A Case For Flipping Learning—Without Videos

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

A Case For Flipping Learning—Without Videos

By Sydney Johnson     May 24, 2018

A Case For Flipping Learning—Without Videos

This article is part of the guide 6 Key Trends to 21st Century Teaching.

When professor Lorena Barba talks to other educators about flipping their classrooms, the approach she hears is often similar. Faculty assign homework to expose students to a new concept before they arrive to class, and use class time to ask questions and do more-active learning.

In most cases, what professors ask students to do outside the classroom is watch video lectures. Barba thinks that part of the flipped approach needs to go, and that professors are relying too much on videos as a crutch.

“Some people think that moving instruction to the individual space means you give students just videos to consume,” says Barba, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at George Washington University. “But the problems with this video-first approach, it puts students in a mode where they are primed to memorize and it gives an illusion of confidence [in subject-matter understanding].”

Barba’s approach to flipping is different—nearly excluding video entirely (with the exception of one or two videos across the semester). Most of the students in her Masters-level course, Practical Numerical Methods with Python, have no prior coding experience. Nevertheless, they dive directly into programming exercises as homework using Jupyter Notebooks, an open-source web tool where users can create and share live code, data visualizations and notes about what they are working on. Instead of watching videos, students individually follow instructions and experiment with Python in the Jupyter platform first, then arrive to class with questions and work through problems together.

“They come primed to discuss those things and learn in classroom,” says Barba. “We are moving direct instruction to the individual space and doing active learning to the group space, and that active learning is more difficult.”

In Barba’s class, in-person active learning involves students working through examples and coding problems with peers in Jupyter. The professor also projects her own screen in the front of the class and works out a solution line-by-line so students can follow along.

“I make mistakes, and they make mistakes, and it’s a risky process,” says Barba. “But a lot of learning happens because of the fact that we all make mistakes.”

If students struggle through the Jupyter assignments in the individual space, Barba isn’t there to help them. That’s one of the reasons why the professor also hosts the course for free online via Open edX, the massive open online course provider’s free and open-source platform. There, students enrolled in the online or in-person course can access a discussion board about the course to ask questions or see how others got through a certain challenge.

“The MOOC is an extension of the on-campus course—it was really just making our on-campus experience public and open for anyone to follow,” says Barba. It was also “made to benefit my on-campus students as much as to provide this community to my student to be a part of.”

Flipped Research

The flipped learning model may seem commonplace to faculty and instructors in the humanities, where courses often ask students to read materials and come to class ready to discuss. But Barba believes it is still uncharted territory for many science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines and instructors. “STEM has always been lecture heavy,” she says, “and that's the big difference.”

A group of biology researchers from the University of Washington have tested Barba’s theory that active learning improves outcomes for STEM students in particular. Their study found that exam scores for undergraduate students in STEM courses were 6 percent higher in active-learning sections. It also found that students in traditional lecture courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail compared to their peers in active-learning classes.

Recently there has been an uptick in the amount of research on flipped learning as well. Robert Talbert, a mathematics professor at Grand Valley State University and author of the book “Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty,” tallies that the number of studies on flipped learning has gone up exponentially over the last six years, increasing nearly 61 percent per year.

Many of those papers report that students perform better in flipped settings compared to traditional lectures, or that there is little difference. Talbert’s own takeaway from the literature? “Flipped learning tends to do no harm.”

While not the groundbreaking review that flipped-learning advocates may want to hear, Talbert considers it a “small win.” He also points out that despite growing research, more is needed. Many of the existing studies are done by faculty members themselves who have used flipped learning in their own teaching, and some, he says are “pretty bad.”

Of the flipped learning examples Talbert has seen, Barba's class stands out: “Her approach puts active learning in literally every corner of the course. She doesn't fall back to passive lecture methods.” He adds that “there aren't many who use similar methods, but I think that may be changing.”

Barba is adamant that leaving video out of the curriculum has been a major part of her success with flipped learning. And she’s not shy to criticize those who assert that active learning can take place from simply watching a video.

“Unfortunately what has happened with edX and Coursera, they are pretty much convinced that video is the center of everything,” she says. “The edX CEO last year said interweaving videos with quizzes is active learning, and that's ridiculous.”

These days the professor considers herself an advocate of “the non-video school of MOOCs.” But for faculty who want to try flipped learning, videos are often an accessible entryway into trying out the inverted pedagogy, whether online or in-person.

Transitioning to a flipped classroom doesn't have to include using Python workbooks or creating a complimentary MOOC course. Instead, Barba’s advice for those looking to try out a flipped classroom is to implement the model one lesson at a time. Moving to flipped learning, “is often overwhelming or seems like a huge job, but it's not hard to think about changing one class, one week, one module,” she says. “Then experience how it works, and maybe next semester do it for two weeks.”


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