On Blended Learning and Flipping the Classroom

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This is a guest post written by Anthony P. Graesch, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Technology Fellow.

Representing the Faculty Technology Fellows Program at Connecticut College, I recently travelled with two colleagues to attend the 2014 Blended Learning in the Liberal Arts Conference hosted by Bryn Mawr College.  The roster of presentations included 15 talks on how digital technology can be leveraged to make for better learning environments, and five presentations were dedicated to discussing the outcomes of instructors’ efforts to flip the classroom.  Prior to these sessions, I was not entirely clear on how to draw a distinction between courses that used digital technology to achieve blended learning outcomes and those that “flip” the classroom.  Are these not one in the same?  Maybe and maybe not.

 Blended Learning Model (BLM)

In a keynote presentation, our hosts offered this pedagogical stance on blended learning: a blended learning model (BLM) is one in which (1) students receive feedback on learning activities outside of the traditional classroom; and (2) the online component of student learning helps professors craft more responsive and overall better interactive experiences during in-class meetings.  Seemingly, the goal of a BLM is not to decrease the amount of “seat time” in a classroom, but rather to make “seat time” more meaningful and interactive.  Other goals include empowering students to take ownership of their learning experience, cultivating a deeper understanding of concepts, and meeting the needs of diverse learners.  Of course, these goals are neither new nor revolutionary in higher education, and anyone who suggests otherwise might be trying to sell you something.  Nevertheless, digital technology may afford opportunities to better achieve these longstanding goals.

Certainly, there are other definitions of blended learning, and the pedagogical stance proffered by Bryn Mawr reflects the unique missions of Liberal Arts Colleges, institutions that place substantial emphasis on the importance of faculty-student interaction and experiential education.  A key element of this definition of the BLM centers around online assessment and using assessments to tailor discussions during subsequent class meetings.  So, is the flipped classroom a blended learning experience?

The Flipped Classroom

flippedgraphic(web1100px)_0Depending on how you go about it, flipping the classroom may or may not be congruent with this particular definition of the BLM.  The driving idea behind “flipping” a classroom is that students will be able to obtain course content – information that is traditionally delivered in the form of professors’ lectures – from online audio or video podcasts and outside of the regular class meetings.  “Seat time,” or the time students spend in desks during in-class meetings, is transformed into a forum for more focused and experientially richer interactions.  This might include working on problem sets, discussing and debating ideas, and collaborating in the application of key concepts.

In many ways, flipping the classroom is very much about transforming the ways that students use time.  A fully flipped classroom is one in which class time is used exclusively to grapple with concepts introduced outside of class meetings.  A partially flipped classroom might be one in which professors use some class meetings to lecture, whereas other meetings are used to discuss or apply content captured with video podcasts and viewed by students before coming to class.  The extent to which you pursue or align with one model or another may hinge on the extent to which you regard lecturing as a critical component of your teaching.  Some scholars (and I am one of these) argue that the term “lecturing” is too general to adequately capture otherwise highly varied classroom-based interactions between instructors and students.  That is, we all lecture in different ways, some of which are probably more dynamic and engaging than others, and generalizing these experiences may be undermining our best efforts to make for maximally effective classroom experiences.  That said, higher education is replete with instructors who rely almost entirely on lecture-driven course formats, and there is a growing corpus of data to suggest that passive learning is simply less effective.

If fully flipped courses include opportunities for students to be assessed outside of the classroom (e.g., feedback given for online quizzes or discussion threads that follow podcasts) and the products of these assessments are used to enhance subsequent in-class meetings, then the flipped classroom conforms to this definition of the BLM.  This may not be possible in fully flipped courses, and thus the flipped classroom would exist outside of the BLM, despite the fact that it is merely a different approaches to achieving similar goals.  That said, there are various ways of using digital technology to enhance your learning environment without ever having to flip the classroom.

Should I “Flip” My Course?

After listening to the successes and challenges faced by instructors who flipped their classrooms, it became apparent that introductory courses in the formal, physical, and life sciences (e.g., mathematics, chemistry, and biology) as well as some of the more empirical of the social sciences (e.g., economics, psychology) might be the best candidates for fully flipped classroom formats.  A general rule-of-thumb emerged: if your traditional course has students passively absorbing lecture inside the classroom while spending considerable time working on problem sets outside of the classroom, then a fully flipped classroom affords you opportunity to provide feedback and guidance at the point that students need it the most, or when they are actually engaging the concepts.  For those in the social sciences and humanities, you may want to think about partially flipped classrooms in tandem with the BLM.

If you’re toying with the idea of flipping one of your courses, you might take the following into consideration.  First, the “startup costs” are significant and should not be underestimated.  The time required of producing podcasts, in particular, is substantial.  Some presenters talked about spending the entirety of their summer recording, re-recording, and editing podcasts.   On the bright side, you will likely be able to use your archive of podcasts for many years to come.  Second, podcasts can take various forms, and before committing to any one format, it is worth thinking about (and researching) (a) the pedagogical affordances and constraints of each as well as (b) the technological support your institution can provide.  Regarding the former, here’s a list of possibilities:

  • Audio-only presentations. If you’re a producer at Radiolab, then you have mastered the art of audio podcasts.  If not, you might seek some honest feedback on how to infuse some pizzaz into your show.
  • Narrated slideshows.  Basically, this is a video of your Powerpoint/Keynote slides while you blah blah on the audio track.  See above comment about pizzaz.  Example here.
  • Digital “chalk talk.”  Although this is a video file, it’s pretty much a narrated video recording of an online “white board” on which you draw or type content.  Various software enables this approach, and it’s particularly well-suited to courses in which formulas, equations, and graphs are used to illustrate concepts (e.g., economics, math, chemistry). Depending on your technological capabilities, you might even include a small frame in which your talking head appears during part or all of the video segment.  Example here.
  • In-person “chalk talk”.  This is a video recording of you – probably in your office and with a chalk/white board – talking to a tripod-mounted camera.  Although I know of no data to fully evaluate this assertion, I suspect this may be one of the most engaging podcast formats for students.  The embodiment of information sharing via gesture, writing on a board, and facial expression may have deeper cognitive resonance. Example here.
  • Live lecture capture.  Put a camera in your classroom; press ‘Record’.  There are some quality-, technical-, and FERPA/privacy-related issues surrounding this format, and some (e.g., Jose Antonio Bowen, author of Teaching Naked) discourage live lecture capture outright. Example here.

It’s possible to hybridize most of these formats (e.g., narrated slideshows edited into live lecture captures).  It’s also possible to produce really good and really bad examples of any one of these podcast formats.  I think the examples linked above exemplify the variability to be observed on YouTube.

Image Credit: Center for Teaching & Learning, University of Texas at Austin

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One thought on “On Blended Learning and Flipping the Classroom

  1. Eugene V. Gallagher June 5, 2014 / 2:58 pm

    It’s interesting that the examples all come from the sciences. Are there compelling (good) examples from the Arts, Humanities, and/or social sciences?

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