Flipping Classrooms or Transforming Education?

Dan Hickey and John Walsh
Surely you have heard about it by now.  Find (or make) the perfect online video lecture for teaching particular concepts and have students watch it before class.  Then use the class for more interactive discussion.  In advance of presenting at Ben Motz’ Pedagogy Seminar at Indiana University on March 22, we are going to raise some questions about this practice.  We will then describe a comprehensive alternative that leads to a rather different way of using online videos, while still accommodating prevailing expectations for coverage, class structure, and accountability.

Compared to What?
A March 21 webinar by Jonathan Bergman that was hosted by e-School News (and sponsored by Camtasia web-capture software) described flipped classrooms as a place where “educators are actively transferring the responsibility and ownership of learning from the teacher to the students.”  That sounds pretty appealing when Bergman compares it to “teachers as dispensers of facts” and students as “receptacles of information.”

Indeed, compared to many traditional alternatives, the ability to re-watch videos and the ability to include more interactive demonstrations is appealing.  We have seen descriptions of teachings having students watch a video of text at home - like a video of Huck Finn - and arrive to class prepared write a comparison/contrast with the novel.  Some innovators are assigning online course work such as watching Khan Academy videos with parents. This circumvents school-based internet bandwidth limitations and provides a promising context for parental engagement.  We are intrigued by ambitious efforts to have students meet at an arranged time, outside of class, for immersive experience in an online virtual world like the NASA RealWorld/Inworld Challenge.  While we have yet to see much formal encouragement, we suspect that these activities might lead some students toward the more transformational use of online videos like we describe below.

Concerns about Flipping Classrooms
As Audrey Watters pointed out recently, this idea has actually been around for a while.  But it has exploded in popularity along with the Khan Academy.  One of the biggest concerns is that the videos simply won’t be meaningful to students.  RMA co-blogger Rebecca Itow said that when she was teaching English last year in LA that the flipped classrooms she ended up being just “lectures about online lectures.”  As Watters articulated in her widely-cited “Wrath of Khan” post last year, “it is really a matter of form, not content, that is new.”  So yes, simply streaming videos of traditional “expository” lectures is not really new.  And if students lack the prior experience to make sense of the concepts the video present, being able to watch it over and over won’t help.  We agree with such concerns and worry about simplistic expectations about the potential of streaming videos.  But we also worry about the more sophisticated uses because of the way they reify course knowledge as static “stuff” to be learned outside of the context of meaningful use.

Theorists like John Seely Brown,  James Gee, Mimi Ito, and Henry Jenkins suggest that incremental changes like flipped classrooms barely exploit the broader potential of new networked media for supporting deeper learning.  More importantly, they don’t prepare our students for the quickening pace of change for disciplinary knowledge that we are teaching.  As Seely Brown argued in his DML Keynote, it is all about context.  An online video is even more removed from students’ prior experience than a lecture.  Even a streaming video of your own teaching is more decontextualized for your students than your live lectures. This is because a live lecture can take into account reactions, questions, puzzled looks, etc. 

The fundamental concern is that streaming videos reify course knowledge as isolated abstractions.  Don’t get us wrong.  As we detail below, we see a crucial role for streaming videos and other open education resources.  But first consider Seely Brown’s argument that digital knowledge networks are shrinking the “half-life” of what we teach our students.  You might quibble with his precision in claiming that it is down to five years.  But we celebrate his audacity because it helps communicate this crucial point:  21st Century Learning is about providing students with the contextual knowledge they need to continue using the facts and concepts we want them to learn.  The only thing we know about the contexts in which our students will use what we teach them is that it will mostly likely consist of digital networks of user-generated content.  To borrow a construct from our IULS colleague Melissa Gresalfi, what students need in the 21st century is the disposition to consider how their new knowledge takes on different meaning in different contexts.  And this results from guided practice doing just that.

The Insidious Role of Assessment
We suspect that in many cases, educators assume that streaming videos “work” because they help student succeed on classroom assessments and possibly even achievement tests.  This is likely to be what they find in several high-profile randomized experiments currently under way.  This in part because students can watch videos over and over until they have memorized their contents well enough to reproduce that information later. 

The problem is that most classroom assessments fail to ask students to use course knowledge in a different context in a meaningful way.  And while external achievement tests might provide more valid evidence of a very specific kind of knowledge transfer, such tests ask students to guess which of five associations is least wrong.  Such ‘recognition level’ knowledge is gained quite readily—and just as readily forgotten.   In the backlash against multiple choice tests, many teachers have shifted to more open ended essays and performance assessments.  But such assessments are often so closely aligned to the context of the instruction that they encourage students to memorize definitions of concepts so they can repeat them back.  Jim Popham has been railing against this for decades to little apparent effect.  Meanwhile, open-ended assessments are laborious for teachers and students.  They are particularly laborious when high stakes for individuals are attached to them, and most teachers struggle to provide feedback on them that is both useful and used. 

A Situative Alternative for Transforming Education
Situated learning and participatory assessment guide us beyond a search for the perfect networked tool for teaching isolated skills and abstract concepts.  Rather, course knowledge is reframed as procedural and conceptual tools.  Learning can then be framed as interactive practice using those tools appropriately in different networked and conventional contexts. Doing so increases efficiency and fosters dispositions to consider how course knowledge takes on new meaning in different contexts.  This promotes transfer to a wide range of subsequent contexts.  These contexts include (but are not limited to) conventional classroom assessments and achievement tests.  Significantly, treating assessments and tests as just one of the contexts where students can practice using course knowledge enhances the validity of the resulting evidence.  But we further believe that such formal assessments and tests should mostly be used evaluate one’s success as a teacher.  Grades instead should be based more on artifacts that students create in class.  As we will show in our presentation, a more efficient and formative alternative is to grade student reflections. 

Our alternative approach is currently referred to as “Participatory Assessment.”  It embraces the much broader view of assessment that has been outlined recently by theorists like Jim Gee, Jim Greeno, and Andreas Lund.  It aims to transform educational practices, while still respecting prevailing expectations for course structures, coverage of domain content, and accountability for that coverage.  Our presentation will show how this approach can be used transform college learning.  John is a Senior Lecturer in Telecommunications and a doctoral student in Learning Sciences.  In John’s 125-student lecture course on cinematic production theory, students sign up for one of five “craft roles” such as film editor or lighting designer.  They then use networked forums to consider and discuss the relative relevance of key concepts each week from those perspectives.  After two semesters, it seems to be working pretty well. The fact that these students spontaneously elected to search for and link to YouTube videos to make their points suggest that they are “trying out” professional discourse and “trying on” professional identities and learning to become real 21st Century Learners; scores on a rigorous exam help motivate and document broad engagement.  Here is John describing it a presentation last fall.

Dan will show examples from his online graduate course in Learning and Cognition in Education.  In this course, busy working teachings make sense of otherwise-abstract concepts like encoding and retrieval in a challenging text by consider the most relevant and lease relevant implications from the perspective of a specific instructional goal and a particular educational domain (here is an earlier webinar  and working example about it).  These two examples just skim the surface of what seems possible when we flip the relationship between concept and contexts.  If we have time we will describe how Language Culture and Literacy Education doctoral student Tara Kelly is remixing these same core ideas in her Freshman Composition courses.

As for the Khan Academy videos, LS doctoral students Rebecca Itow and Andi Strackeljahn have been piloting and validating curricular modules for secondary English and Algebra.  Each module is aligned to a primary and a secondary Common Core State Standard and has students consider how the concepts outline in the standards is or is not relevant in the context of different Open Educational Resources.  These include multiple Kahn Academy videos, as well as lots of other contexts like online graphing calculators and topical discussion forums.  Thus, students can practice using course knowledge tools conceptually by discussing their appropriateness in different expository resources like streaming videos.  Furthermore they can practicing using those knowledge tools procedurally in interactive resources like graphing calculators, historically in encyclopedic resources like Wikipedia, and personally in social resources like the Algebra Forum.  We hope to be able to discuss what this would look like in intro psych courses as well.

We have a lot of work to do, and hopefully a pending NSF proposal will allow us to do so. But in the meantime, we are quite encouraged.  It takes a while for teachers to see what we are doing.  But the students seem to “get it” pretty quickly.  And we are finding that the students who have been struggling the most (who presumably lack sufficient experience to make sense of course concepts when presented in the abstract ) respond particularly well.  And we have obtained statistically significant gains on tests consisting of randomly sampled items aligned to the standards but independent of the curriculum.  You can check out our current modules and ask our teacher collaborators about their experience at the PLAnet.


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