Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Bee in my Bonnet: Why discipline matters in designing a flipped class

This will be the first post in a series I am going to call "A Bee in my Bonnet."  What I mean by this is that these are posts where I take up an issue and rant a bit. These rants aren't directed at anyone in particular, though they are often stimulated by conversations (and disagreements).   Mostly, this is me thinking out loud about my disagreements with blended learning orthodoxy.  At the moment, most of the bees swirling around in my bonnet relate to ways in which I'm finding that a. flipping an intro-level humanities class works differently from a chemistry or calculus or statistics class; b. even within humanities, there are distinctions to be made. Intro  English has very different objectives from courses in fields that students generally don't study in any depth in middle school or high school (e.g. economics or classics); and c. those who are teaching the teachers (i.e. instructional design and instructional technology folks) would do well to be open to the fact that the current research, while helpful, doesn't always work very well for a class like mine.  And, if the aim is to encourage other faculty like me (i.e. faculty teaching courses that have some emphasis on delivery of declarative knowledge) to undertake blended learning, it will be helpful to be attunded to disciplinary differences, differences in student audience depending on the course and its particular function in a university curriculum, etc.  I am delighted with the preliminary results of my flipped course; but am also learning that the "best practices" I read about don't always make a lot of sense or even apply at all to the course I am teaching.

I am quickly learning that, for all that blended learning and flipped classes are a commonplace of conversations and faculty workshops at campuses around the country, we are still very much on a pedagogical frontier.  Our understanding of how this model works and, perhaps more importantly, why it works, is very much a work in progress.  As well, most of the preliminary research that is being used to create "best practices" guidelines for faculty interested in blending or flipping their classes comes out of the natural sciences/math/computer science disciplines.  Courses on logic taught out of philosophy departments are the rare instance of a liberal arts discipline using blended learning successfully.  All of these types of classes have something in common: they are concept based.  Teach a concept (how to calculate mass) and have students practice the application of that concept.  Concepts are reasonably discrete or, when they are cumulative, it is in a very logical, additive process.

But what about courses like my Introduction to Ancient Rome, where one of the explicit learning objectives is to master a body of declarative knowledge (a basic narrative of Roman history from 1000 BC-476 AD)?  It is all well and good for people to do seminars, write blog posts or journal articles, and record youtube videos heralding the death of the lecture.  That probably is and should be true for courses that don't require instructors to first teach students the basic facts of the topic of the course.  So, for instance, nearly every (all?) students taking Intro Chemistry at a university have had some chemistry before.  They might not have learned much, but they at least know what the field is about.  Likewise with English or math.  The same cannot be said for teaching students a dead language like Latin or Greek. Or teaching a course on the history and culture of ancient Rome.  For the most part, my students know where Rome is but they know very little else.  This semester, I did a content pre-test that used items from previous exams (so they were tested and we knew something about the likelihood that students would know the answer by the end of the semester).  These items were just basic facts.  The highest score was 50% and most students got 4-5 out of 24 correct.  In other words, about what you'd expect from pure guessing on every item.

I can't start out the semester having them apply or practice knowledge they don't have.  As well, the nature of my material is such that it is not well-suited to 3-5 minute mini-lectures.  It's not a series of concepts that come together to form the course; it's the story of a culture, with all sorts of interwoven complexities.  So I had a couple of big challenges when I decided to flip my Rome class.  First, how do I teach them basic declarative content without lecturing.  Can I assume that they can read the textbook, digest it, know the significance of various events without being told, etc.?  Well, no.  So I need to do that for them.  But I can't do it in 3-5 minute videos--that would be jarring and would never teach them enough unless they watched 20 of them for each week.  I agree that the 50 minute lecture is too long and unnecessary (though, ironically, many of the webinars telling us this are doing so in a 50-60 minute lecture). 

I decided to do 20-25 minute lectures, with a clear break in the middle for review (I have a slide with review questions and tell them to press pause).  I also remind them that they can always pause the lecture, just as they do when watching a movie on Netflix or a TV show on their DVR.  Nobody will require them to sit still for the entire 25 minutes.  But 20-25 minutes was a good way to "chunk" my material--not too long, not too short (and it could always be subdivided by the viewer).  That is the time it takes for me to present a concept and explain it.  My material is less dense in its initial presentation than a mathematical formula, though, which is why students will watch 25 minutes of a Roman history lecture but probably not 25 minutes of someone lecturing about math or chemistry or theoretical physics.

I absolutely agree that the lecture should not keep the same slide up for more than 5 minutes.  Slides should have an image as well as words, and the words should be minimal.  It helps the students focus if the slides change about every 3 minutes.  Faster than that might be too fast for most students, but much longer and they start to zone out/want to press fast-forward.  The trick is to find a pace that is steady, swift without being frenetic, and variable enough to keep the students focused.  It is very possible to do this with longer lectures.  I would not recommend a lecture longer than 30 minutes, however, and feel like somewhere between 20-25 minutes is the golden mean for a class with my content and constraints.  It is important to speak quickly (you will feel like you are chattering a mile a minute but it will sound completely normal); to have elegant and visually interesting slides (but not excessive amounts of animation); and, in my view, to move as little as possible.  The animation and charisma has to come from your voice, not from pacing around the video frame.  Your students may be able to tolerate your pacing around your classroom (I do this too) but on a screen it looks awkward and can be vomit-inducing.

What way forward?  The most important thing, particularly for learning specialists in campus centers for teaching and learning, is to keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules.  It really does depend a lot on the course content and student audience.  Certainly, with so much research now on flipped classes in the natural sciences, especially physics but also chemistry, we know a lot more about "best practices" for those disciplines.  But it's still a very new frontier for liberal arts and our subject matter is rather different from the natural sciences (not least because, in the introductory level courses that are most likely to be candidates for flipping, it is not problem-based).  Furthermore, one humanities class can't stand in as the model for all of them.  The key thing as we all venture out into the wilderness will be to have a good knowledge of what has worked in individual situations (and why); have flexible ideas about "best practices"; and, most of all, to think hard about what is going to work best for a particular class and its particular mix of students (and level of student experience with the subject matter).  Discipline matters!

No comments:

Post a Comment