Thursday, August 1, 2013

Some Responses to Questions in the Comments of "Intro to Rome": The Flipped Version

Last week, I published a short overview of my experience with flipping (or blending) my 400-student Intro to Ancient Rome course in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Space was limited and a lot of important details had to be cut.  As well, the day after the article appeared, I immediately became extremely ill and so was unable to participate in the wonderful discussion that followed the article.  I was overjoyed to see that it elicited so many thoughtful comments and questions.  I certainly don't expect that everyone will be a fan of the flipped class approach, or believe that it truly can improve student engagement and learning.  That's ok.  My aim in writing the article was to give a first-person account of the experience, warts and all; and to offer some thoughts on how the dynamics of a flipped classroom might not be well-suited to relying on content delivery by someone other than the course instructor.  I am a big supporter of MOOC instructors using their own content to flip their own classes, as Duke Biology professor Mohamed Noor has done so successfully.

I am going to be continuing to work on and assess the effectiveness of my large enrollment Intro to Rome course with a team of learning specialists; and, in the coming semesters, we'll be experimenting a bit with different modes of delivery as we try to identify the types of students who thrive in different environments (small seminar, large enrollment lecture, blended large enrollment lecture, non-MOOC online).  Our goal is to be able to deliver this core curriculum course on a range of "platforms" and to support both synchronous and asynchronous learning.  I'm very excited about the project and have been delighted that the course has received funding support from both the Course Transformation Program at UT Austin (for the classroom-based, blended version); and from the UT System's Institute for Transformational Learning (for the online version).  I am also hoping that the project will become one of the inaugural research projects for a new teaching initiative sponsored by the Provost's office.  Fingers crossed!

I did want to answer some of the specific questions that were raised in the comments on the article or in conversation with me via Facebook and Twitter.  A common concern that many people have is "Why flip a class?"  This is a very good question, especially in reference to a large enrollment course taught in an auditorium.  The space of the room, as well as the number of students, makes any kind of peer-to-peer interaction during class time exceptionally difficult and difficult for the instructional team to manage.  In my case, I had never heard of the flipped class or blended learning when I approached our IT Department in early Spring 2012 about the possibility of pre-recording my class lectures.  My motives were most decidedly not to experiment with the shiny new pedagogical theory--I was too clueless to even realize that what I wanted to do was something called "flipping the class."

I had taught the course in Fall 2011 as a lecture course, but was in a room equipped with Echo360 lecture capture.  I quickly realized that, with the lecture capture technology, I needed to rethink what I was doing during class.  Coincidentally, I was approached by a friend in our College of Undergraduate Studies about adding an "Ethics Flag" to my class.  They were looking to convert a few large enrollment classes to" Ethics-Flagged" courses and mine seemed like a good possibility--after all, the Romans engaged in a lot of ethically questionable activities!  I knew that if I was going to add the Ethics component to the course I was going to need to, first, shift some of the Roman history content out of class; and second, find ways to make the in class experience more active and engaged.  This was the impetus to do what I later learned was "flipping the class".  As I learned more about the flipped class model, I was also intrigued by the promise of learning gains.  I wasn't sure how the research on small flipped classes would translate to a large enrollment flipped class, but I was curious to see.  Before I flipped the Rome class, I struggled with being unable to expect students to do more than regurgitate factual information on exams.  Any time I tried to push them to do more interpretive work, the results were disappointing.  I felt like I couldn't expect them to improve unless we were practicing those skills in class, yet the logistics of a large class with 1 TA/100 students made any kind of sustained practice with regular feedback nearly impossible.

One of the reasons I had never heard of the flipped class model is that, as a humanist, all of our small courses are theoretically flipped.  This is certainly the case when I teach an upper division Latin literature course (in Latin).  I assign the students to read Latin and perhaps also some secondary literature.  We review problem areas and do application exercises during class time.  For humanists, there's nothing particularly innovative about flipping a class.  What is innovative about my project is flipping a large enrollment course.  Even if some faculty will say that, in a 400 student class, they assign readings and then "discuss" them during class, the reality is that faculty are largely founts of information, delivering content while students scribble notes.  Sure, a few students will chime in from time to time, but with very few exceptions, these courses are lecture courses.  As well, I think there's something important about being deliberate about one's pedagogy (an excellent post by Robert Talbert expanding on this point).  After my experience with the Rome class, I've been much more deliberate about protecting class time for learning activities that require my presence even in my small graduate seminars.  As a result, students are taking a much more active role in the classes and there is a much stronger emphasis on peer instruction.  Sure, these seminars had always had these elements in place; but now they are there in a deliberate and thoughtful way, and I regularly ask the students to reflect on how they are learning.

One concern that is regularly raised when I talk about my flipped class is the issue of overloading students with homework.  This is a valid and serious issue.  I screwed it up when I did the first version of the flipped class--there was far too much outside of class work and many students let me know that on the end of semester surveys.  They were right.  When I reworked the class for the following semester, I deliberately cut the homework back.  This meant bringing back some content delivery to class (which was a good idea for other reasons as well).  It also meant cutting out some of the content.  In the non-ethics flagged, lecture course, we went all the way to the fall of the western empire in 476 AD.  In the Spring 2013 ethics-flagged version, we stopped with the death of Marcus Aurelius.  As a specialist of the 3rd and 4th century AD, I was disappointed to cut this part of the course out but it was clearly necessary.  I was then able to spread the assigned textbook readings out a bit more, as well as the assigned lectures.  I cut the number of assigned lectures from about 50 to about 25.  I did add a few short primary readings for the ethics cases, but none that were more than a few pages.  Students still found the class to have a lot of reading, but that was more reflective of their  non-liberal arts background than any excessive assignments.  I feel like the current version gets it right, but it definitely took some tinkering and a reality check.  I also learned that I had to put in place weekly quizzes to motivate them to keep up on the assigned work.  This also worked extremely well.  Without this enforced pacing, it would have been very easy for students to feel overwhelmed with all the course materials: textbook readings, pre-recorded lectures, recorded lectures, practice questions, etc.

The other common question: so what do you do in class in place of lecturing?  That's a question that deserves its own post...


  1. I'm glad you decided to write this addendum to your article in the Chronicle. Here at UMBC, I've had the interesting task of 'flipping' our summer Myth offerings. I agree completely with your choice of focused, frequent assignments. It certainly helps students manage the reading, and it helps them process material more readily. I also think we are all right in producing our own content for out-of-class lectures/podcasts/vodcasts, etc. While using other lecture material is quicker, it lacks the personal and vibrant interactions that are possible between instructor and instructed. I look forward to how you spent your class time, because that is where I think most of the 'flipped' discussion happens.

  2. Wow, I can only imagine how challenging it was to be told to flip a summer myth class. Not at all easy with our non-problem based content. But yes, the key seems to be a lot of structure for the out of class work as well as structured in class work that helps the students process/connect/learn. I'm working on the "what I did during class" post now; you're right, that's the huge challenge in this.