MOOCs and the Flipped Classroom

I suddenly remembered that piece I wanted to write before getting into the whole backlash backlash last week.  So with Thanksgiving break looming, time to take a look at the latest role MOOC makers are hoping their programs will play: supporting the flipping of the classroom.

For the few of you reading this who aren’t familiar with the term, the “flipped classroom” refers to a method of instruction that reverses the typical order in which students listen to lectures while at class and then work on homework elsewhere with a new model that has them watch lectures on video in their homes or dorms, freeing class time for discussion and projects that involve more interactivity between teachers and students.

“Flipping” got a big boost a few years back when the concept was embraced by Salman Khan who proposed it as a strategy for making effective use of the short video lectures in his growing Khan Academy library, videos that have been finding a home at various points in the learning process.

If the notion of using class time to do something other than listen a teacher talk sounds familiar, that’s because most of the classes all of us took from kindergarten through most of high school involved using class time to do more than sit while a sagely teacher instructed us from behind a lectern.  But as those high school years ended and college began, those teachers were replaced by professors, many of whom had dedicated much of their adult lives to being able to stand before a rapt crowd of students dispensing knowledge and wisdom accumulated during years spent as malnourished graduate students.

In fact, some of the professors who love lecturing the most are the very ones attracted to teaching massive open courses which give them an even bigger audience to speak to.  Which highlights one of the first challenges facing classroom flippers: how to get professors who love (and are used to) being the focus of attention to instead dedicate class time to doing something else.

This transition is probably easiest for a professor flipping his or her own class since this simply involves moving their personal voice from one part of a course to another.  But once you start talking about MOOCs as a content source for flipped classrooms, professors (like those in the philosophy department at San Diego State) will legitimately start wondering what their role is supposed to be if Michael Sandel or some other Ivy League hotshot is given the job of delivering the bulk of course content via videos the flipped professors had no involvement in creating.

Now as I learned when talking to a group of community college professors who I mistakenly thought would be hostile to the whole MOOC thing, many teachers are already eagerly experimenting with how to integrate third-party content into their classes, and whole disciplines (like computing) have already transitioned to a point where rote learning at home coupled with hands-on work in class is the norm.  So presuming that MOOCs are just one of many content sources that can be leveraged by professors experimenting with their teaching strategies, they could serve as a valuable resource as more and more classes get re-engineered.

But here we run into a second challenge for the flipping strategy: figuring out what creative exercises, group projects and other activities are supposed to fill up all the free time that’s been created by moving the lecture component of a course outside the classroom.  No doubt there are some professors who have been dying to triple or quadruple the amount of time spent in discussion with their students.  And it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that a decent number of entrepreneurial teachers are creating and sharing interesting classroom exercises and similar content to liven up the flipped course experience.  But in order for any educational transformation to grow beyond acceptance by atypical early adopters, there needs to be an infrastructure to support teachers/professors who are already teaching perfectly fine classes, a set of resources and encouraging models that gives them an incentive to try something that might work even better.

There’s also the chance that, as good as the flipped classroom model could be in many situations, it might not be suitable for all (or even most) subjects, teachers or students.  In which case, we need treat  current efforts to encourage this type of teaching as just another set of experiments and be willing to accept (and learn from) the results we get when the flipped classroom model is put to the test in the real world.

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