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Class flipping: Good pedagogy or online hype?

May 5, 2012

Student asleep in lecture class

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.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Friedman permalink
    May 6, 2012 6:33 AM

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mark’s recent blog. I learned new terms that I had not heard of before but will remain with me–“sage on the stage” was particularly memorable. I agree with Mark about the negatives of online education as online courses certainly do not work well for a number of students, who also often take online courses for the wrong reasons. I also agree with Mark as well that economic forces driving online education are profit-seeking and revenue cutting. He is correct to observe that, though some of the forces behind this movement wish to democratize education, these well intentioned motives are not the driving force.

    However, the cynical profit-seeking motives will not disappear. I suspect that most technological transformations in the past have also been created to gain competitive advantage and make a profit. Online education is just a more recent example of a change that upends the traditional way of doing things for selfish reasons. When such changes occur, some very good things, such as fine craftsmanship, are lost, usually forever.

    If university professors choose to respond to the challenge of online education with the traditional classroom lecture, then they too will be relegated to the dustbin of history. As I mentioned in my previous post, the challenge of online education will not disappear or be argued out of existence. Professors will have to adapt and learn ways to put additional value into what they do, the type of value that cannot be replicated by online education. If the challenge of online education is met by incorporating its good points and adding value to what it cannot do, then universities will continue to thrive.

    The future of the University depends on our willingness to accept change and to adapt.

  2. Ben Hoyt permalink
    May 6, 2012 5:06 PM

    I think you do a good job, Professor Brown, of trying to give both sides of this argument equal weight and validity. I just don’t know if there is much to be said for the view put forward by Michele Pistone. It seems to me she perpetrates the great folly of idealizing the actual. In the course of her lecture, we learn the depths of atavism, for still subscribing to a medieval institution here in the 21st century. Clearly the middle-ages were dim times and our modern clear-thinking on the subject, has found a better way. There are lots of vacuous non-sequitors thrown around (what does the democratization of education mean, exactly?), the distinctions between what courses absolutely must be taught in person seem arbitrarily drawn, it would appear through advances and innovations, in the new medium of online teaching, we’ll make instruction whirr and whizz, always diverting, with the consumer of education able to digest the lesson apart from the distractions of campus, and the inconveniences of other students and boring faculty. I think the whole premise of her argument is so bitterly flawed, it is enough to make a cat laugh. The sole purposes of universities were to store books, scholars and to establish distinctions between the learned and the ignorant? This serves only (or even primarily) socio-economic ends? The technical vastness of the Internet, with its promise of complete freedom of intellectual choice, is somehow superior to direction and authority in the process of learning?

    This whole lecture wears a veneer of utility, and like anything so oriented, I think it misses moral questions. I think it overlooks the difficult to quantify, say the sense of community one gets in being a university student, as opposed to being an atomic individual, with all the ol’ “Lernfreiheit” Kerr talked about. Education is backing to being vocational, not about the making of citizens, but the manufacturing of individuals. The process is all about drawing upon the untold reserves of human capital, the mustering of enormous individual energies, for the perpetuation of the status-quo-ante in society. More and more people, able to devote more and more energy for no greater social goal than more efficiently enriching themselves and their society. It may seem Pollyanna-ish to ask where questions of what goals our public institutions ought to pursue fit in, in the face of a future filled with such stark efficiency. If we reduce education to a wholly private affair, completely divorce it from its medieval roots in the idea of community of learning, I think old Occam’s Razor may cut away too much. Even if somehow online education could batter down the barriers to higher education, a laudable goal, if one Pistone isn’t completely sold on the likelihood of, you would have two questions left to ask. One) would it be done for the right reasons and two) would there be anything in the rubble of the university worth salvaging?

  3. Monicka Patterson-Tutshcka permalink
    May 8, 2012 5:25 PM

    Like the previous posts, I worry that what we have here is cost-cutting parading about as “better teaching.” Shifting topics, I am also worried about trade-offs. If I ask students to watch a video at home, the chances that they will CAREFULLY READ the assigned material decrease considerably. My students work at jobs, they take too many classes each term, and they struggle to find the time to complete the reading assignments. In a visually crazed age, I’m trying to find imaginative ways to get students reading, as reading develops skills my students need but seem not to learn quite as well through visual media. Movies and lectures frequently are reductive, and I want students to learn how to synthesize material independently. Realistically speaking for my demographic, if I assign videos on top of reading….well….good-bye reading! But perhaps I’m too cynical….

    • Bob Friedman permalink
      May 9, 2012 11:04 AM

      A professor can use an online video as a supplement to reading materials. For example, one might assign Michael Sandel’s book Justice along with short segments, say 15 minutes, of the video of his Harvard lectures. I would suspect that watching Sandel engage the audience might help the book come alive for students who have been assigned to read it.

  4. June 1, 2012 11:12 PM

    I think classroom flipping is a terrible idea. First of all, a teacher’s job is to teach, not to entertain. The fact that a few slapstick undergraduates are substituting lecture for siesta time or not showing up for lecture at all (the latter being more likely) due to their disinterest in the subject, should not mean professors need to step outside the traditional chalkboard setting to keep the slacker engaged.

    In any given class, a teacher is very lucky if half the class has read the material assigned. In addition to a student having to read whatever amount they are to read prior to lecture, they are to listen to an online lecture on the same subject, and then discuss that subject in class? Unless you have a burning passion for the subject, it doesn’t seem too realistic that a student will give the three equal attention. As said before, either the lectures, the reading, or even the online lectures themselves, will be neglected.

    Secondly, we have to ask ourselves what the purpose of the university is. Does the education we receive in universities consists in lectures, or is it the overall experience of socializing with students from different backgrounds, working in groups, and being immersed in an environment ostensibly tailored to foster higher learning and new ideas that allows us to learn and grow as people? If real learning only exists within lectures and texts, then we can bulldoze the universities tomorrow. Sandel’s lectures are already online, and Hobbes’ Leviathan can be bought for 5 dollars. Using online lectures to supplement face to face classes might, might, be a good idea, but I don’t like the idea of basing the lectures on the online lectures, which is what classroom flipping seems to suggest.

    • Ben Hoyt permalink
      June 2, 2012 1:48 PM

      “Slapstick undergraduates” good call on the self-censorship. We know all about the Three Stooges approach to learning, don’t we?

  5. Justin permalink
    June 13, 2012 3:21 PM

    Taking a chance that I won’t be tied to a stake and burnt for my comments, while I think the argument for more online education as a cost saving benefit does have value I think it is the wrong argument. As technology has progressed it has been used for furthering ones education without the use of instructors. Take for example the Printing Press. Written literature became it increasingly accessible and flexible, which potentially allowed many persons around the world to enjoy writings by others with the ability to interpret on their own. Now yes not everyone has the ability to properly interpret what may have been written but it allowed for ideas to be spread much easier and without biases that having only a few to interpret and spread the writings. I’m sure there were many of the same arguments during the early days of the printing press, but I think we can all agree we are better off for it. Using the internet as a resource for education definitely has benefits that must be utilized such has Dr. Friedman commented on.

    Now to address the argument that students may not as Dr. Patterson-Tutshcka states, “the chances that they will CAREFULLY READ the assigned material decrease considerably”. There is no guarantee either that students will carefully read the assigned readings as well either. I think this is where the discussions in-class come about with guidance by the instructor. There are always going to be those students that give little effort, do not try, try and still do not understand, and those like Ben Hoyt who just get it (yes you too Noah). As an instructor it should be a concern to view out these students and this form of instruction might allow room for more of this.

    Lecture courses have their use and benefits and I think if used correctly and for the right courses that online instruction can be beneficial. The question is what courses are right for this instruction? I do not have an answer but I can give an example of a course that should not. CSU, Sacramento uses this form of instruction for Public Speaking courses. Students watch online lectures and meet in-class one day a week to present. I think giving instruction on Public Speaking definitely needs more than just a few minutes a week in front of others.

    Again, I think by arguing mainly on the cost benefit savings of this form of instruction is the wrong argument. This would be just an additional benefit. Students are going to either give effort or not and I think this attitude can be changed through either an in-class lecture or an online lecture. Delivery is important but so is the message.

    • Ben Hoyt permalink
      June 14, 2012 11:34 PM

      Burning at the stake isn’t in the cards, not at all. I don’t think anyone would argue that there are some benefits to online learning (except for the odd Luddite), and no one would argue against it on the grounds of mere obscurantism. What makes me a bit sore is the notion that thanks to online learning, we’ve discovered educational mana in a jar. That Pistone lecture was an exercise in technological triumphalism, if all the proponents of the future of higher-ed can come up with is so many fatuous red herrings, I’m not on board. The fact that teachers of the future will enable students’ iPads to play Wagner while they read Faust for English 27b, seems to miss a larger point about the importance of teaching.

      Teaching, to paraphrase one of my favorite passages from John Schaar, is more than just a delivery of facts and ideas. Rather, it is the fostering of the skill of learning. The teacher makes his or herself outmoded when finished. Until that point, there is a relationship of authority between student and teacher, teachers can be forceful or persuasive or use any number of leadership styles, but lead they must. I think, without sounding too much like Alan Bloom, that “the democratization of education” might also be the death of it, as we know it.

      To be clear, Pistone seems to be saying that the droll online learning we are used to belongs to our prehistoric ways of thinking about the uses of technology in teaching. It is going to go away as soon as we turn the internet into a learned grove, writ large. Undercutting the role of the teacher and trying to fill the gap with empty technic and brilliantly executed visual effects, this is what worries me.

  6. Bob Friedman permalink
    June 15, 2012 5:29 AM

    While “technological triumphalism” sounds bad as a concept, nonetheless there is a lot of truth to it. I feel that there is little doubt that technologies have changed the way we live and will change the way we teach.

    When I was writing my dissertation, I would place my finished chapters in an envelope and mail them off to my readers. A month or so later, I would receive their criticisms and I might get back to them in another month. Today, if writing my dissertation, I would e-mail my work and would expect to receive a prompt reply. In addition, we could schedule a Skype session so that we could talk about the work and where it was going. My point here is that online education has eliminated distance as a factor from teaching.

    Likewise, if pursuing a line of research where a particular researcher would be of great use in my work, I could easily correspond with him or her and also schedule a videoconference. If I wanted to learn a subject that was not taught at my university, I might easily be able to link into a video stream at a university where the course is taught and, in the future, I probably could earn a grade and credit at the University that I attend.

    If libraries are online, then I do not need to commute or travel to a university in order to do the research. Already, our concept of what a library is is undergoing a transformation. No longer will libraries be defined by their size but rather by the services that they can provide.

    Online education will also be a factor in helping rural communities survive. In the not too distant past, living in a rural community meant being condemned to “rural idiocy.” No longer is that the case. One can live in the boondocks and still live in the midst of the informational world.

    As I walk on campus these days, I do not see students meeting and socializing with people; typically what I observe are students glued to their smart phones and iPads. While college used to be viewed as a meeting place for people of different backgrounds (a romanticized view of the past given the dominance of fraternity and sorority life), nowadays people from different backgrounds simply walk past one another as they are fully attentive to their gadgets.

    I agree with Ben that a lot can be lost with online education. Some of this loss is inevitable. we are living in the midst of a technological transformation and the University will have to adapt to survive.

    • June 15, 2012 8:21 AM

      This is an interesting conversation. i enjoy the online learning environment-as a woman and a member of a minority group I was first attracted to online teaching because, at the beginning, it was only the words that mattered. Learners didn’t have certain pre-conceptions based on appearance-they could only judge my work by what I’d written and presented. In a live lecture, I not infrequently faced questions about my qualifications for the job. Harvard’s Implicit assumptions site is an interesting one for helping one identify one’s own preconceptions:

      As online teaching tools became more robust, the technology was no longer a shield, but also learners had changed and were more open to “listening” to the “man in charge” regardless whether that person was a man or not.

      I agree with Bob that this is a transformation that seems natural given the tools if we take a macro perspective. I also agree with Ben that we want to keep in the online environment those things that promote learning in the face to face environment. That’s something I struggle with each time I teach a class online; I would note, however, that I feel I connect on a different level with students in my online classes because they must do something visible in order to demonstrate their learning (my online classes are no larger than 45–this would be a different conversation if the classes are the MOOC classes).

      So, to the point about student reading or watching videos carefully. In all classes, face to face, hybrid and online, we must figure out ways to promote motivation and engagement. Nrodrigu5, I think it is more than entertainment–it is about getting students interested enough; to peak their curiosity. I teach hybrid classes where students don’t necessarily read carefully, but if the reading is important I give short quizzes to encourage reading. I do the same thing in online classes. I’ve experimented with Twitter in a face to face class with good initial results (See my post: and will try it in an online class this fall. I agree with Bob’s point–we can take advantage of the technology tools to improve the learning experience.

    • Ben Hoyt permalink
      June 15, 2012 10:33 AM

      I suppose what’s so distressing to me, little educational reactionary that I am, is that there has to be a wide gulf between what we consider online and electronic learning today, and what it will be in the vision of the Pistones in the field. The distinction she draws, in the video, between teaching and the evolution of film–briefly, that film started out as filmed plays and it took virtuosos to recognize the true potential of the medium and get over their hidebound resistance to change–leaves me somewhat unsatisfied.

      I know these sorts of analogies, going back to Plato, are very common, but good teaching is nothing like good film-making. The things that led to innovation in film making, snappy visual effects, making dialogue less prosaic and more suited for the medium, the angling of cameras, etc, like any sort of tool, shape the hand that wields them as much as they shape the finished product. Put differently, certain things in theater or literature didn’t transition to the new medium. In entertainment, we might all agree that whatever benefits the medium is good, film doesn’t need to be edifying, it can be any number of things. The discussion at the beginning of Faust between the Poet, Manager and Merry St. Andrews comes to mind. However, in education, the things that may well be left out might be invaluable.

      The things you mention, I think are all wonderful resources. There are out-of-print books that are large enough and boring enough I could have never feasibly read in a library setting, but online I can download them for free (how this impacts public funding for libraries and the number of independent book stores is another matter entirely). However, I think its worth noting that without ever being assigned to read Marx, and having in-class discussions with my professors about what I had read, I would not have thought to use Google books to read Feuerbach. Email, video conferencing and online lectures all have an important part to play in higher-ed today. We shouldn’t love the past because it is quaint and the present because it is what we are used to. I would never consciously commit the philosophic sin of idealizing the actual. I just worry about the nature of what lies just around the corner, the much desired goal of the triumphalists. When online education becomes the status quo, and the natural selection begins, I worry that the most informative and unique teaching styles will have to give way to what works with the mode of delivery. Anecdotally, most _non-hybrid_ online courses I’ve ever taken fall to a depressingly low lowest common denominator. Ala Noah’s undergraduates, I felt I might be better served taking a siesta rather than watching another abominable online lecture. Online, for profit, universities, have plenty of jokes made at their expense (you pay the fee, you get a B), and even if they accept these degrees as professionally valid, people still assign much more gravitas to the degree earned on campus.

      You’re right, campus community at CSUS is a shell of what it could and ought to be. As a person who spent a year running an on campus club, I am intimately aware of the apathy of students when it comes to interacting with their fellows. Maybe there is a larger societal mindset at work here, perhaps students are more nihilistic or solipsistic than in generations past, but, in my experience, the institution of the university was still immeasurably valuable in meeting people, making connections and broadening my mindset. I’m not convinced all three of these can happen in the informational amalgam of the Internet, not without some benevolent authority or a distinct personality type like Justin mentions, at least not in the same way.

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