Sunday, February 4, 2018

The complexity of the flipped classroom

Like many popular concepts, the flipped classroom model suffers from having a catchy name that invites over-simplification and the aura of being some kind of miracle cure. The idea of devoting classroom time to active learning and discussion rather than passive consumption is not new but the flipped classroom is about the application of digital media to offer pre-recorded lectures, demonstrations and instructions as preparation for the classroom collaboration. Flipping means that some content delivery is delivered asynchronously and that synchronous meetings focus on applying that information and developing skills.

One over-simplification is that the method is simply about teachers prerecording all input in video format. I would say that some content should still be delivered live since there is often a need for direct contact and the teacher is able to modify the delivery if the class seems confused. There is nothing wrong with a well-delivered and engaging lecture as long as it isn't an everyday occurrence. Similarly there is nothing in the rule book that says that the teacher has to record all the videos; there is a wealth of open educational resources that are free to use. Getting input from a variety of sources can widen the scope of the lesson and open students' eyes to different interpretations of the same topic. Audio input can also be used since it's easier to record and easier to listen to on a mobile device. You can even flip the classroom by asking students to read and reflect on a text! Basically the flipped classroom is just a snappy headline for a more complex process; developing a student-oriented approach to teaching and learning, helping students to move from consumption to active collaborative learning.

This complexity is discussed in a new special issue of the journal Education SciencesThe Flipped Classroom in Higher Education: Research and Practice. One of the articles, by Shawn R. SimonsonTo Flip or Not to Flip: What Are the Questions? looks at barriers to flipping the classroom and, with reference to previous research, sees the following factors:

Situational factor examples were content coverage expectations, department norms, and infrastructure. Illustrations of instructor factors were time constraints, lack of experience, and preferred teaching methods. Student factors were responsibility, intention, motivation, and resistance.

Simonson presents a table to help teachers decide when or not to flip, taking all these factors into consideration. If the course and examination are heavily based on content delivery then the flipped classroom may not be very effective since the students will be focused on learning as much of the content as possible and the examination method rewards the demonstration of content mastery. This could be the case in basic courses in, say, medicine where students need to learn essential facts that underpin the rest of the degree programme. Another barrier is if traditional lecturing is the institutional norm then teachers will be reluctant to risk trying out new methods. To successfully flip the classroom teachers need time, support and resources and a poorly implemented version can have negative consequences for all concerned. Similarly if students expect to be fed with the facts they need to learn to pass the exam, then the flipped classroom model may cause frustration and increased stress since it generally demands more time and effort. 

The introductory article of the special issue, Flipped Classroom Research: From “Black Box” to “White Box” Evaluation, by Christian Stöhr and Tom Adawia of Chalmers university of technology, proposes a more nuanced approach to evaluating interventions, realist evaluation. This involves asking the following questions:
  • For whom will the intervention work and not work, and why? 
  • In what contexts will the intervention work and not work, and why?
  • What are the main mechanisms by which we expect the intervention to work?
  • If the intervention works, what outcomes will we see?
These questions should guide any teacher thinking of adopting a flipped classroom approach, or any new approach for that matter. Instead of rushing towards a new promising model we need to have these questions in mind and be able to adjust our practice as our exploratory attempts develop. The flipped classroom is one of many options available to teachers and the skill is deciding which methods best match the desired outcomes. Simonson's conclusion sums up the complexity that lies behind the flipped classroom.

Thus, the instructor who is considering flipping the classroom should contemplate the course content and at what level they want their students to understand that content. The situation in which they teach is important as external expectations and resources can make flipping the classroom more or less challenging. Motivating and appropriately challenging students is also critical and worthy of reflection. Perhaps most importantly, the instructor needs to determine their own willingness and ability to change pedagogies. Only when the complex interplay of these factors has been considered can a balanced decision be made and the learner-centered environment optimized.

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