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To Flip or Not To Flip?

Inside Higher Ed: A Harvard professor no longer thinks students benefit from skipping lectures for his rigorous course. Experts weigh in on what his decision says about the flipped classroom and other alternative learning approaches.

The Harvard computer science professor David J. Malan has reversed course on his recommendation from last year that the 800 students in his CS50 course skip attending most of the semester’s lectures in person. Malan argued at the time that students could be just as successful, if not more, by watching recorded lectures online at their convenience, and he maintains that student outcomes didn’t vary between face-to-face and asynchronous learners.

But Malan now says some of last year’s students reported feeling that something was missing outside of the classroom, and he thinks students lose out on an essential component of the academic experience if they opt for the online lectures.

Malan's reversal prompts several questions, so Inside Digital Learning posed them to a panel of experts: Do you share the Harvard professor’s sense that online lectures alone can’t entirely replace the unique qualities of a classroom experience? Do his comments represent an indictment of the “flipped classroom” approach, or are they representative of a more specific setback? If a professor at one of the elite universities teaching one of the most sought-after courses reports difficulties in transitioning online, what challenges does that pose for similar course structures going forward? 

Here's what the experts had to say.

Yakut Gazi, associate dean of learning systems, professional education, Georgia Institute of Technology and Stephen W. Harmon, associate dean of research and professional education; director of education innovation, Center for 21st Century Universities; professor, College of Design; Georgia Institute of Technology 

Online lectures alone do not a flipped classroom make. Nor, for that matter, do lectures alone, either online or face-to-face, comprise an optimal learning experience. Learning is best facilitated by a combination of instructional events, including content presentation such as the lecture, as well as practice, feedback, and about six others. Any one of these events alone is insufficient for the most efficient and effective learning experience.

In flipped classes, the passive elements of instruction – the lower levels of learning – are moved to outside of class, which creates opportunities for in-class time to be used for active learning experiences such as teamwork, problem solving, hands-on experiences that tap into higher thinking skills. Typically, this approach has recently been translated into recording lectures for student consumption outside of class. While much emphasis has been put on the production of these lectures, data-driven approaches and best practices on what needs to take place inside the classroom are rare. What makes flipped learning successful is not just content. The following three elements are essential for the success of flipped classrooms: learning analytics systems that feed information and insights to the faculty member about students’ consumption of the lecture content; instructor’s action on this insight to address misconceptions and provide clarifications; and what replaces the lecture, instruction, or passive elements of the classroom. This latter is a critical element to which not much attention is paid.

Flipped classrooms offer notable benefits, including flexibility, student engagement, and opportunity for the development of “whole person” skills such as autonomy, communications, teamwork, and problem solving, among others. Of particular note, traditional lecture classes support a transmission model of education that works best for learning outcomes on the lower end of Bloom’s taxonomy. To reach more complex learning outcomes, student engagement and higher learning skills are needed, which flipped classrooms support.

It’s important to note that social aspects and the context of learning are also an essential part of the learner experience. At Georgia Tech, we engage teams of instructional designers and video production professionals to ensure that we make the best use of the methodologies and tools we have at our disposal to deliver a comprehensive online learning experience that goes beyond mere presentation of content. We encourage students in creating their own learning communities. Our learning environments have affordances for students to collaborate and build robust networks to enrich their learning experiences.

Successful flipped classes are more work to develop than traditional classes. Apart from requiring learning design professionals to produce them, flipped classes also demand larger front-end engagement from faculty. Students and faculty, who are not accustomed to the flipped model, may need time to get used to this way of learning and teaching. In addition, students may need a greater degree of self-discipline and organizational skills than they do in traditional classes to benefit fully from flipped classes.

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