What if flipping the classroom does more harm than good?

13 03 2013

My first full-time job out of graduate school was a one-year gig at a small liberal arts college. When I arrived there for my interview, the department chairman told me straight out that I was the fourth candidate they had interviewed since none of the others was comfortable teaching both halves of the U.S. History survey class.  I assured him that I was. I remain so to this day.  

Happily for me and my students alike though, I no longer have to teach both halves of the survey. While I teach a course on American slavery sometimes (a remnant of my early specialization in American labor history), I’m much better after 1877, and am most comfortable teaching anything between 1877 and 1937.

Anybody who teaches World History reading this is laughing hysterically at me right now. Sixty years? They need to know six centuries, if not longer. More importantly, rather than specialize in a single country on a single continent, they have to follow the story of humankind all over the world.  What’s impressed me most about the world history superprofessors I’ve been exposed to is just how well they do this since their breadth of factual knowledge is so great.

In Philip Zelikow’s case, his Virginia students can ask him tough questions about the MOOC lecture content they watch in their dorm rooms during a weekly hour-and-fifteen minute discussion section. That must be tons of fun for him.  All that boring lecturing is already in the can, so now he can engage in an intense give-and-take with a lot of really gifted, motivated students.  But what about the people who’ll eventually flip their classrooms with Zelikow’s MOOC lectures on other campuses? What are their discussion sections going to be like?

What started me down this train of thought was the line I wrote the other day about my old algebra teacher, Mr. Manzer, going from desk to desk as we worked through our math problems.  What, I wondered, would a flipped college history classroom look like?We don’t have worksheets, we have texts.  My students (hopefully) do their reading at home, then (among many other things) we discuss the texts in class.  If they have to watch videos at home, when will they have time to do their reading?  Getting them to do one thing at home is hard enough, so what will happen if I try to make them do two?

And what happens if the students ask content questions about subjects that the non-super professor knows very little about? Since Adelman and Zelikow teach discussion sections based upon their own lectures, they can certainly answer questions about anything they said on tape.  Hire a poorly-paid proto-TA and hopefully students will get an expert on some aspect of World History, but they won’t necessarily get an expert on the aspects of World History that any particular superprofessor chooses to emphasize. Being underpaid is bad enough, but being an underpaid adjunct trapped teaching somebody else’s content is my definition of a living Hell.

We teach what we love not only because we love it, but because we bring more enthusiasm to our favorite material and therefore presumably teach it better. Do we want English professors teaching novels they don’t like? Economists teaching theories with which they vehemently disagree? Of course not. That’s because separating content selection from pedagogy is a recipe for bad pedagogy.

Yet the MOOC cheering squad is determined to do it anyways.  Josh Kim, in a well-meaning but incredibly naive column writes:

What students (and their parents) will pay for is what cannot be gotten from a MOOC. They will pay for interaction with the faculty member. They will pay for relationships with educators. They will pay to be able to enter into the process of knowledge creation.

The large lecture class designed around the delivery of curriculum is dead. MOOCs have killed this model of education, and good riddance and about time. The classes that will replace the one-way learning large lecture courses will be superior, but more expensive in every way.

We will look to build in robust methods of formative assessment into our course designs (following the examples of the MOOCs). No longer will a system of mid-term and finals (summative assessment) feel adequate – particularly when quizzes for learning are so embedded into the MOOC design.

We will place an increased emphasis on active learning. On faculty and student interactions that are flexible and personalized to the needs of the learner. We will devote resources to flipping the classroom, moving content delivery out precious “face-to-face” time, reserving in-class time for interaction, exercises, and exchanges.

But unless students attend a university with its own superprofessors, they won’t get that face-to-face time with the person who knows the most about the exact content that they’re learning. All they’ll get is a surrogate who’s had the most important prerogative of any professor – the ability to decide exactly what content they want to teach – stripped away from them. You can be the greatest teacher in the world, but you’ll never teach somebody else’s material nearly as well as you’ll teach the material that’s nearest and dearest to your heart, not to mention your particular area of expertise.

Mr. Manzer might have benefited greatly from flipping his classroom because, as I understand it, everyone pretty much teaches the same algebra everywhere. History, on the other hand, is going to be at least a little different in every professor’s classroom (as well it should be, for both pedagogical and cultural reasons). For world history, it’s likely to be very, very different from classroom to classroom.

Too bad the people pushing MOOCs on all of us don’t really give a damn.



14 responses

13 03 2013

You raise excellent questions here. Even in the “traditional” classroom, teaching one’s own choice of material, it isn’t necessarily easy to get a productive and fully engaged discussion going, particularly because students arrive in class having done the homework carefully and thoughtfully, perfunctorily, diligently but without comprehension, sketchily, or not at all–on any given day you get some in each of those categories. With a low-ranking contingent employee, or even a “regular” professor who hasn’t designed the primary material, how much more difficult and less productive is the session likely to be? I’d say “much more difficult, much less productive.”

13 03 2013
Spanish Prof

While I agree with most of what you say here, I have one caveat:
“Do we want English professors teaching novels they don’t like? Economists teaching theories with which they vehemently disagree?”

As a matter of personal taste, I really couldn’t care less for Garcia Marquez. However, I know his importance in the canon and I need to teach it in my survey of XXth century Latin American literature. In the same way, I know my Keynesian colleague in the Economics department does teach monetarism in her ECON 200 class, even though she vehemently disagrees with it.

13 03 2013
Jonathan Rees

I get it, but you and your colleague do it by choice rather than out of obligation.

13 03 2013
Derek Bruff

You raise an important point about instructor autonomy here. In the usual sense of the flipped classroom, the instructor selects the learning materials (textbooks, other readings, videos, whatever) students should engage with before class. If those materials are selected for an instructor (by whom isn’t clear from your post, but I can imagine administrators who might do this), that’s a real problem.

If the instructor gets to select the pre-class materials, then using video lectures from a MOOC isn’t that different from using a textbook, in terms of instructor autonomy. In either case, you’re using someone else’s materials, and you’ll have to decide how to handle that in class. I have a paper under review that looks at this very issue–the use of a MOOC as a “textbook” for a flipped course–from both the student and instructor perspective. It’s a course design problem, but one that’s solvable.

I’ll add that it sounds like you already “flip” your class, as do most faculty in the humanities. If you ask your students to do the reading before class, then discuss those readings during class, then you’re using a “flipped” model. I put “flipped” in quotes here because it’s only really a change if you spend all your class time introducing students to material during class–as is common in many science courses. In those settings, there’s good research> that shows flipping the classroom works.

13 03 2013

Flipping a classroom is just a recent fad that takes a portion of what good teachers have always done anyway and take it to an absurd conclusion. It works better in some subjects (math, languages) where there are more exercises than others, but it can work in a humanities classroom with presentations, group work, in-class shenanigans.

But the point that is missed by the faddishness, is that such things are merely tools–if used exclusively of the other educational ‘delivery’ techniques, ‘flipping’ a classroom becomes even more tired and useless than the ‘sage on stage’. Because, lets be honest about this, at least the sage is paid to be there and (should) try most days.

And, from my experience, you’re completely right about the weakness of ‘surrogacy’. Flipping the classroom actually requires more knowledge and skill from a teacher than giving a lecture.

14 03 2013
Music for Deckchairs

Like Derek Bruff, I’m also not sure this is about flipping or about choosing what materials you assign. For the majority of Australia’s casual academics, not choosing what you teach is business as usual. Likewise many casual and tenured academics working in disciplines that are structured around obligations to external professional accreditation.

I really think the privilege of deciding what content you want to teach is rare, when you take education as a whole. Sometimes Humanities scholars forget this.

So, in a friendly way, I’m suggesting that there’s a false opposition here between flipping and academic freedom to choose. The real issue is how to deliver what you have to deliver, whether you chose it or it was determined for you by the standards of your national dental association.

14 03 2013
Jonathan Rees


That’s the saddest thing I’ve read all day. Is there no academic freedom in Australia?

14 03 2013
Music for Deckchairs

There are two separate issues, one of which is a little different to the US, but the other I suspect must be the same.

The different: casual academics are typically hired to tutor and grade students in subjects designed by someone else than to design and deliver their own syllabus.

The same: curriculum that has to meet external professional standards doesn’t offer quite the same degree of creative freedom as the Humanities. I can’t imagine for a moment that US engineers or doctors are taught according to principles of academic freedom to choose.

So I have quite a bit of freedom about what I do, subject to usual committee oversight, because I have tenure and I teach in the Humanities; but my colleagues who teach Nursing have to make sure their students meet all the expected standards of their profession.

14 03 2013
Jonathan Rees

Ah, so this is what I was discussing with SpanishProf above!

Yes, there are external professional standards that I have to meet too. I, for example, hate teaching the American Civil War. [That’s a big reason I got out teaching the first half of the survey.] Nevertheless, I always spent days on the Civil War when I taught that course because I had a responsibility to do so. The difference is that I got to teach it my way. I could spend more time on Lincoln the Man, for example, rather than re-fight every battle in the war during lecture. As bad as adjuncts have it, we still at least share that prerogative.

We can’t teach ancient Greece in a US history course. However, we all deserve the right to teach US history our way, not the way any superprofessor wants us to do so. Even an adjunct can switch textbooks. Changing your MOOC would be a much bigger deal.

14 03 2013
Derek Bruff

Thanks for these comments. This has been a very interesting conversation.

Your statement that “changing your MOOC would be a much bigger deal” leaves me wondering, are you assuming that the use of a particular MOOC as a “super-textbook” for a particular on-campus course would be mandated by someone? If so, by whom? Because if it’s not mandated, then I don’t see how changing one’s MOOC would be any more difficult than changing one’s textbook. In fact, it would be easier in that you wouldn’t have students with used copies of last year’s textbooks they can’t resell…

14 03 2013
Jonathan Rees


There are license issues here, not from the MOOC creators but from the users. Coursera is cutting deals with individual campuses (like San Jose State – or is that Udacity?), not with individual faculty members.

14 03 2013
Derek Bruff

I see. Yes, Udacity has a pilot program with San Jose State to see if Udacity’s online courses can work as well as better as on-campus courses for remedial math students. I believe in that case, there won’t be on-campus faculty involved at all, which is a whole other problem. (Also, online courses for remedial students? Might those be the students that most benefit from in-person instruction?)

I haven’t heard of administrative mandates to use particular MOOCs. I would hope that if such things started to happen, that at the very least it would look like textbook adoption across multi-section courses. The assistant professors in our math department don’t get to pick their own textbooks, but at least they know there was a faculty committee that selected those textbooks.

14 03 2013
Music for Deckchairs

And I think the second issue here, Jonathan, is that you might get to teach a mandatory topic in a way that puts your preferred spin on it, but this really isn’t the same opportunity that’s offered to people who teach some of the fundamentals in professional degrees, because we’re really dealing with certifiable competencies in relation to safety or an assurable level of skill.

One of the most interesting things about the MOOC conversation, for me, has been the way that it has exposed very fundamental differences in assumption and experience between the disciplines. I suspect we are still at the stage that most of the platforms and business models are being developed by people who have a grudge against the way they were taught in particular disciplines, and have come to the wrong conclusion that this is the way everything is done, everywhere.

So I’m personally getting very tired of edupreneurs announcing that they’re radicalising education by replacing the standard lecture. I rarely lecture, so not only are they not radicalising me, but they’re also increasingly suppressing the fact that people like me do what we do, quite happily and uncontroversially.

18 03 2013
Adam Franklin-Lyons


I’m a couple days late to this, but I just found your blog – this seems like a great conversation.
I wanted to take up one particular point you made: “That’s because separating content selection from pedagogy is a recipe for bad pedagogy.” I work at a school that allows juniors and seniors to create their own large-scale projects with faculty sponsorship (very small liberal arts – 300 students, 40 faculty). In some sense, this makes me do a fair amount of teaching in which the content is student chosen, but I don’t feel like it greatly effects my own pedagogy. It makes me think much harder in terms of teaching of skills, joint research, and cooperative learning. It encourages a classroom experience that clarifies the differences between skills and content. I try to bring some of this type of teaching to my introductory classes as well. When I teach 20th century World History (I’m a medievalist by training), I make a great effort to demonstrate to students and actively work in class to show them _how_ I find and process the information I’ve chosen to teach. I sort of feel like what SpanishProf said above applies here as well: teaching Marquez probably highlights certain skills or knowledge someone majoring in Spanish should have, which SpanishProf probably feels more strongly about than personal enjoyment of Marquez.

All that said, it also requires a huge amount of face time – and I’m in complete agreement with the freedoms necessary for this type of teaching. In some sense, I’m able to do these things specifically because there is no standard textbook, and no mandate from the administration about specific content (or, for that matter even what courses I teach in a year). If a MOOC became required/mandated as part of a course I was teaching, I agree with the potentially stultifying effect that might have on the classroom as you describe.

Adam Franklin-Lyons

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