Why is everyone so flipped out over flipped classrooms?

In 1997 I taught my first undergraduate class. It was a technology course for preservice teachers, and my cohort of graduate student instructors was mentored by a wonderful faculty member who provided just enough support, but also let us design our own classes. As I looked at the course objectives that my students had to meet in that class, I saw a combination of technical skills and technology-related concepts.

Consider the year. 1997. The class met in a computer lab. Some students had their own computers, but not all of them. Those who had computers didn’t necessarily have the same software that we used in class. I quickly sized up the situation and realized:

  1. Our scheduled time in the classroom was precious. It was the time when students had access to both the software and me.
  2. It was difficult to have a discussion in the computer lab, or even to give a lecture and see engaged faces. The equipment hum was loud, students spoke in low voices from behind large monitors, and when I looked out over the classroom I mostly saw hair rising above those monitors.

My solution was to spend our in-class time focused on working through the software-based assignments. Then, to address the other learning objectives and discuss course readings, I posted materials on a web site and we used an online discussion forum. It worked.

I guess that was my flipped classroom? I just called it wise use of time and resources.

Flash forward 15 years and the”flipped” classroom has become a hot topic. The basic gist is to move the lecture component of class online (record a video) and then have students do homework with instructor supervision and assistance during the class session. My reaction has basically been: meh.

This whole movement supposes that in-class time is entirely occupied by lectures, and that those lectures can just be videotaped and will be just as good. Although that may be the reality for some instructors, many of us already use our in-class time differently. We give micro-lectures on a just-in-time basis or heavily intersperse brief lectures with other activities and discussion.

I also have two concerns about the trend:

  1. The flipped model simply adds to the students’ workload unless the class already had a lot homework problems to be completed on a regular basis. If the previous system involved readings (on own) + lecture (in class), in the flipped version students have readings (on own) + lecture (on own) + the class period. Is it a surprise that this would be better? Students are spending more time working on the class. However, it’s also more work.
  2. Simply recording the lectures with a tool like Tegrity isn’t going to cut it. Instructors who lecture for a full 50 or 90 minute period will need to really reconsider their lectures and chunk them up differently. Why? Because watching a videotaped lecture, particularly from a single camera, back of classroom view, can be deadly boring. No one wants to sit through 100+ minutes of that video each week. Really.Oh, wait. I have one more concern:
  3. Classes aren’t comprised of just readings, lectures, and homework. They also (ideally) involve discussion and activities. I don’t see the space for those activities in this model. I suppose the answer is that the classroom part could be working homework problems and/or discussion and other activities. But that brings us right back to the idea that students should be engaged rather than just talked at, which is a bit different from the flipped classroom concept of doing homework with supervision/assistance.

So while I think the idea of pushing instructors to consider how in-class time is being spent is a great one and encouraging instructors to devote less of that in-class time to information dissemination and more to hands-on student application of concepts is also great, I can’t entirely get behind the idea that lectures should be videotaped and put online and that homework should be done in class, at least not as an absolute.

A videotaped lecture is static. It’s like a class reading, just in a different form.

An in-class lecture is a live event, which can be interspersed with live interactions (questions, activities, etc.). There is some real pedagogical value to interspersing explanation with application and practice. It’s not quite the same when the students view the explanation a few days earlier and no longer have it fresh in mind during class — not to mention that any number of students might run out of time or interest and not watch the lecture video before class.

So why is everyone so flipped out over this idea? Clearly the technology is readily accessible. And many institutions have been tasked with being more effective and more efficient all while using fewer resources. However, rather than jumping on the flipped ¬†bandwagon and picking the solution before analyzing the problem, I’d suggest that maybe this is a good time for instructors to determine if their face-to-face classes, as currently taught, might just as readily be videotaped and shared online. If there would be no real differences, then maybe those instructors need to reconsider their methods a bit. However, the change they need may not be the flipped model.