Take a minute to reflect on some of your biggest teaching fails. Many of my in-class fails started this way:
“Today I’m going to talk about . . . “
No context. No student experience on which to build. Plummeting energy in the room (including my own) . . .
Are we on our way to reproducing this experience online with the flipped classroom?
As I read more examples about how instructors are implementing flipped classrooms, I’m actually very encouraged that this can be done to optimize class time together for deeper student learning. Derek Bruff has a great post and supporting visuals that describe the flipped approach and more importantly the inherent traps.
“The lecture video portion of the flipped classroom approach gets a lot of attention because it’s the piece that involves shiny new technologies, but it’s the pedagogy that drives the flipped classroom, not the technology. If all you’re doing is posting lecture videos online, you’re not flipping your classroom and, more importantly, you’re missing out on the learning opportunities the full model provides.”
A complex visualization, such as this one from the online comic xkcd can serve as a first exposure or student experience.
I want to build on this idea of traps inherent in the flipped system. Assuming ‘first exposure’ = ‘content delivery’ makes the trap potentially more insidious. This assumption is likely to lead to mimicking the mistake above, only this time, online. In this case, it’s actually worse. The instructor is far removed from the vacant stares of the students and unable to make mid-class corrections (like asking questions and bringing student experience back to the forefront). A misunderstanding of the flipped design, coupled with technology, not only encourages but hides design flaws—a dangerous combination. To overcome these challenges, we need to consider important steps that come before ‘first exposure’ or rethink what first exposure really means (something other than content-heavy lecture).
So what comes before the online lecture? I’ll start with an in-person example. I co-led a GIS in the Humanities workshop with Sean Connin (Trinity University) and Alex Chaucer (Skidmore College) in which Alex facilitated a discussion about several key concepts in Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place. His session was a great example of designing around the ‘lead-with-content’ trap. Alex could have lectured about the concepts, but instead, he asked us to spend a few minutes visiting the streets of our childhood using Google Earth street view as well as the interactive Wilderness Downtown website. He posed several questions for reflection before the discussion and introduction of new concepts from the book. The experience was powerful and led to deeper understanding. The brief activity helped us contextualize and draw on previous experience (and emotion!), so the subsequent lecture and discussion had purpose. Alex not only provided a compelling hook, but the design helped us situate new ideas within previous experiences because he had so effectively activated our prior learning.
As we create flipped experiences for students, we’re bound to have a laser-like focus on the quality of the recorded lectures, making it easy to lose sight of the importance of contextualizing those lectures—either within the lecture itself or with activities beforehand. The best pre-lecture activities leave students perplexed and wanting to know more, but also help them situate what’s to come with what they’ve already learned. Maybe the experience unravels a misconception. Perhaps it oversimplifies a complex topic and encourages the student to develop probing questions. I’m a big fan of Marilla Svinicki’s (1987) call for using the Kolb Learning Cycle as a model for designing instruction. In that model, experience and reflection precede concept development (often a big component of lecture), so the model serves as a good visual reminder to help us avoid traps. As her article points out, experience can come in many forms (reading, simulations, observation, evaluating a visualization, etc.). Careful design, with balanced guidance, is key to purposeful exploration, rather than aimless wandering.
The RadioLab podcast is another great example of this design, and they’re just using audio! Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are masters at using stories to develop complex ideas, skillfully weaving process and content. I mapped their show on randomness (stochasticity) onto the learning cycle.
Radiolab podcast mapped onto the learning cycle.
I doubt they had the learning cycle in mind when designing the show, but their online “lecture” about randomness doesn’t really begin until after they’ve provided the listener with an experience (a story of the two Lauras) and an opportunity to reflect on the story. They even throw in an additional coin flipping experience to boot before moving on to the idea that, “Real randomness when you see it, just doesn’t feel random enough.“
I think it’s somewhat natural for teachers to activate experience and provide opportunities for students to reflect and situate new ideas in the physical classroom. I’m not sure this is so natural online. So as we look at the flow of the ‘flipped classroom’ let’s add an element right at the beginning—student experience and reflection. This way, passive information reception isn’t the students’ first exposure. When I think about the flipped classroom movement, I’m both wary and excited. There are some serious traps; however, executed with design at the forefront, the opportunities are vast. We certainly have our work cut out for us. Not only do we have to provide information online in a compelling way, but we have to design student experiences that make the content meaningful. Oh, and then there’s the business of designing in-class activities.
Thanks to Diane Boyd for her comments on the draft of this post. Many of the ideas in this post gelled as a result of preparing for a conference presentation with colleague Jeremy Donald. A post-presentation debrief over spicy Thai food helped even more. Thanks Jeremy!
Update: After authoring this post, I caught up with my feed reading and realized Dan Meyer had also emphasized putting something BEFORE the online lecture to activate students’ intellectual need. I’m happy to be on the same page as Dan Meyer and others (see comments), even if it means my observation isn’t as original as I first thought!
Svinicki, M. D., & Dixon, N. M. (1987). The Kolb model modified for classroom activities. College Teaching, 35(4), 141–146.