Facetime in the Flipped Classroom

What are classrooms for? One answer to that question harkens back to the invention of the university in the European middle ages: for lectures (or lectio), or reading texts aloud in an age of scarce manuscripts. The other component of a good medieval education was oral disputation (disputatio), which we’ve mixed with the Socratic method to design discussion forums and oral exams.

Yes, I’m vastly simplifying the history of higher education, to make this point: that our classrooms are for the face-to-face intellectual exchanges that originated in conditions — like textual scarcity — quite different from ours. “Surely a practice invented in the pre-Gutenberg era,” goes one straw-man argument, “has no place in a hi-tech digital world.” Frank Furedi counters this drive toward “technical solutions to educational problems” (which I also raised last week). Descriptions of these problems rely on caricatures of university life: distracted, disengaged students; droning, monotonous lecturers mumbling over yellowed notes with crumbling edges. We’ve seen this bad campus movie before: the scene then cuts to a frat party.

The solutions, even when they sound novel, are equally clichéed: MOOCs are the new correspondence courses; podcasts the new cassette-tape lecture. But the idea remains the same: deliver the lecture content through asynchronous media (i.e. on the student’s own schedule), and use the classroom for the activities and thinking that can only happen when informed and inquiring minds converge in a physical space. It’s an appealing model, today called active learning or the flipped classroom.

Flipping the classroom means inverting lectures and homework, or face-to-face knowledge delivery and solitary knowledge application. In other words, students do their homework in the classroom, and they ingest new material on their own. (This is where the technology comes in: online videos replace in-person lectures.) Arriving at the physical classroom ready to apply their knowledge, students work on new problems that test and expand the frontiers of their understanding.

Consider my fourth-year Elizabethan literature students: once they read Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesy at home, and listen to my audio recording, they’re ready to apply it to some specimens of ‘poesy’ (poetry) in class. Next term I’ll blog about how this experiment is going.

To dismiss the flipped classroom “a fancy term for homework” is to dodge our responsibility as educators: to make the best use of our time, and our physical and digital infrastructures. And by ‘best’ I mean a direct and measurable improvement not only in abstract outcomes, but also in the understanding and the grades that follow.

By the way, I owe a lot of this thinking to Dr. Matt Yedlin, who gave a fantastic talk about the flipped classroom last week — a talk that involved, appropriately enough, a real live demonstration of how it works.

5 Responses to “Facetime in the Flipped Classroom”

  1. Mryka Hall-Beyer

    What this means to me is that there is some degree of disconnect from “factual” information that can be conveyed by personal reading, disciplined search for decent sources (books, online, whatever) and personal experimentation, and the discussion that is mainly focused on building up a personal structure (network?) that all these facts can be stuck into to lead to a higher level of learning. The in-person material, whether it be discussion or interactive lecture, is designed as a practical model of how to build this structure, and is quite personal and idiosyncratic. It demands that the student at some level actively participate. I think that the push to online looks at efficiency in transmitting the factual information, and safeguards that the student has in fact acquired it. The push to the flip side in classrooms supports the discipline side.
    Each academic subject has a unique mix of “factual” (stuff not in dispute) and disciplinary (how to get new stuff). Of course, higher levels become more concerned with the disciplinary. So it’s very likely that each course will also require some mix. For self-starting students who are interested in the subject matter, a heavy online acquisition of factual and a good small-group discussion is probably ideal. The caveat is that the student has to actually get the facts before the discussion, and the class has to be small enough for each student to know they will be expected to contribute. Subjects like literature might (I am not a lit prof!) have much less “factual” and much more disciplinary.
    The difficulties with widespread promotion of MOOCs exclusively is that they partake of the almost totally factual (tech-oriented courses, software training) or are a performance of someone stating their thoughts as though they were facts. True, there can be local discussion groups and online communities, but they end up discussing the prof’s ideas rather than learning the discipline. This is fine for some subjects at some levels, but aren’t what most university profs think university education is all about.


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