Can You Flip an Online Class?

We recently asked a group of teaching assistants, “How do you think today’s college classroom is different than when you were an undergraduate student? What is the most significant change you’ve noticed?”

The number one answer? Technology.

This is not a surprise. What’s most interesting is that many of these graduate students were undergraduates just a few years ago, yet they still see technology as the most significant change in the college classroom. Why? Shouldn’t our students be used to it by now? Shouldn’t we? Either technology is changing so rapidly that we always see it as “new,” or we’re still struggling to integrate technology effectively and seamlessly into the learning experience. Or maybe it’s both.

Many have argued that education seems to be ‘the last frontier’ for technological disruption (Blin & Munro, 2008; Christensen, C., Aaron, & Clark, 2002; Christensen, 2002; Magid, L., 2013). Is it because the culture of education is resistant to change? Are we waiting for research to show how this change influences learning? Are we receiving the support we need to implement technology effectively? Are we concerned about the automatization of education? Do we struggle to use today’s technology because most of it wasn’t available when we were students? Are we seeing technology as a barrier between the students and us?

The answer to these questions is most likely some degree of “Yes.” We know the challenges and benefits of teaching and learning with technology. But we also know there’s something special about the learning experiences we share with our students in the face-to-face classroom. The face-to-face learning experience just can’t be replicated, yet many of us keep trying to recreate it with technology.

But maybe that’s the wrong approach. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to “replicate” those face-to-face learning experiences. Instead, we should try to find the technological tools that allow us to adapt the strategies we use in our face-to-face classes to engage with and connect to our students in the online environment, just in a different way.

One way to address this is to apply the flipped philosophy to the online classroom. The flipped classroom model can help us design more interactive and engaging online learning experiences, and online classes can help us expand on what it means to flip. Certainly there is something to learn by combining these two conversations.

During the past two years, the flipped classroom has been defined as reversing what happens “in” and “out” of the classroom. Some scholars define the flip even more specifically as reversing homework and lectures where students watch videos of lectures for homework “out of class” and then engage in problem-solving and analysis “in class”.

But what happens when we apply this flipped model to an online class? The “in” class and “out of class” terminology doesn’t work. In the online class, what exactly is “class time” and what is “before class time”? If the definition of the flipped classroom always distinguishes between “in class” and “out of class”, how can we apply the flipped approach to an online class? This is why we need to expand the definition of the flip.

In our work, we continue to push the conversations toward more comprehensive definitions of the flip. At its core, the flip means shifting the focus from the instructor to the students. You can do this by inverting the design of the course so students engage in activities, apply concepts, and focus on higher-level learning outcomes (Honeycutt & Garrett, 2013). Using this definition, the flip moves away from being defined as only something that happens in class vs. out of class. Instead, we focus on what students are doing to construct knowledge, connect with others, and engage in higher levels of critical thinking and analysis. This applies to both the online and face-to-face environment. The real flip is not about where activities take place—it’s about flipping the focus from you to your students.

Using this expanded definition, what flipped strategies could we integrate into an online class? Here are three flipped strategies to start the conversation:

1. Create a scavenger hunt. During the first week of class, create a scavenger hunt with your course web site. Ask students to locate important information, announcements, and deadlines. Offer an incentive for the first one to submit the completed scavenger hunt activity. Incentives may include the first choice on presentation topics, the chance to drop a low quiz grade, or the opportunity to gain an extra credit point on the final project.

Why it works: Students are actively locating information and constructing their own mental models of the course rather than just reading the course web site or listening to a video as you describe the structure and organization of the course.

2. Create a hashtag just for your course. Encourage students to use this hashtag if they find course-related items in different social media spaces or elsewhere on the web. Make sure the hashtag is unique to your course. Consider reviewing the posts and then sharing an item a week with the entire class.

Why it works: Students are actively contributing to the conversation by sharing resources and information they find rather than just reviewing the content you have collected.

3. Develop a low stakes assignment to encourage self-reflection and analysis. Ask students to reflect on their own learning styles or personality in the online environment before beginning the semester. Encouraging students to think about this actively might help them to prepare for the online environment as they analyze their strengths, weaknesses, challenges, etc. Supplement this activity by making it a private forum requirement, then post a global response to students afterward with suggestions on how to succeed in the online environment.

Why it works: Students are asked to analyze and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses in regards to a course, activity, or assignment. This can help build students’ capacity to advance towards higher levels of critical thinking.

These are flipped strategies because they shift the focus from the instructor to the students; they encourage active participation from students rather than passive observation; and, they engage students on a higher level by encouraging creativity and evaluation rather than basic knowledge recall. Most importantly, they all work in an online environment.

Whether a course is entirely face-to-face, entirely online, or a blend of the two, we can create student-centered learning experiences in our online environments by finding “flippable” moments in the digital space. Along the way we may discover that technology can encourage engagement and learning in ways the face-to-face classroom can’t. When we teach with technology, and when our students learn using technology, it doesn’t have to reduce engagement. We have the power to do the opposite.

Now it’s your turn, what flipped strategies have you tried in your online classes to encourage increased student engagement? Please share in the comment box.

Blin, F. & Munro, M, (2008). Why hasn’t technology disrupted academics’ teaching practices? Understanding resistance to change through the lens of activity theory. Computers and Education. Vol. 50, Issue 2. pp. 475-490.

Christensen, C. (2002). Improving higher education through disruption. Forum Futures. Available online:

Christensen, C., Aaron, S., & Clark, W. (2002). Disruption in education. In M. Devlin, R. Larson, & J. Meyerson (Eds.). The internet and the university: forum 2001. Available online from Educause:

Honeycutt, B. & Garrett, J. (September 2013). The flipped approach to a learner-centered class. (whitepaper). Magna Publications.

Honeycutt, B. & Glova, S. (2013). 101 Ways to Flip Your Online Class. Flip It Consulting & Reify Media. Raleigh, NC.

Magid, L. (February 26, 2013). Can technology disrupt education? Forbes. Available online:

Dr. Barbi Honeycutt is the founder of Flip It Consulting and the director of graduate professional development and teaching programs at North Carolina State University. Sarah Glova is a lecturer in the Professional Writing Program at North Carolina State University.