what I can tell, don't have this technology, let alone use it in philosophy.

    - The value of flipped classrooms, I think, depends greatly on the quality and flexibility of the videos. There are bound to be excellent videos for mathematics given the higher demand for learning it. They are also largely flexible, given that the "canon" in math is pretty well set and comes in discrete topics (e.g. adding fractions, quadratic equations).

    I'm not sure this works as well for philosophy, which is in less demand and often does not divide up easily or have a set canon. For example, in Bioethics, I like to teach a feminist take on commercial surrogacy by Sara Ann Ketchum. I doubt I'd be able to find or make a high quality video for it. Another example: I recently started using Laurie Paul's "What You Can't Expect When You're Expecting," which only recently came out. And I might decide to drop it later. Philosophy courses seem to change a lot and be tied to very specific articles or arguments.

  4. Thank you for this piece on the flipped classroom Toby; it clarified a lot of things about it for me. I had heard the buzzword but never got around to looking into it in more detail, so this was helpful.

    I totally agree with your point that the technological side of the idea is not really the essential thing; I'm not sure the active/passive distinction gets to the heart of it either. Another way of looking at it might be simply in terms of efficiency. Like many people, I put a lot of time and effort into my lectures; I think a lot about what I want to say and how to best explain the ideas. But things don't always go according to plan in the live lecture: you run out of time, or fumble over one part or forget what you wanted to say about something; maybe you spend too long dealing with a student question or going off on a digression. So I find the idea of making a definitive recording of a lecture and letting students look at it in their own time quite appealing.

    That would leave more time available for tutorial, which seems to me simply a better and more efficient use of a teacher and student's time, since it can be more focused and directed toward the specific problems that students are having with the material.

    Regarding ordinary lecture recordings already playing this role, like Josh May, I'm not convinced. Here is an anecdote. Last year, when I was teaching critical thinking I too was very disappointed with lecture attendance. It dropped off quite visibly from about the middle of semester, despite the fact that I was using peer instruction to try to make the lectures more interactive. Like you, I thought to myself; "Well OK, the students must be listening to the recordings instead: fair enough." But then I discovered you can track the number of students who are listening to the recordings. When I did this, imagine my horror to discover that hardly anyone was listening to the recordings either! Maybe three or four students on average were listening to each one, often none at all.

    Here is my hypothesis: students skip lectures for all sorts of different reasons -- not finding them useful or engaging might not even be the most common reason. Whatever the reason, the student thinks: "I *should* go to the lecture and I usually get something out of it when I do, but I'm too busy [or whatever it is] today. But it's OK because I can listen to the recording and download the slides”. But then what happens is that they never find time or the motivation to actually do that.

    What are students doing instead then? Perhaps just looking at the slides and not bothering with the recording. Or just reading from the study guide. Or just relying on what happens in tutorials. But this is speculation. I would love to do a proper survey one day about lectures and ask students why they skip them and how (if at all) they try to make up for the missed content.

    As with any pedagogical innovation there are going to be pros and cons. I can think of many pros for the 'flipped classroom' idea and of course it is always easy to think of difficulties. I wonder whether it is ambitious to expect students to do *more* homework. As we all know, it is hard enough just to get them to do some reading before a tutorial. With this approach, we expect them to do the reading *and* listen to lecture recordings before attending class. My guess is that it would be successful only if the lecture recordings were short and of very high audio and visual quality so that watching and listening was a pleasant and not too time-consuming experience.


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