Flipped learning: Professor tested, student approved

Seven in 10 students say they watch online lectures more than once.

Marcio Oliveira could see the benefits of his kinesiology course’s flipped learning approach with every new hand that popped up in the first minute of every class, as students peppered him with questions. But he needed more than anecdotal evidence, so he conducted a survey, and the results proved that the hands didn’t lie.

Oliveira, a professor and assistant chair in the University of Maryland’s Department of Kinesiology, began his flipped learning experimentation during the spring 2009 semester in his 200-student class, turning the traditional learning model on its head: students learn content outside of class—through podcasts and recorded lectures, mostly—and do what was once known as homework during class, with the help of professors.

Students seemed to appreciate the flexibility of watching lectures online, outside of class, and having Oliveira and his teaching assistants (TAs) answer questions during class and in smaller sections headed by the TAs. It wasn’t until Oliveira asked students about the flipped model that he knew how popular the approach had become.

It turns out college students—or at the very least, Oliveira’s students—are all for the usurping of the traditional educational model.

Six in 10 UMD students who responded to the survey said the flipped learning approach has been “effective” for “overall learning,” with one-fourth of respondents saying they were neutral about the learning model. More than two-thirds of Oliveira’s students said they would take another class that used the flipped approach after positive experiences in the kinesiology course.

“It’s so pretentious for an instructor to think their students can only learn when the instructor is present,” said Oliveira, who earned a grant from UMD’s provost after arguing the benefits of flipped learning. “One of the biggest mistakes that educators make is thinking that every student can learn the same with the same approach. Learning doesn’t happen in my head, it happens in my students’ heads.”

Moving away from a content-centric college class model, he said, soon will be the only option in an internet culture that makes reams of information available to students outside of class, just a web search away.

“The university needs to go beyond what is Googleable,” Oliveira said. “Delivering information is not going to be the focus on education anymore, and it really hasn’t for some time now.”

The spread of always-available, high-speed internet service and the student demand for online course content has led educators from elementary school to the campus lecture hall to question the centrality of their in-class summaries of the day’s lessons.

This newfound skepticism of the efficacy of traditional lectures—and the homework spawned from each—has, in many ways, cleared the way for the flipped learning approach and its cousin, blended learning, a model that has proven wildly popular in national higher-education surveys.

Lorena Barba, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Boston University who has blogged extensively on the flipped approach, said she had sought to improve student interaction and engagement for years by improving her lecture.

“But I did not know what was wrong with [my lectures], exactly,” Barba said.

Then, during a web search on ways to create more classroom engagement, Barba came across an article, “Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class,” which includes research supporting the basis of the flipped learning approach. Barba also read the findings of Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor who has become a sort of flipped-learning evangelist in higher education.

“There was not something particularly wrong with my lectures,” she said. “The problem is lectures themselves.”

Professors and instructors who have recorded lectures and posted podcasts and other multimedia functions to their course websites for years have a built-in advantage over peers who want to move from the traditional lecture-and-homework model to the flipped classroom, Barba said.

“I found myself in an advantageous position, in this sense, having been experimenting with screencasts of lectures for several years now. I have command of the practicalities of producing video lectures, editing them, uploading and distributing,” she said. “Creating an active and engaged learning environment is automatic when flipping a class, and with today’s technology for creating multimedia learning materials, it can be done without losing any of the content.”

Flipping a classroom or lecture hall doesn’t mean college students can skate through a course, failing to watch online lectures and coming to class without a clue of what will be discussed. The flipped model—just like its traditional predecessor—relies on student accountability.

“It’s a shared responsibility, and students know they need to take more responsibility for their education in this approach,” Oliveira said, adding that his students take mandatory quizzes after watching an online lecture, and hand in the assignment when they return to the lecture hall later that week. “But I think they eventually do take that responsibility, because … they appreciate the fact that they can learn in this different way.”

Students in Oliveira’s kinesiology course took on that responsibility, if the class’s survey results are accurate. Seven in 10 students said they watched online lectures more than once before a discussion section, while four in 10 said they came to the kinesiology class with “more questions and interest” about the course content.

The UMD survey showed that flipped learning is not without its critics.

One student respondent said the video lectures were “dreadfully boring” and made it “hard to stay engaged,” while a classmate said the in-class discussions and online lectures “seemed repetitive.”

Another UMD student complained that the course was not labeled as a flipped class before the semester began.

And as colleges and universities face resistance from longtime faculty who charge that reliance on web-based lectures will lead to massive courses that allow campuses to slash the number of professors and instructors it needs to lead classes, UMD technologists said 30-year faculty members are some of the most ardent supporters of flipped learning.

“If you put stuff online, they know it doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly not going to have teachers,” said Chris Higgins, an instructional technology specialist at UMD who has helped instructors and professors incorporate a blended or flipped learning model. “Yes, it changes the role, but it doesn’t diminish the role of the professor. And that’s the most important piece.”

A wider embrace of flipped learning, Higgins said, won’t rid college campuses of small and medium-sized classes. Flipping the traditional model would be most effective in enormous classes with very little individualized attention and high dropout rates.

“It’s like a wildfire that’s about to begin,” he said. “I’m very excited about the possibilities of what we have here.”

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