Thursday, May 5, 2016

Making Sense of the Flipped Classroom

If you’ve been following education news the past few months, you may have heard or read about the flipped classroom. In the flipped classroom, students watch content presentations outside of class (via online modules, audio, and video), while ‘homework’ and other activities are done in class with guidance from the teacher. This structure is in contrast to the traditional model where teachers present information in the classroom and then assign homework for students to complete on their own, at home. I’ve just finished reading a number of articles about the flipped classroom and made some intriguing discoveries.

What pulled me into this topic initially was a blog entry from Tina Rosenburg in the New York Times (Turning Education Upside Down). That, in turn, led me to an article by Justin Reich, an education researcher at Harvard University, who was quoted in the New York Times piece. Reich blogs at Education Week and wrote an informative response to Tina Rosenburg’s post (Flipping the New York Times

What kinds of changes happen in the flipped classroom? How does the educational experience change, both for instructors and students? The instructor takes on a whole new role in the flipped classroom. In class, there is much less emphasis on the instructor as the expert, conveying information to students via lecture and direct instruction. Instead, instructors become more of a facilitator, guiding individual and group assignments, and providing individualized attention to students. The instructor still has a role in providing content and teaching concepts and skills, but that work is focused on creating the online or video materials that students watch outside of class. Instructors might simply identify presentations that are already available online. Or they could create their own presentations and online content. Consider the amount of time, energy and dedication that’s required for an instructor to make such a shift. 

The terrain of the flipped classroom is different for students, too. The major shift they have to make is in working with the online content. First, they must be able to access the online content, via computer, tablet, or smartphone. That means having their own device and high speed connection, or a place to go that will provide that for them (e.g., a library or computer lab). This is a potential limitation for some students. Then once they have access to the material, they need to figure out how to make that experience meaningful for them. Just as students have to learn to read for information, they also need to learn how to watch or listen for information in an audio or video clip. This may take some practice and some coaching on strategies that could help them in this task. Once they are able to navigate this new territory, a major benefit is that they can watch video presentations multiple times as part of the process of learning and mastering content—something that can’t happen in the traditional classroom. 

In terms of results, the jury is still out on the flipped classroom. And there are questions about how we even measure the success of this new approach. Since it has been emerging only in the last few years, there are no longitudinal studies giving an indication about the long-term benefits to students. Most of the evidence we have currently is anecdotal, and focuses on failure rates and grades in particular classes. Practitioners indicate that it’s students at the bottom of the class who stand to benefit the most. In the flipped classroom, students work on their assignments in class, with help from classmates and a lot of guidance from the instructor. With that kind of support, students have a higher success rate than in a traditional classroom. Still, teachers who are experimenting with a flipped classroom approach report this doesn’t necessarily translate into better grades for all students. 

What about the quality of instruction? The real promise of the flipped classroom approach seems to be in the time that is freed up in the classroom. This shift is giving teachers the opportunity to explore new teaching strategies to help students gain mastery of the content and enrich learning. From my quick read of the topic, here are a few of the in-class activities that were being used by flipped classroom teachers: 

  • students work on written assignments or problem sets (individually or as group)
  • instructor circulates to help students as they work on their assignments
  • time for questions and facilitated discussion
  • active learning activities 
  • group projects and presentations
  • quick assessments (quizzes, worksheets) with immediate feedback from the teacher

What’s interesting about that list is that they are all strategies that many instructors in traditional classrooms already use to improve instruction and learning. So the flipped classroom is no silver bullet or guarantee of instructional quality. Imagine a flipped classroom where the students still learn primarily from direct instruction via video presentations, and then come in to class and just do homework assignments at their desks all class period. (And what if, in addition, the videos they are watching are boring or just poor quality?) This is an extreme example, but it serves to highlight the issue. As with any teaching strategy, it’s more about the insights and skills the instructor brings to the task, than anything inherent in the flipped classroom approach. 

Nonetheless, the flipped classroom seems to provide a strong impetus for rethinking what happens in the classroom, and how we can help students learn. My own personal interest in this topic, as a curriculum designer, is its application to adult professional and extension education. All the articles I read were about the flipped classroom for K-12 instruction. But the strategy is just as relevant to adult learning. I’m currently involved in a project at Oregon State University where we’re doing just that: flipping the traditional extension classroom. I’ve been working with the OSU Small Farms Program to completely redesign their course for beginning farmers and ranchers. What has always been delivered in a traditional workshop format (in-class presentations plus field trips) is now being offered as a hybrid course. The direct instruction component is provided in a series of interactive online modules that students complete at home, while the in-class sessions are being reworked to incorporate more interaction, community-building activities, active learning, and development of each individual’s own whole farm plan. This is completely new territory for the faculty involved in the project, but they are excited about the opportunity to create a more significant learning experience for the participants.

It strikes me that perhaps the flipped classroom is really just a variation of the hybrid course model. In that model, curriculum and instructional designers are looking to create an optimal blend of online and face-to-face instruction that will be synergistic and to the best advantage of both learners and instructors. I’m looking forward to working with the Small Farms Program faculty to achieve that balance, and the flipped classroom experience offers some key insights.  I'll keep you posted.

For those of you involved in K-12 education, one final source you have to check out: Jon Bergmann’s blog, which is entirely dedicated to the flipped classroom concept (Turning Learning on its Head).