Saturday, May 25, 2013

MOOCs, the Flipped Class, and Disruptive Innovation

 (stolen from Noel Jackson's Twitter feed

[This post is a much expanded version of an essay that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on 22 July 2013]

In a recent post that responds to a white paper on hybrid learning from the Christensen Institute, the always savvy Audrey Watters brilliantly explicates the "myth of disruptive innovation" that underlies much of the rhetoric that calls for a reform of higher education.  As Watters rightly observes, the tech industry (and Silicon Valley VCs in particular) are front and center of this call for disruption:  "And as a self-appointed and self-described disruptor, the tech industry seems to have latched on to the most millennial elements of Christensen’s theories — that is, the predictions about the destruction of the old and the ascension of the new."  The millennial overtones of this rhetoric are recognizable--especially to those of us who remember the Y2K hype--and are clearly intended to reinforce the point that any resistance is futile.  The end of the world as we know it is already here, say advocates of Christensen-style disruptive innovation (a group that includes many MOOC advocates).

Yet, as Eliot predicted, the world is ending "not with a bang but with a whimper."  Lots of whimpering.  Most of it, we are told, by fat cat, lazy, incompetent faculty who are afraid of losing their jobs during this period of disruptive innovation (never mind that we ourselves are unlikely to lose our jobs.  Any whimpering on our part is on behalf of the students we are training for jobs we want to exist for at least another generation; and for the students who will attend our universities).  Indeed, among the more insulting aspects of the "disruptive innovation" rhetoric is the requirement to caricature hardworking, talented and often under-resourced faculty as lousy, change-resistant failures.  A fundamental--and deeply flawed--premise of the MOOC Incs. is that students are better served by the absent avatar of a star professor (whatever that means) than by the faculty currently employed by their (publicly funded) university.

This is a gross misrepresentation of what actually happens every day in classrooms around the nation.  In truth, decades of tight jobs markets across disciplines means that even poorly resourced institutions, even 3rd and 4th tier state institutions, are overflowing with faculty who are committed to teaching and who are actively engaged in research (just as elite institutions have plenty of latte-sipping faculty who are phoning it in).  Faculty at less prestigious institutions, who are teaching students from diverse backgrounds, are, I'd wager, far better facilitators of learning for their particular audience of students than those who have been lucky enough to teach at the elite institutions who are, at the moment producing the tools to disrupt higher education (i.e. MOOCs).

In addition, the pedagogy of a beginning math or computer science course (or even the first year of certain, dead languages like Ancient Greek and Latin) does not transfer to other disciplines, most especially not to disciplines which are centered on the act of inquiry, which don't have single correct answers.  The supporters of disruptive innovation in education should know at least this much.  It is intellectually irresponsible to suggest that an students enrolled at a less prestigious institution would learn better by watching Harvard students engage in the practice of education--a point articulately made by the San Jose State Philosophy Department in their open letter to Michael Sandel. 

Among the more disturbing features of the Christensen Institute white paper is its effort to appropriate hybrid/blended learning as part of its plan for disruptive innovation in education.  The reasons for this move are transparent: a blended classroom requires that some delivery of content be shifted out of the classroom.  This shift will likely (but not necessarily) require some form of educational technology.  It's also time-consuming to re-package this content.  Ed Tech companies, as well as the MOOC Incs, see the blended classroom as their entry ticket onto campuses.  They will "spare" overwhelmed and overworked faculty the hassle of creating video-taped lectures or other modes of content delivery for a price.  Some of this content may be drawn from MOOCs; but I imagine that much of it will be created on other platforms.  Faculty can then use these licensed "courses" to flip their class.  Everyone wins, right?  Silicon Valley makes money and all those hack, teaching-averse professors don't have to do anything out of their comfort zone.

Over time, institutions will recover the costs of their investment in content by increasing class sizes.  After all, if the instructor no longer has to lecture, her job just got a whole lot easier, right?   As tenured and tenure-track faculty leave for other jobs, retire, or die, further savings will be realized when these departed faculty are replaced by less costly alternatives.  After all, why have a highly-trained, experienced content specialist in the classroom when you can just press play and break out the popcorn?  Of course, this is a worst-case scenario.  Perhaps institutions will, at the very least, be sure to hire content specialists to curate the licensed courses.  I'm not optimistic about this, though: consider the fact that the English Department at San Jose St. is now going to be offering the controversial Justice course.  Philosophy, English, they aren't that different, right?  It's simply too tempting to devalue expertise, particularly when it is costly, and opt for the cheapest alternative.  To an extent, universities (with the complicity of faculty) have already laid the groundwork for this by relying so heavily on low-paid  graduate student instructors.  Yet, I'd argue, at least with graduate instructors there's the claim (even if largely fictional) that we are providing job training, that we are willing to tolerate less expertise because--like a teaching hospital--we have a responsibility to train the next generation of academics and college/university instructors.  Graduate student teaching is a form of student-teaching, with (ideally) a healthy dose of faculty mentoring.  What will likely happen once content delivery is separated from the course instructor is an entirely different and far more troubling scenario.

Blended learning and the flipped classroom are getting an undeservedly bad name, thanks to the antics of San Jose State with EdX as well as supporters of disruptive innovation in education.  I want to urge faculty to reclaim blended learning and the flipped class model.  The term is used casually by groups like the Christensen Institute, with little understanding of how, in fact, an on the ground implementation might work; and, therefore, why their version of it is very unlikely to be successful.  Having spent the past year experimenting with blended learning in a large enrollment humanities class; and learning a tremendous amount about what a successful version of such a class requires, I am irritated by the casual claim that the the future of disruptive innovation is the flipped class.  To be frank, such a claim is utterly comic if you've ever actually tried to flip a class, especially a large enrollment class.  I have the data to back me up on this.  What I'm saying to those who are resistant to the end of times rhetoric that is promulgated by supporters of disruptive innovation, including the MOOC Incs., is this: recognize that, in fact, the techniques of blended learning can do a lot to improve student learning in our courses, even in very large courses.  We can recognize the real value of blended learning techniques but refuse to outsource the production of content delivery to others.  Indeed, as instructors, we need to control all parts of our course, including any content delivery that takes place outside of class.

When I read the Christensen Institute paper extolling the hybrid class as the next new thing in the project of disruptive innovation in education; or hear one of the MOOC Incs. suggest that their courses will provide the backbone for flipping classes, I'm reminded of my own endearing naivete when I first began my project of flipping my large-enrollment Intro to Rome course.  It was typically a 220 student class but, because of an unexpectedly large freshman class in Fall 2012, enrollment doubled to just under 400 students.  I started the class with wide-eyed innocence.  I had spent the summer creating a series of short lectures on the content of the course.  I fully expected that the students would be delighted not to have to sit in class and listen to me lecture; instead, they would get to discuss questions, answer polls, talk, be active.  We faculty are told that students hate lecture courses; that "student-centered" teaching is the way to go.

The problem, as I soon discovered, is that nobody has told the students all of this.  They were genuinely disoriented when I didn't spend class time lecturing.  Only about 25% of them watched the pre-recorded lectures before class, so class discussion of content became an exercise in futility.  Their comments at the end of the semester made it clear that about 2/3 of them preferred a typical lecture class.  It was a terribly disheartening experience--and should be a big warning to institutions who think that all it takes to flip a class is the acquisition of a Super Professor's lectures (or any other packaged form of course content).  I'm pretty sure my students would have been no more interested in watching a Super Professor lecture on Ancient Rome than they were in watching me--it wasn't me or my style (as they clearly said in the surveys); it was the extra work required of them.

The fall cohort taught my team a lot about how to flip a class, at least at UT Austin.  First and foremost, assume resistance and disorientation.  Assume that you will need to spend a large amount of time training them in how to take such a class, in what their role in a flipped class will be (and what yours is).  Provide a lot of structure, including weekly quizzes that require students to stay on top of the course content.  Recognize that, in a large enrollment class, they will consume about 50-60% of the content in forms other than in class lecture.  Not 100%, not 80%.  As well, recognize that you can't just throw them into a flipped class; you have to ease them in.  So, at the start of the semester, I did a fair amount of in class lecture.  As the weeks went by, I gradually shifted more of the content to out of class.  Very, very gradually.

By the final month of the semester, the students were watching about 35-40 minutes of lecture for each class meeting (T/TH class).  If I had started out at that pace, however, I'd have had open rebellion on my hands.  Jonathan Rees touches on this very valid concern when he asks, "Whenever I hear somebody suggest that I flip my classroom, I always ask one thing: When are students going to have time to do the reading I assign?"  This is a genuine concern, and the answer will vary from course to course, institution to institution.  It is an especially important question for the very institutions whose administrations seem particularly keen to embrace the "buy the lectures, flip the class" model of instruction.

My Spring 2013 Intro to Rome class, while not a purely flipped class (I always did a little bit of content delivery in class, as a way of keeping students feeling oriented and connected to me), was a pretty clear success.  As I've posted, grades, especially in the A-B range, were remarkable.  More anecdotally, class sessions and the discussion board were a delight.  The students were able to discuss the complexities of Roman history in a way I've never seen among non-majors.  They remembered details and also made connections.  They were clearly thinking hard and engaged in the course content even though nearly all of them were non-majors.

I went into this academic year thinking that it would be an interesting experiment.  By December, I was very tempted to throw in the towel altogether.  After much discussion with other faculty, especially in the sciences, I rejiggered some things and adjusted my own expectations.  I adopted the guise of the "stealth flipper".  That is to say, I never lied to the students about the class or what was expected of them; but I also didn't make a big deal about it being a "flipped class."  I gave up trying to get them to buy into behaviors that would increase their learning.  I set up a system that took advantage of their interest in getting good grades to motivate good behavior.  Most importantly, 9 weekly quizzes (8 highest counted) were weighted the same as the 3 midterms.  Few were going to listen to me tell them that the course content could not be crammed by 90% of them; but I never had to say a word when I set up a system that, through grades, strongly discouraged cramming.

I have come out of this year a serious proponent of the flipped class model--but also a cautious advocate.  Flipped classes are not easy to teach and they are not easy to take.  An effective flipped class requires much more classroom support than a traditional lecture course and so is unlikely to be a great money-saver.  It requires more contact with students and more engagement from students.  What it does do is raise student grades and learning even in a large cohort--which ought to be the ultimate aim of a university course.  At least in the humanities, I am very skeptical that a flipped class will work with content created by someone other than the instructor.  Duke professor Mohamed Noor  used his own Coursera course to flip his campus-based course.  This makes sense to me; but I suspect that the flipped class would have been substantially less successful if Dr. Noor had been required to use someone else's lectures and other course materials as the "textbook" of his own course. In basic terms, every instructor tells his or her own story with the course content.  Not only is that part of the fun, but it's the place where our research intersects with our teaching.

Another key secret about flipping a class: content delivery is the easy part.  The hard part is figuring out what to do in class that keeps students engaged and motivated to prepare for class.    In other words, they have to come to see that doing assigned pre-class work; and then coming to class is an efficient way to learn (or, more precisely, to earn high grades).  It will take considerable effort and resources, not to mention additional classroom support staff in larger classes, to run pedagogically-sound flipped classes.  It will take a lot of energy to develop activities that work for one's particular audience--and what works for my group may well not work for a class at Haverford or Yale.   Different strokes for different folks, as the saying goes.

In the short run, the development of flipped classes will cost more money, not less.  Now, to be realistic, the version of the flipped class that I am describing is not the one envisioned by the disruptive innovation advocates and everyone else who is looking for the magic bullet to decrease the cost of a college degree from a public institution.  They seem to be imagining something more akin to what I experienced in the 4th grade, when my teacher was (unbeknownst to me or any of the parents) in the midst of a nervous breakdown: we spent all day watching educational videos, at recess, or making octopi out of yarn.  For weeks.  Until some parent finally got wind of what was going on and demanded an intervention, at which point we were all distributed to other classes.  Unfortunately for future college students, the pro-MOOC crowd seems to think it's just fine to plop kids in front of the computer and press play.  The disruptive innovators might argue that adding a teaching assistant to the mix and calling this a flipped class equals learning.  It does not.

As Aaron Bady has eloquently argued, the disruptive innovation (and, especially, the pro-MOOC) movement depends on the assumption that all teaching is bad (unless, apparently, it is happening at an institution that is a MOOC Inc partner); and that, therefore, something that is equally bad--or even worse--but cheaper is a reasonable alternative.  This claim cannot stand unchallenged.  Our first step has to be to take apart the assertion that, in general, the teaching happening at campuses around the country is sub-par.  Certainly there are examples of bad teaching everywhere, but they can be countered with many more examples of deeply invested, talented teachers working under increasingly hostile conditions and  inspiring a new generation of students to develop a practice of learning.  This is even true in large-enrollment classes.   Any educator would like to see every course on campus capped at 30, but this is unrealistic at most publicly-funded institutions.  Given these limitations, the techniques of blended learning, applied judiciously, using evidence of effective practice, and coupled with instructor mentoring, can do a lot to improve on the ground teaching.  The Course Transformation Program at UT Austin, which implements many of the techniques of blended learning, is a great case in point. Yet these efforts take money, money that those advocating for disruptive innovation would prefer to be directed away from institutions, students, and faculty and towards them.