“These flipped classrooms are the educational equivalent of scanning your own groceries at the supermarket.”

22 01 2013

In that Dean Dad piece I was beating up on last week, Matt Reed invokes Cathy Davidson to support his pro-MOOC position:

Cathy Davidson claimed earlier this week that “if we (profs) can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.” Her point was that it’s no longer plausible to argue that face-to-face instruction is clearly the only possible way to convey information. If the best instruction that a college can offer is a sage on a stage lecturing to 300 freshmen, whom that sage will then duck afterwards to get back to writing, then it’s hard to argue that a video presentation would be markedly worse. If anything, it may be better; at least with a video, you can play back parts you missed the first time. And the cost advantage is not to be ignored, particularly when tuition and student loan burdens are the highest they have ever been, even after inflation.

Well, I happen to have Cathy Davidson right here* and that’s not what she means at all:

Although normally a pretty upbeat and optimistic person, I end a lot of my different talks these days with a pretty scary, even dystopic slide: “IF WE PROFS CAN BE REPLACED BY A COMPUTER SCREEN, WE SHOULD BE.”

That gets people’s attention. And it makes people mad. My meaning is often misunderstood at first—and that’s what I want. I want profs in the audience to be outraged that I’m saying they can be replaced by a computer screen. And, if they think they are not replaceable by a computer screen, I want them to articulate why.

If they can make a good case for what they add, then my conditional statement is answered negatively: No, I cannot be replaced by a computer screen because of . . . Making that case accurately and persuasively (to the public, to legislators, to donors, and mostly to our students) is the single most important thing any professor can do because, if we don’t, it will be made for us. And we won’t like the result.

That’s a reasonable argument. There are good lecturers and bad lecturers. I agree that people who read PowerPoint slides to 400-people should be replaced with a computer. However, if you use various tactics to engage and enlighten your audience – anything from calling on students to keep them alert or taking questions on Twitter – then Davidson is arguing that you shouldn’t be.

Reed’s cause here, if you don’t remember, is to get professors to “use MOOCs as a resource, rather than attack them as threats.” That means “flipping the classroom” so that students have better things to do in class than listen to the boring old proffie read PowerPoint slides at them. Of course, that assumes that the boring old proffie does read PowerPoint slides at them, and I don’t think that assumption is true for most of us. But I’ve defended lecturing is this space before. I want to spend the rest of this post considering what a flipped humanities classroom might look like.

My usual question on this subject is, “When exactly are my students going to do their reading?” Philip Zelikow teaches at the University of Virginia so he has reasonable expectations that his on-campus students will watch his MOOC lectures and read the books that he’s assigned, but what about the rest of us in the less-hallowed halls of higher ed?

More importantly, what does that leave the student doing most of their in-class time? I can imagine an 8th grade algebra teacher at a suburban middle school going from student to student helping them put into practice what Sal Khan explained to them on their computer screen the previous evening because they might have only twenty students in a class. But what happens if you teach at a community college where your class has 40 or 60 or even 100 students?

I’ll tell you what happens. No single professor can personalize every student’s education at once. That means your students end up teaching themselves. As Patrick Bigger and Victor Kappeler explain in “Anthropologies”:

“Ultimately MOOCs shift the labor of education onto the consumer (i.e. student) through innovations like ‘flipped classrooms’ that leave students exploring the predefined, standardized learning objectives. These flipped classrooms are the educational equivalent of scanning your own groceries at the supermarket —shifting aspects of the labor of education from faculty to student.”

Both Reed and Davidson assume that faculty always have enough agency to teach their classes precisely the way they want. That is an assumption that only an administrator (or in Davidson’s case a former administrator who teaches at Duke) could make.

“As someone who has taught large courses at a University of California, I can assure readers that my job could have easily been automated,” writes Gregory Ferenstein in TechCrunch. That’s not because he didn’t care. It’s because:

Traditionally, droves of unprepared teenagers were crammed into the faceless lecture halls of lower-division and remedial courses.

Flipping those classrooms isn’t going to help anyone except a few UC administrators who are trying to make the unacceptable acceptable. Faculty both in California and elsewhere need to demand better on behalf of their students and on behalf of themselves.

* Strangely enough, so does Reed. That’s his link in the above quote, not mine.




11 responses

22 01 2013
Vim, Ph.D. (@Exhaust_Fumes)

Matt Reed misread just about everything he quotes in that thing…

22 01 2013
Jonathan Rees

And while I have you here, Vim,

Thanks for the inspiration on this one. You are (and were) absolutely right.

22 01 2013
Matt Reed

Um, not to be rude, but please read the first comment on my piece. You know, the one by Cathy Davidson.


22 01 2013
Jonathan Rees


I know. I saw her tweet your piece before I even read it.

She’s being supportive because you both have the same general position towards technology, but her argument is stlll totallly different than how you characterize it. Unlike you, Davidson refuses to look at MOOCs with rose-colored glasses.

23 01 2013
William Branson

I’m doing a flipped classroom this fall for my Business Math course, with about 120 students in a large lecture hall. 3 reasons why I think it will work: I get 4 or 5 Undergraduate Learning Assistants to help in the room (SCSU is a master’s univeristy,not a doctoral one, so no grad students; the ULA’s are largely math education students who plan to go into teaching), many students come into the class knowing some (or most) of the material, and, in math anyway, students seem much more willing to watch a video than to read the book. Classtime will be spent largely on worksheets. Between me, the ULAs, and the frequent quizzes, I think we can leverage the pre-existing knowledge in the room to raise low-acheivers and to engage high-achievers. However, I think my flipped classroom might work for reasons that are local to my university and reasons that are specific to my discipline and reasons that are specific to my abilities as a teacher.

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