The flipped classroom is decadent and depraved.

5 05 2014

“The flipped classroom model is becoming increasingly popular in higher education because of how it rearranges face-to-face instruction for professors and students, creating a more efficient and enriching use of class time.”

- New Media Consorium Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition (.pdf), 36.

I’ve written a fair bit here now about the flipped classroom. Much of that criticism has focused on the lack of assigned reading (or at least the lack of time for assigned reading) if students spend most of their limited homework hours watching videos. What I want to do now is “flip” that critique, and take a look at exactly what teachers are doing in class once their classroom has been flipped, assuming the use of the word “efficient” in that above quote isn’t enough to scare you away from trying to answer that question all by itself.

The first thing I ever wrote on this subject was called, “These flipped classrooms are the educational equivalent of scanning your own groceries at the supermarket” and that critique has survived as the popularity of the flipped classroom has grown. Here’s Robert Talbert in the Chronicle:

The flipped classroom does not automatically provide those sorts of outstanding learning experiences. What it provides is space and time for instructors to design learning activities and then carry them out, by relocating the transfer of information to outside the classroom. But then the instructor has the responsibility of using that space and time effectively. And sometimes that doesn’t work. In particular, if there’s no real value in the class time, then the students are not mistaken when they say they are teaching themselves the subject, and they are not wrong to resent it.

So don’t just hand them work sheets and tell your class to get at it. Yes, you can spend more time with students who don’t get what’s going on this way, but isn’t that what office hours are for? Don’t your students who do get it deserve more of your time so that you can help instill the satisfaction of knowing exactly why the right answer happens to be right in them? [By the way, this goes for math just as much as it does for history.] Unfortunately, that’s not efficient.

So what exactly does the professor do all period in their flipped classroom in order to maximize the efficiency of the classroom experience for everyone? Of course, it varies. As Jung Choi explains:

“…class time can be used in so many different ways: case studies, problem-solving, peer discussion, data analysis, writing, peer-review, internet research, and still other activities.”

Talbert offers a sports metaphor in order to explain his idea of exactly what good flipped instruction looks like:

Under the supervision of the instructor – there’s the rub. I don’t mean a kind of aloof, checking-your-Facebook-while-students-work kind of “supervision” but rather the kind of interactive engagement that a coach might have with his or her players while they practice. The coach doesn’t do the exercises for the players, but neither does s/he stand off to the side and let them flail around the entire time. There is interaction between the coach and the player, between different players, and between different groups of players. And through that interaction, questions get answered, others get raised – and things get learned, if it’s done right.

That sounds great, but the instructor can’t help every student’s individual problems at once. Otherwise, they’d be lecturing. [Neither can a coach. That's why there are assistant coaches, after all.] Come to think of it, if lecturing is so awful how come the Flipped Classroom Messiah Squad wants most class content to be transmitted that way on tape, the least interactive way possible (since Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions)? Learning from peers in small groups is, of course, another option in flipped classrooms, but if peer grading can’t work, why would you possibly outsource actual instruction to students who only just learned the skills that you’re trying to teach them or who quite possibly haven’t learned those skills at all?

You may thinking that you’re teaching more efficiently, but what you’re really doing is putting the onus of learning entirely on the student. Plenty of very smart students require direct interaction with an expert instructor to master skills and concepts across a wide range of disciplines. When they don’t get that, they tune out, or – as the MOOC example so beautifully illustrates – drop out of class entirely. Indeed, I would argue that there is very little daylight between teaching somebody else’s MOOC and flipping your classroom with anybody’s content, including your own. When penny-pinching administrators eventually get around to replacing the Flipped Classroom Messiah Squad’s voluntarily flipped courses with the content they gained access to through a ridiculously expensive partnership with Coursera or edX, we will all learn that lesson the hard way.

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18 responses

5 05 2014
Bardiac

Whenever someone talks about the glories of a flipped classroom, I imagine a bunch of students sitting there reading. And me, answering questions as they come, I suppose. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

5 05 2014
Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert)

If that were what the flipped classroom is, then yes, that’s as stupid as it gets.

5 05 2014
Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert)

Hi, thanks for the post and for the reference to some of my recent posts. I left a long-ish comment here a minute ago, but it looks like it might have been eaten in the process of posting it. So I’ll start over and try to keep it shorter.
> “So don’t just hand them work sheets and tell your class to get at it. Yes, you can spend more time with students who don’t get what’s going on this way, but isn’t that what office hours are for?”
Yes, but why not give students as many opportunities as possible to get help? Why make office hours a bottleneck?
“Don’t your students who do get it deserve more of your time so that you can help instill the satisfaction of knowing exactly why the right answer happens to be right in them?”
I strongly reject the notion that any student or group of students “deserves” more time and attention from an instructor than any other. My students are not competing for attention — they are trying to learn something, and every student who is trying is equally deserving of time and attention. If I believe this, then my course design has to be such that each student gets that time and attention. I believe the flipped classroom does this in way other course designs do not.
“[By the way, this goes for math just as much as it does for history.] Unfortunately, that’s not efficient.”
I want to point out that although this term “efficient” appears just after a quote from my blog, I myself have never — and will never — use this concept applied to learning, flipped or otherwise. It’s a metric that makes sense for mechanical or electrical processes, but it has no business in such a nonlinear and messy context as human learning. People who bring it up regarding the flipped classroom need to reconsider.
What I *will* say is that the flipped classroom has the potential for time to be used more *effectively*. The difference between “effective” and “efficient” is the difference between outcome and process. An efficient process may not be very effective, and an effective process may not be efficient. I am not so much concerned about efficiency in the learning process, but I care a lot about whether it’s effective for my students, i.e. produces the intended outcomes.
“That sounds great, but the instructor can’t help every student’s individual problems at once. Otherwise, they’d be lecturing. [Neither can a coach. That's why there are assistant coaches, after all.] ”
I think we both realize that lecturing is not the same thing as helping every student’s individual problems. How could it be? Even the best lectures can’t triangulate themselves using each individual’s particular location in the continuum of learning a subject. Neither is flipped learning oriented toward helping everyone *all at once*, which is also impossible. I can’t help all my students all at the same time — but I *can* arrange a *frame* of time during which I can help each student. This is precisely what the flipped classroom intends to do.
I promised I’d keep this short, so I’ll just say that I think your concept of the flipped classroom has been shaped by its abuses, which is unfortunate. I’d encourage you instead to think about how flipped learning could be used for good rather than evil.

5 05 2014
Jonathan Rees

Robert,

OK, this is going to get complicated, particularly as I want to tackle your last comment first:

“I think your concept of the flipped classroom has been shaped by its abuses, which is unfortunate.”,

Yup, but if an idea is abused more than it’s used “properly,” perhaps that makes it a bad idea. I think the most pernicious mistake that various technology advocates make is to assume that they will retain control over their own classroom once that technology is introduced (even with their consent). There’s already scads of evidence that they won’t, most notably with respect to the LMS.

But let’s cover the rest of your comments assuming that you can indeed control the way you flip your own classroom and that that control is perpetual:

“Yes, but why not give students as many opportunities as possible to get help? Why make office hours a bottleneck?”

Lord, I wish office hours were a bottleneck. Usually I have to tell people to show up to my office hours because I could see they need more help than I have time to give them in class. Really, it’s the differing skills problem. I don’t want to pitch my class at the bottom of the skill level in the room. I want to pitch at at the top and bring everybody else up. If most of my class time is spent helping the bottom, I lost the chance to aim higher.

“What I *will* say is that the flipped classroom has the potential for time to be used more *effectively*. The difference between “effective” and “efficient” is the difference between outcome and process. An efficient process may not be very effective, and an effective process may not be efficient. I am not so much concerned about efficiency in the learning process, but I care a lot about whether it’s effective for my students, i.e. produces the intended outcomes.”

I think you’re being unfair to the people who do use the word “efficient” here. They aren’t arguing that you should do something cheap just because it’s cheap. They’re arguing that you should do something cheap because it’s cheap and it’s effective. The problem is judging what’s effective.

One of my learning outcomes (although I HATE listing this stuff on my syllabus) is to encourage students to think more deeply about the past. If that particular outcome was a duality, it would be stupid. It’s easy to encourage any student to think a little more deeply about the past. I want to keep pushing ‘em harder and harder. If the standard were just effectiveness, I’d have to stop much earlier than I’d like for it to be efficient.

“Neither is flipped learning oriented toward helping everyone *all at once*, which is also impossible. I can’t help all my students all at the same time — but I *can* arrange a *frame* of time during which I can help each student. This is precisely what the flipped classroom intends to do.”

There are plenty of technological tools available that will allow you to do this which are much less disruptive (and potentially economically suicidal) than flipping your classroom. Class blogging comes immediately to mind. I’m sure there are more, that I don’t know about because I never use them.

What surprises me so much about folks like you who are so enthusiastic about flipping their class is how they assume that this is automatically the best way to handle every discipline. As Bardiac’s comment above suggests, in English it’s almost certainly an absolute disaster. Unfortunately, this kind of universal encouragement only legitimizes the eventual forceful implementation of this practice from administrators who don’t know any better and only care about saving money.

That not only takes me back to the beginning of this overly long comment, it takes me back to the point of the entire blog post in the first place.

5 05 2014
Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert)

Some responses to the response:

“I think you’re being unfair to the people who do use the word “efficient” here. They aren’t arguing that you should do something cheap just because it’s cheap. They’re arguing that you should do something cheap because it’s cheap and it’s effective. The problem is judging what’s effective.”

Maybe I am understanding “efficiency” differently than you, or the people to whom you are referring. For me I am taking “efficiency” the way it’s defined in physics — the ratio of energy delivered by a process to the ratio of energy needed to run the process. Or in an economic sense, you could say that something is efficient if it optimally allocates resources (not necessarily monetary).

And for me, this is the sense in which I’ve seen people use the word “efficient” to describe the flipped classroom — you don’t waste a lot of time or energy on things. I think there’s a sense in which this is true, but I also think it’s possible to tell how much time is “wasted” in any instructional model because you have no idea what instructional moment may induce learning later on, nor what the optimum allocation of resources is — because each learner is different.

“What surprises me so much about folks like you who are so enthusiastic about flipping their class is how they assume that this is automatically the best way to handle every discipline.”

You’re mistaking enthusiasm for evangelism here. I have never made the assumption to which you are referring, and I never will. When I speak about the flipped classroom, and sometimes when I write about it, I go out of my way to say that this it is to be used with caution, and phased in slowly, if indeed it makes sense to use it at all — and before using it, count the cost. I don’t even use the flipped classroom myself in *every* class I teach, and I try to be pretty transparent about that.

Evidently your experience is different, but of the people that I follow who say anything about the flipped classroom, I have not once encountered the notion that flipped learning should be the law of the land — expressed either implicitly or explicitly. I think most people are capable about being enthusiastic about something and yet not expect everyone to get on board. If there are some who think differently, then let’s deal with that — but let’s not assume that enthusiasm is a proxy for going on some sort of crusade.

“Unfortunately, this kind of universal encouragement only legitimizes the eventual forceful implementation of this practice from administrators who don’t know any better and only care about saving money.”

I really fail to see how encouraging other people to try a different course design or teaching method legitimizes its misuse. This is like saying that encouraging people to try jogging legitimizes heart attacks, because eventually the authorities will force everyone to jog whether or not it makes sense for them.

As for this “eventual forceful takeover” — I’m not saying it can’t happen. But I will say that it can happen with *any* instructional model. Indeed the large lecture courses we see sometimes that have hundreds of students in them, which are hardly the best setup for student learning, are often created by administrators who seek to cram as many students into a room as possible and therefore save money. Any attempt at teaching whatsoever could be misused. So what do we do — not teach, because we should assume that any teaching will be “eventually” taken over and misused? Or teach but not encourage alternative practices, because those practices could lead to a forceful takeover? I just don’t think you can be a practitioner of your profession and remain in this state — especially if student learning is in the balance.

5 05 2014
Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert)

Correction: “but I also think it’s **NOT** possible to tell how much time is “wasted” in any instructional model”

5 05 2014
Jonathan Rees

Robert,

OK, let’s do this again the same way:

“For me I am taking “efficiency” the way it’s defined in physics — the ratio of energy delivered by a process to the ratio of energy needed to run the process. Or in an economic sense, you could say that something is efficient if it optimally allocates resources (not necessarily monetary).”

This is a fine definition of efficiency – for everybody except college administrators. They couldn’t care less how hard they work. Indeed, everyone who cares about online education will tell you that it’s much more work to teach online than it is face-to-face (with all that typing instead of talking), but the administrators pursue this in the hope of immediate labor cost saving and eventual profit, in whatever sense that’s possible at non-profit institutions. I would suggest that having a reasonable definition of efficiency when deciding to flip your classroom is playing into their hands, basically bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Evidently your experience is different, but of the people that I follow who say anything about the flipped classroom, I have not once encountered the notion that flipped learning should be the law of the land — expressed either implicitly or explicitly. I think most people are capable about being enthusiastic about something and yet not expect everyone to get on board. If there are some who think differently, then let’s deal with that — but let’s not assume that enthusiasm is a proxy for going on some sort of crusade.

I will take you at your word on this. Certainly there are disciplinary differences that ought to prevent any innovation like a flipped classroom from being applied universally. However, nobody can innovate in a vacuum. Unfortunately, somebody needs to explain this to an awful lot of administrators. I’ve seen this with MOOCs already. When universities grow convinced that they can monetize this trend, I guarantee you that they’ll ruin it.

Which leads nicely into…

“As for this “eventual forceful takeover” — I’m not saying it can’t happen. But I will say that it can happen with *any* instructional model. Indeed the large lecture courses we see sometimes that have hundreds of students in them, which are hardly the best setup for student learning, are often created by administrators who seek to cram as many students into a room as possible and therefore save money.”

Too true. But just because anything can be misused does not mean that some things can’t be misused more easily than others. My general rule of thumb is that I the professor needs to be the one who decides which technologies I want to use and which ones I don’t. Normally, flipping your own classroom would fall under the safe category here, but there are so many red flags that go up when professors don’t do what professors are allegedly supposed to be doing. You point them out yourself in your article, the stuff from students along the lines of “Why do we need to be here at all?” When your administrators start asking that same question, we’re all in trouble and it’s the self-flippers of the world who opened that door.

6 05 2014
Washington Equitable Center for Growth | Things to Read on the Morning of May 6, 2014

[…] Rees: The flipped classroom is decadent and depraved: “The lack of assigned reading (or at least the lack of time for assigned reading) if […]

6 05 2014
Mazel

As near as I can tell after reading around a bit in the flipposphere, the flipped classroom is just active-learning-plus-lecture-capture. Nowhere have I seen any flippers explain why students would be better off watching a video lecture than reading a good book. Flipping is just a tech-enhanced version of an earlier pedagogical revolution that was going to change everything but didn’t.

6 05 2014
Herb Coleman

I wish we could have this conversation without all the hyperbole. Can we agree on a few things? First any instructional technique can and will be misused by the lazy among us (think standardized tests). Second, a variety of instructional techniques can be (and have been) successful in education people. Flipped instruction is simply a different approach that has many benefits and when used correctly, encourages deeper learning and understanding as well as provides for more interaction with the instructor. The reason video lectures are better than live lectures is individual control. In a live lecture, I cannot pause it while I make notes (or go to the restroom), rewind to hear a point again, turn up the volume so I can hear better or replay as many times as I need in order to “get it.” That said, videos are not the out of class activities student could be given. Readings, audio recordings (podcasts) or even the nightly news can be assigned.

They key is what you want them to get out of the experience. Thus, a good flipped program will have student prepare notes, answer questions or complete guided notes on the topic being presented. Then, when in class the instructor can help as they complete worksheets or problem sets, work in teams or work on projects. The instructor assist one on one, to a small group or to the whole class to clear up misunderstandings (just like a coach).

The biggest thing I take exception is the admonition of “putting the onus of learning entirely on the student…” I don’t know how to break it to you but ALL learning is entirely on the onus of the student. It is the student who is doing the learning. It is the student who decides whether or not to do his/her homework, study for a test, read the assignment, etc. All we do as educators is create opportunities for them to learn. In the end it is up to them. With todays connected society, showing students their responsibility and helping then to navigate their weakness and to develop as independent evaluators of information is more important than ever. Students have at their disposal (often in their pockets) access to vast stores of knowledge and information. Learning how to wade through this is better accomplished when they pick up the “onus” of their own learning.

6 05 2014
Jonathan Rees

Herb,

Two things:

1. “The reason video lectures are better than live lectures is individual control. In a live lecture, I cannot pause it while I make notes (or go to the restroom), rewind to hear a point again, turn up the volume so I can hear better or replay as many times as I need in order to “get it.””

That is absolutely indistinguishable from standard MOOC rhetoric. Leave aside the fact that you can’t tell whether students are even watching the lecture, let alone paying enough attention to want to view it twice. Do you want to be replaced by a MOOC (because you just made the standard case for doing so)?

2. “The biggest thing I take exception is the admonition of “putting the onus of learning entirely on the student…” I don’t know how to break it to you but ALL learning is entirely on the onus of the student. It is the student who is doing the learning. It is the student who decides whether or not to do his/her homework, study for a test, read the assignment, etc. All we do as educators is create opportunities for them to learn. In the end it is up to them.”

That’s the saddest thing I’ve read in weeks. Good teachers can inspire their students to want to learn better and learn more. If you really think that you’re powerless to convince students to work harder than they might otherwise I really don’t understand why you’re interested in quality instruction at all because a huge portion of your potential audience has already fallen by the wayside.

6 05 2014
Mazel

Sigh…. I do not at all agree with this: “Flipped instruction is simply a different approach that has many benefits and when used correctly, encourages deeper learning and understanding as well as provides for more interaction with the instructor.”

If “flipped instruction” means putting one’s lectures in a digital format that is easily reuseable and commodifiable, not to mention detachable from the contexts in which I use them and the purposes to which I put them, then I’m sorry, but no, no, no: it is NOT simply another approach to teaching.

Nor can I agree with this, not at all: “The reason video lectures are better than live lectures is individual control. In a live lecture, I cannot pause it while I make notes” etc.

Where I teach, even in the most traditional lecture classes, students can raise their hands, ask questions, and engage in actual live dialogue with the professor. These are some of the many reasons LIVE lectures are so much better than video lectures. (Not to reduce “education” to “job skills,” but I could add that in the real world, when the boss addresses everyone live at the Big Meeting, you’d better be in command of the skills you develop in the F2F classroom.)

As for that bit about students using class time to “complete worksheets” — really? Worksheets? Do people still do that?

And I agree with Jonathan about the “onus of learning” bit. To what he said I will add that I challenge my students to teach me something I don’t already know, to persuade me to believe something I don’t already believe, etc. In one sense, if I don’t learn anything from my students, then they and I have both failed.

6 05 2014
Herb Coleman

@Mazel, yes in lectures students can raise their hands and some them will get their questions answered. In the flipped model, EVERY, student can pause, rewind, or replay. Then questions can be emailed, tweeted, texted or asked in person in class.

Worksheets can include case studies, problem sets, or other scenarios. It only limited by the instructor.

Learning is a life long process. Students don’t stop learning when they leave my class. My job is to help them become more confident in their learning skills and take charge of their learning. I am also humble enough to know that they can and will learn with out me. I’m just lucky to be a guide invited to assist in their learning process.

6 05 2014
Herb Coleman

You totally left out the second part. The video, readings, or podcasts are accompanied by the note taking, guided notes or questions. That’s how you know they are viewing, listening or reading.

As for being replaced by a MOOC, that is quite possible. Which might explain the hostile reaction to flipped and other alternative instructional strategies. It is so interesting that this reaction is much like the music industries reaction to Napster.

The University of Texas is offering a college credit course that is the same course I teach via MOOC although students do pay for it.

As for inspiring students, that’s exactly what I do (like a coach). However, I do not own their learning, they do. They are in change of it. I just get to help guide them.

6 05 2014
Contingent Cassandra

I think the reason flipping doesn’t work in English classes (beside the obvious problem with replacing reading with watching taped lectures) is that many English classrooms are already flipped, and have been for decades: students read (and perhaps consider a set of questions on a reading guide, and/or do some writing about what they’ve read), then they come to class, and the whole, fairly small class works together to interpret the text through group discussion, guided, but, ideally, not dominated, by the teacher. Sometimes the class breaks into smaller groups to do/practice certain kinds of interpretation for part of the time, then comes back together to compare/synthesize results. In many English classes, this is the sole mode of instruction; in some larger ones, there may also be lectures, and only once-a-week, often TA-led, discussions. But in any case the smaller-group, hands-on practice is already at the heart of the class (and most English professors would happily increase the proportion of time spent on such activities, but not at the expense of reading, and doing so would incur the cost of more professorial and/or TA time, since the TAs who currently sit through lecture would presumably still have to listen through, and be compensated for listening through, taped lectures, as well as doing the necessary reading).

6 05 2014
Jonathan Dresner

I’ve said the same thing about history classes, at least my upper-level ones: I assume that students are getting the basics from the readings and class time is for discussion, historiography, clarification, etc.

Even my lower-division classes are structured that way, though I then use class time to lecture more, because students need to be exposed to more ways of thinking about the material.

“Flipped” means something in the context of secondary-level education, which presumes a class lecture/homework rhythm that really doesn’t translate well to higher ed.

6 05 2014
John Milligan

I would even argue that ALL classes should be that way. I encourage my students to read ahead and have questions ready for class. Rarely does that happen though.

7 05 2014
Jonathan Dresner

True, and true. My entire undergraduate education was pretty much like that, but I’m struggling to make it work like that now except with upper-division majors.

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