March 31st, 2014

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.

  • Linda Fettig

    Similar to the idea of the hashtag, I incorporate a "Cyber Cafe" within the Discussion Board in each of my courses. I encourage the students to use this to ask for guidance and assistance from the other students (and I do also respond but often the other students are online and can respond immediately), share course related materials, and also share non-course related materials (new babies, engagements, etc.). This helps students bond as peers and gives them a place to enrich the course.

    • Barbi Honeycutt, Ph.D.

      Great idea – thanks for sharing Linda! I participated in a Cyber Cafe model in person once and I never thought about transferring that experience online to foster more collaboration and engagement.

  • Tiffany Reiss

    I often use the site TheHubEdu, which I helped create, and have my students curate their own content pertaining to what we are talking about in the "classroom" and share with their peers and myself. Students can begin to build their own library of resources pertaining to those specific topics and it gives me an opportunity to more informally interact with them around these educational resources in a social, yet educational context. It's great because the resources are often ones they find online, so often they are less "robust" but it also helps me guide them in understanding how these resources connect to the actual classroom discussion and which ones are worthy and which ones are not. Plus, these resources do seem to help them stay engaged. I might also curate content for them and send them to my shelf to discuss certain resources within TheHub's less formal setting.

    • Barbi Honeycutt, Ph.D.

      Thanks for sharing Tiffany – I will have to check out TheHubEdu as a resource. I like the way you use their resource lists to enhance class discussions.

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  • barrydahl

    Sorry to be a spoil sport, but to "flip an online class" would be to put some of it back into the F2F classroom. So please, don't go there. Work towards implementing and promoting effective practices that help increase successful student performance, but please stop encouraging the idea that everything must be flipped. It doesn't.

    • Barbi Honeycutt, Ph.D.

      Thanks for your feedback Barry. In our work we actually push against flipping everything which is why we promote "flippable moments" (see link in article). There are flippable moments in the digital space which is what we want to encourage faculty to find. Too often the online course is just a series of videos and a few discussions. There's more we can be doing in our virtual spaces – it's about integrating active learning into any learning environment, not just the F2F ones.

      • Interesting discussion Barry and Barbi. Thanks. As an online instructor and instructional designer the "how to" of flipping the online classroom is one I struggle with, however I also struggle with the continuum from fully face2face classroom to fully online. If you have a fully online class that uses a synchronous web session, where does it fit on the continuum? Is this hybrid delivery?

        I see flipped delivery practices as a solution to the challenges faced by my distributed college (13 campuses) where there is uneven distribution of students in some programs. If we use flipped practices in putting the content online and opening the course to both on-site and online students, the activity distinction becomes asynchronous – synchronous rather that in class and out of class. On site students could meet f2f with the instructor and online students could meet in an online room (adobe connect or Collaborate for example). All would benefit from the online discussion activities.

        We have tried this with a few courses and it seems to be working quite well. I am still working through the process.

      • Enid Newberg

        I have been working with an instructor who decided to flip her enter online course – after 9 months and 14 students – one student passed. Asking people to go here and read, watch this video, search for this information – without having direct interaction (as you can in face-to-face) just doesn't work.

  • Alan Moore

    I am considering having students suggest a discussion question to be used in the online class. Instead of the instructor posting all the questions, students can explore a topic that seems of particular interest to them. The suggestions would be posted and then voted on by the class.

    Rather than using a hashtag, I require students to contribute to the weekly discussions by citing (sharing) a reference or resource they have found related to the weekly topics as part of their responses. Some lively and active discussions often ensue.

    • Barbi Honeycutt, Ph.D.

      Thanks Alan! I like how you've added voting to the online discussions – that's a great way to determine interest among the students and shift the class discussions towards topics students are most interested in (what a great way to enhance motivation as well!).

  • Shana

    I teach an online class in which each week the students read a chapter in the textbook, watch a recorded video lecture on that topic, watch some supplemental videos or read articles, take a multiple choice quiz, then meet on Google Hangout with a small group of classmates to discuss everything. They record their Hangout to youtube and post the link on the discussion board. I then watch the Hangout and type feedback on the discussion board. I actually know which students are "getting it" more than in my face to face classes because I see every single student talking about the material in the Hangouts. In my face to face class if I have small group discussions I don't get to hear what everyone says. In the large group discussions during lecture, many students choose not to speak. It is time consuming for me to watch the Hangouts and give feedback but I think it is beneficial to their learning.

    • Barbi Honeycutt, Ph.D.

      Hi Shana! This is one of the best ways to use Google Hangouts I've ever heard of for teaching and learning purposes. Thanks for sharing. I think you should write a Faculty Focus article and teach us how you do this! : )

    • John

      Using videos is a great way to connect with student online. I had one follow up suggestion to your idea of recording a Hangout and posting it on Youtube. One of the problems with video is the difficulty in talking about confusing moments after the video has been recorded. The discussion and the video are always separated from each other. It is hard to further elaborate about a specific point in the video or address a confusing moment. There is a new website called Vidbolt which allows you to attach a comment or question to any moment in the video. That comment stays attached to that moment in the video and you can visually see where the comments are made in the video. You can also embed the videos and comments right on your own webpage if you want. Here is an example of a video and how people can use Vidbolt to discuss the various video moments.

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  • svenaake

    "Flippable moments" is the key. It all depends on what you want the students to learn. You just have to have a big toolbox and choose the appropriate tool for the task at hand.

  • Terry Thompson

    In my economics online class, I assign students to write an insight paper applying a particular principle or concept to their company or organization. Also, I ask them to write how their company or organization reflects a particular principle or concept. These papers are graded with accompanying comments from me.

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  • S. Stewart-Alexander

    In my online developmental writing course, I have Five Commandments for being successful in the class, such as Thou shalt not procrastinate as the material literally will disappear by the deadline, etc. Then, I have students create one using Thou shall… or Thou shalt not…. After receiving them all, I compile them into a discussion board and have the students vote on the best one, justifying why they selected that commandment. The commandment that receives the most votes becomes the Sixth Course Commandment.

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  • Its a fact that technology changes the world continuously and the online studies is the gift of technology for us. many of students get education for their interests. there is also a opportunity of getting help for online studies and much more and that's very cool.

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  • Shenaz

    I tried creating lectures on Softchalk. The feedback was positive and the students were very engaged. It took the same amount of time to create the Softchalk lessons as it did my powerpoint lectures, but I found the the students were much more engaged during the face to face class time.