Lessons turned upside down

23rd March 2012 at 00:00
`Flipped learning' - it's the latest craze in the teaching world. But what is it all about and does it work? Darren Evans explores the idea from top to bottom

In recent years, technology has transformed education like never before, turning the traditional classroom into a digital learning environment. Interactive whiteboards have replaced blackboards and chalk, and pupils are as likely to use a laptop or tablet computer to complete their homework as they are a textbook.

But a new idea sweeping the education world is turning traditional teaching and learning methodologies on their heads and making educators rethink the way they use technology as a tool. "Flipped learning" takes technology out of the school and puts it into the home, leaving the classroom as a place for learning instead of teaching.

Students are given videoed lectures to watch at home and in class the teacher sets work that would usually be given out as homework. In this way the classroom is "flipped", with the lesson taking place in the teacher's absence and the actual applied learning happening in the classroom, with the added benefit of the teacher being present to help facilitate it.

Russell Stannard, principal teaching fellow at Warwick University, says the concept of the flipped classroom is nothing new. "The idea is that with the potential of technology - especially video content, screencasts, captured lectures and interviews - there is now little need to provide students with the normal, formal lectures that are still the bread and butter of many higher educational institutions up and down the country," he says.

"Students can simply access what was once the lecture material from home and this frees up time in lectures for other things, perhaps for more tutorials or one-to-one work."

E-learning expert Donald Clark, a director of Ufi, the organisation behind Learndirect, says the approach is analogous to the one taken by corporate training and distance learning providers such as the Open University. "They let you learn in your time through the materials they provide and the tutors are there to help and close the knowledge gap," he says.

"This is not a particularly new or revolutionary idea, but in education in the UK it's not taken seriously yet. We have only just started to explore this. It is literally thinking outside of the box, the box in this case being the classroom.

"The classroom is an awkward environment in which to learn because of all the distractions, and the trouble with a lot of homework tasks in school is that kids get stuck because there's little or no help at home. We should be taking technology out of classrooms so they can be used for their intended purpose - learning."

In the US, the concept has been popularised by Salman Khan, founder of the not-for-profit education organisation, the Khan Academy. Five years ago, Mr Khan, then a hedge-fund analyst, started remotely tutoring his cousins by uploading videos to YouTube. Feedback from his cousins and others was overwhelmingly positive.

Speaking earlier this year at the annual TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conference in California, Mr Khan said he saw the benefits in the idea for home-schooled pupils but never thought it would penetrate the classroom.

"But then I started getting letters from teachers saying: `We use your videos to flip the classroom. You've given the lectures, so now what we do is assign the lectures for homework. And what used to be homework, we now have the students doing in the classroom.'"

Doing this, Mr Khan says, "humanises" the learning experience by removing the "one-size-fits-all" lecture from the classroom in favour of a "self- paced" lecture at home. "They took a fundamentally dehumanising experience: 30 kids with their fingers on their lips not allowed to interact with each other; a teacher, no matter how good, giving this one- size-fits-all lecture to 30 students. Now it's a human experience, now they are interacting," he told delegates at the conference. The Khan Academy claims to be the most-used educational video repository on the internet. Whether or not this is the case, it has more than 2,400 videos available for download.

Mr Stannard tried a similar approach in his previous post at Westminster University, with unforeseen benefits. He created screencasts to help explain technical issues on multimedia courses, reducing lecture time to an hour a week and increasing tutorial time.

But when the videos were made publicly available, large numbers of potential students viewed them and enquired about the course they related to. As a result, course numbers doubled in just two years.

Karl Fisch, director of technology at Arapahoe High School in Denver, Colorado, uses a slightly different flipped learning approach to teach algebra, which has become known as the "Fisch flip". He explains: "Like many teachers, I want my students to go beyond just learning the steps and algorithms and really think more deeply about the mathematics. While I think the `flipped' approach has a pretty good chance of helping kids master the skills, I'm not so sure it helps them understand the mathematics and become mathematical thinkers and problem solvers.

"Students will get a much better understanding of the mathematics if they spend some time exploring and enquiring about the mathematics in context, and help co-construct their own understanding."

So Mr Fisch's students will spend a class period (or two, or sometimes more) exploring a mathematical concept and trying to achieve a decent level of understanding, before watching the video for homework to reinforce the understanding and simultaneously practise the skill.

He says: "My thinking is they will have much better understanding if they help construct it, and then the videos help cement that understanding by taking them step-by-step through the skill or algorithm."

The advantages to the flipped learning approach are many. It allows teachers to create bespoke lessons that only have to be delivered once, freeing up valuable classroom time that can be put to better use helping students.

Because the videos are online they can be viewed repeatedly, on a variety of devices and at any time for as long as the content is relevant. However, as with any innovation there are potential pitfalls. Not all content is suited to the approach and not all students are suited to the type of learning. Neither are all teachers comfortable or savvy with new technology.

Curriculum changes could make old content obsolete, and without proper vetting it could allow the easy sharing of bad and possibly damaging classroom practice.

It will also require a huge cultural shift, with schools having to place more trust in teachers and in turn teachers having to place more trust in pupils. Resources will, of course, be a major issue for many schools. As well as investing in new technology, schools will have to provide professional training and development opportunities for their staff to make the most of the equipment and provide support for them to continue to do so.

Many will argue that there is nothing like a face-to-face learning experience, and while that may be true for some teachers and lecturers who make their lessons engaging and interactive, Mr Stannard argues it is still the case that many lessons include very little dialogue between teachers and students.

"What the flipped classroom can offer is greater flexibility," he says. "We are not talking about just a series of lectures put online. It could include interviews, screencasts, lectures, notes, links etc."

Mr Fisch says the approach is just one of many that a teacher should utilise. "I think it's important to note that, for anyone using a flipped approach in any manner, there are many other components of that instructional plan that contribute to how successful it is for students," he says. "A flipped approach does not stand in isolation, nor is it a replacement for the hard work that teachers and students do together."

Flipped learning video: tips on how to make one

Keep it short. We are teaching the YouTube generation and they want things in bite-sized pieces.

Animate your voice and add humour. Change the inflection of your voice - it keeps pupils engaged. We don't want to kill with videos. Make them exciting.

Do the vodcast with another teacher. There is something powerful about having two people having a discussion instead of one teacher talking at you. Pupils say they learn better listening to a conversation.

Add annotations, pictures and videos to make it more interesting. Videos of teachers or pupils doing cool experiments in class, for example, takes more time, but it allows pupils to see the science in action.

Keep it copyright-friendly. Since many of these will be posted online make sure you follow all appropriate copyright laws.

Jon Bergmann is lead technology facilitator at Joseph Sears School in Kenilworth, Illinois. He has co-authored a book on the flipped class, to be published by the International Society for Technology in Education

The flipped classroom is:

a means to increase interaction and personalised contact time between students and teachers;

an environment

where students take responsibility for their own learning;

a classroom where the teacher is not the "sage on the stage", but the "guide on the side";

a classroom where students who are absent due to illness or extra- curricular activities don't get left behind.


Salman Khan's website, with more than 2,400 videos: www.khanacademy.org

TED website, featuring Salman Khan's speech on using video to reinvent education:


Westminster University training videos: www.multimediatrainingvideos.com

Russell Stannard's website: www.russellstannard.com


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