June 20, 2012

Can You Flip a College Classroom?

If you haven't heard, the "flipped classroom" is a big concept in education this year, especially in the upper grades of K-12.

It's the idea of using technology like online video instruction, laptops, DVDs of lessons etc. to flip/reverse what students have traditionally done in class and at home to learn. For example, listening to lectures becomes the homework assignment and teachers use the class time for more one-on-one attention in class and students can work at their own pace or with other students.

Though an article I read traced the flipped classroom to a 2008 experiment by two Colorado chemistry teachers, Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann, it's not so different from other concepts we have seen in educating with tech. Their idea that students need their teachers there to answer questions or to provide help if they get stuck on an assignment, but they might not need teachers present to listen to a lecture or review content.

When I was at NJIT and we launched our podcasting initiative and became one of the first schools on Apple's iTunes U, we were trying some of the same things. Have students watch and listen to a lecture before class and use the time in class to follow up with discussion and questions.

Of course, professors have been doing that for a long time with readings. And the two forms of content have the same problem. What if students don't do the reading or watch the lecture? I hear many professors complain that students 1) don't buy the book(s)   2) even if they do, they don't read them  3) if they do read them, they don't seem to retain or understand any of what they read.

You might assume that students are more likely to watch a lecture than read a chapter, but I don't think the evidence for that is clear.

Flipped classrooms allow students to work at their own pace and allow teachers to tailor their instruction to individual students.

Those two teachers have a book, Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day and there is a Flipped Learning Network, a nonprofit organization launched this spring to train teachers from schools across the socio-economic spectrum in the strategy.

A article I read this week about an attempt to flip a classroom in a Portland, Oregon elementary school, points out one major obstacle. "Flipped Classroom' Model's Promise Eludes Poorer School Districts" shows that the teacher discovered that none of her students had computers at home. She had just one in the classroom.

Sometimes we make the assumption that there is ubiquitous computing and (high-speed) Internet access amongst our students. That is particularly true with college students who we imagine all being plugged in via their smartphones 24/7. The article points out that anecdotal evidence suggests that flipping classrooms is a more popular practice in wealthier suburban communities where nearly all students have Internet access at home and schools are more likely to have computers in classrooms.

Another criticism of the flipped classroom is that it still relies on lectures by teachers. Remember that over-used mantra of "guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage?" What happened?

In higher ed, blended learning (AKA hybrid learning) is probably the closest thing in place now to the flipped classroom. It too attempts to move some of the learning online, or at least out of the classroom space, and using the face-to-face time for what works best in that setting.

When I was designing hybrid courses, I always told faculty right off that they should do in the classroom whatever worked best in the classroom. If that meant having their truly dynamic lectures live and moving the discussion online, then do that.

Are you doing anything like a flipped classroom?  How would the flipped writing class work? Would it be like the low-residency MFA writing program?

We would love to get your comments.


  1. Flipping started in Higher Education. See Wikipedia Flipped Teaching history section.

    1. I looked at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flip_teaching#History It's a bit different model using computer-based instruction, but the origin isn't really important. As I said, teachers have been doing variations for a long time. The re-emergence of the idea now is interesting though. Today, it seems that video & bandwidth is the key (as it is in most media).