Class flipping: Good pedagogy or online hype?
Most faculty don’t like to see their students sleeping in class, and most students would rather learn something or sleep somewhere else. The hottest pedagogical innovation to keep everyone awake and learning is the “flipped classroom.” (Here is a useful introduction, infographic, and set of links on class flipping.) Rather than lecturing to students in class and asking them to process the material by writing essays or studying for exams at home, have them listen to a lecture online at home and then talk about it in class. The lecture might be the professor’s own, perhaps broken into digestible segments, or it might be one of the many now available for free online. In large lecture classes, the professor might divide the class into pairs or small groups. However it’s done, the basic idea is not really new at all. It builds on the old pedagogical maxim: be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.”
What does seem relatively new is the attempt to combine the pedagogical argument for classroom flipping with an economic argument for radically expanding online education.
The columnist David Brooks recently noted that “elite, pace-setting universities” are making massive investments in online education. Like other boosters, Brooks says it increases access and flexibility, potentially allowing millions of students around the world to enjoy riveting lectures by the best teachers on any topic. Brooks is overly optimistic about the quality of online courses, ignoring the many contextual factors that make it work well for some students and horribly for others.
But Brooks rightly notes that the internet transmits information better than it generates understanding. He says that online education “turns transmitting knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available. But it also compels colleges to focus on the rest of the learning process, which is where the real value lies. . . . Online education could potentially push colleges up the value chain — away from information transmission and up to higher things.”
A recent TEDx lecture by Villanova law school professor Michele Pistone makes basically the same argument, adding a dose of technological determinism and academic populism. Skeptics concerned about the quality of online courses, she says, suffer from “a failure of imagination.” For Pistone, online ed promises “the worldwide democratization of education.” She doesn’t take up the much-discussed problems with cheating and high drop-out rates. And like Brooks, she ends her discussion by arguing that moving lectures online will improve face-to-face learning in the classroom. “Where the professor moves off the stage and becomes a coach, helping the student to use the information that they need to learn, actively, during every class.”
The problem is that neither Brooks nor Pistone say anything about the basic political and economic conflicts between online education and classroom flipping. They present these developments as complementary, when actually most of the momentum behind online education has more to do with its presumed economic benefits than its pedagogic merits. Online education has enormous potential to cut costs and generate revenue, and as it continues to expand, it’s unlikely that online lectures will be carefully paired with intimate classroom discussions, as the flipping model recommends. Instead, online-only courses will dominate, as universities seek to replace dwindling public funds.
Classroom flipping is a catchy name for good pedagogy. But it’s either cynical or naive to promote it as part of an online education juggernaut.