Is “Flipping” a Fad? A Closer Look at the Principles Behind Blended Learning

Here at APRIL, flipped classrooms are on our minds once again as we get ready for our upcoming Pedagogy Panel on Blended Learning. This Hung (2015) article recently caught my eye because it pertained to students learning English, and I’ve heard lots of anecdotal evidence from instructors that recorded content (e.g. lecture capture, podcasts and slide shares) is especially valued by international students.

Hung’s findings provide some empirical confirmation of these anecdotes. International students can take steps to overcome weaker oral comprehension skills by reviewing lecture content when and where they need to. However, it is also noted in many studies that most students generally value this feature (Butt, 2014; Kim et al., 2014; O’ Flaherty & Phillips, 2015). Like the HEQCO flipped classroom (2014) study I discussed in this previous blog, Hung’s study adds to research that finds flipping can increase student engagement and promote better quality learning if it is part of a well designed overall pedagogical strategy.

This overall strategy thing is a central consideration, and it is worth spending a moment on especially given that  “flipping” is sometimes dismissed as a fad. And  flipping can indeed be a flash in the pan if proponents emphasize technology at the expense of more fundamental questions about instructional design. Flipping is simply one form of blended learning, and blended learning should never be done simply for the sake of incorporating technology. That’s the tail wagging the dog, right? From my reading, some definitions of blended learning do tend to technocentric thinking, emphasizing the functions and affordances of tools instead of the underlying principle that blended learning, like all instructional design, is about using the right tools at the right times and in the right places to achieve an overall desired learning outcome.

In a nutshell, regardless of technologies employed, the successful “blend” incentivizes students (whether by carrot or stick) to engage in well-structured, purposeful self-study outside of classroom (Kim, Kim, Khera & Getman, 2014). In-class activities reinforce, elaborate, enrich, and clarify in ways that help students to see that their self-study activities are worthwhile. In-class activities promote active learning, wherein students debate, explain, collaborate, practice, write, and otherwise do things with the content they are learning (Biggs & Tang, 2011).

Good learning at home. Good learning in class. Meaningful connections between these environments. That is all. Instructional technologies have merely expanded the options and tools we have available to us to achieve these goals.

Okay, sure. But in the Arts and Humanities, instructors may read something like this and say “Well duh. We ‘flip’ by asking students to read on their own time. We’ve always done this.” Correct. Hung (2015) observes — righlty so — that that research on flipped classrooms has been drawn almost entirely from deductively taught STEM disciplines and (again rightly so) that the more inductive approaches used in humanities disciplines may not lend themselves in obvious ways to flipping and other blended learning strategies.

So do we then blow off the whole idea of blended learning? To do so may mean foreclosing on some very useful questions about how effectively our students are learning when they aren’t sitting in front of us in class. Setting technology aside for the moment, designing for blended learning invites us to ask:

  • Are students working on their own? If not, why not, and what can we do about this?
  • Do students know the aims of their self-study activities? Do they know why you are asking them to invest their time in out-of-class learning, whatever form this learning takes?
  • Do students “get it” on their own? How do we know if they “get it” or not? How can we build in formative assessments to catch and address misunderstandings before they show up in exams and papers?
  • Do students bring problems and questions to class? If not, what strategies can be used to encourage this behaviour?
  • Can we expand learning opportunities beyond traditional text (i.e. “reading”) to help students use and think critically about non-traditional media, given its pervasiveness in their daily experiences?

If you’re reading this and thinking that blended learning isn’t such a great departure from what we generally call good teaching – well that’s kind of the point. In many ways it isn’t a big deal. Online quizzes, webquests, lecture capture, Twitter and podcasting are among the tech tools an instructor can use to connect in class learning with out of class learning, and thereby keep students accountable when they are off on their own. But just as often, the “tools” we use for blended learning can be pretty low-tech. Okay really low tech. Here’s an example:

The “High Tech” Way The “Low-Tech” Way
Students: In your e-class journal, summarize xxx in 150 words. Read the summaries of your group members. Be prepared to compare your summary with your group members’ summaries in class on Wednesday. Students: (At the beginning of class.) Jot down three reasons why this passage of text is important to our discussion of ___________. With your group, you’ll discuss and write a short summary of your ideas and hand it in at the end of class.
Instructor/TA: Reads summaries as a formative assessment strategies and assigns a credit/no-credit grade. Instructor/TA: Collects group-written paragraphs for formative assessment purposes and assigns credit/no-credit grade.

As you can see, the technologies used here are a secondary consideration. E-class or pen-to-paper, the underlying strategy is the same: Students are give a short, focused, time-sensitive assignment. They are held accountable for their work by the expectations of their peers, and by a small, “low stakes” assignment credit. The goals in each case are also the same: to create a meaningful framework for students’ self-study out of class, and to connect that learning directly to active learning in class.

It may be unorthodox to downplay technology, especially given that research literature typically regards instructional technologies (IT) as integral to blended learning. However, I’ve argued here that the emphasis on IT can cause professors to chuck out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Research into blended learning (including flipped classrooms) tells us a lot about good teaching generally, particularly as this concerns connecting in-class and self-directed learning. When the primary focus is placed pedagogy, blended learning simply invites us to consider our students’ many learning environments in more imaginative ways, and extend the reach of our teaching beyond the classroom walls.

References

Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does (4th ed.). Maidenhead and New York: McGraw Hill.

Butt, A. (2014). Student views on the use of a flipped classroom approach: Evidence from Australia. Business Education & Accreditation, 6(1), 33–44.

Kim, M. K., Kim, S. M., Khera, O., & Getman, J. (2014). The experience of three flipped classrooms in an urban university: An exploration of design principles. Internet and Higher Education, 22, 37–50. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2014.04.003

O’Flaherty, J., & Phillips, C. (2015). The use of flipped classrooms in higher education: A scoping review. Internet and Higher Education, 25, 85–95. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2015.02.002

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