October 29th, 2014

A Few Concerns about the Rush to Flip


I have some concerns about flipping courses. Maybe I’m just hung up on the name—flipping is what we do with pancakes. It’s a quick, fluid motion and looks easy to those of us waiting at the breakfast table. I’m not sure those connotations are good when associated with courses and that leads to what centers my concerns. I keep hearing what sounds to me like “flippant” attitudes about what’s involved.

In theory, I couldn’t be more supportive of the idea—it’s learner-centered from the inside out. And I believe those who are flipping courses are doing so for the right reasons: spending time in class problem solving, analyzing, discussing, and asking questions is good active learning pedagogy. But when students are responsible for learning material outside of class, their success depends on their abilities as independent, self-directed learners and that’s what concerns me.

This past weekend, a faculty member told me that his lectures are now all on podcasts that students watch on their own. The main advantage, he said (in addition to him not having to lecture), was that students could watch the lectures as many times as they needed. But the image that popped into my mind was a student at his desk, the computer on with the podcast running, loud music playing the background, the student munching popcorn and jotting ideas for an English paper he had yet to start writing. If I wasn’t old and cynical I could have seen a student in the library, listening to the podcast, stopping it to take notes and to look up related material in the text. Most students are probably between these two extremes, but I’m pretty sure a lot are closer to the first description than the second.

I worry that our affection for the idea of flipping, now supported by a range of wonderful technology options, is causing us to overlook the careful design work involved in guiding those independent learning experiences. When students don’t have good study skills, the materials they work on outside of class must do double duty. They must help students learn the material at the same time they develop the study skills on which mastery depends. That requires extensive design work. I often refer people to Dee Silverthorn’s great article, which describes what she created to ensure that students are studying in ways that promote mastery of the material.

My second concern is related, perhaps overlapping. Who should be taking flipped courses? First-year students or seniors? Or are they equally appropriate for everybody? We didn’t ask that question very often about online courses, and we now have pretty compelling evidence that they aren’t especially good for beginning students who lack motivation and solid learning skills. I keep wondering when it will come to us that very few instructional approaches work well for all learners. One of the first questions we should be asking about any new method is whose learning will benefit the most from that approach.

The third concern is a similar one related to content. Does the content of some courses flip more successfully than content in other courses? Is some content within a course more amendable to learning outside class, on your own? What criteria do we use when deciding what content to flip? Given the design challenges, plus the learning needs of students and these decisions about content, I’m encouraged to be reading (and hearing) the recommendation for incremental flipping—where you start small and only flip portions of a course. Whatever content gets flipped needs to be assessed, not with not anecdotal impressions, but systematic inquiries that explore whether the flipped material is being mastered at appropriate levels of learning.

There is nothing inherent that prevents flipped courses from being vital learning experiences, better in fact than what many students experience in face-to-face courses. I am fully aware that many students aren’t learning well in traditional classrooms. We need to be exploring alternatives and flipped courses hold great promise. But courses can’t be flipped as easily as pancakes. My colleague Nicki Monahan says it succinctly, “If flipping is just reversing what happens inside and outside of class, then it’s a short-sighted strategy.”

Silverthorn, D. U. “Teaching and Learning in the Interactive Classroom.” Advances in Physiology Education, 2006, 30, 135-140.