Just Flip It

Notes from the front lines of the flipped classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Ralph S. Welsh

CREDIT Clemson UniversityIt’s easy to picture a traditional classroom — a lecturing professor with rows of students watching, listening and taking notes. But that age-old model is turning a cartwheel in some of the best classrooms in academia, and chances are someone in your department is already flipping their classroom. I started experimenting with this technology-driven pedagogy three years ago, redesigning and refining my courses over time and putting the onus on the student to come to class already having watched the lectures and ready to engage in conversation. During that time I met and overcame challenges and reset my teaching style to positive feedback from my students.

Education is really evolving worldwide. We’ve gone from traditional classrooms where we all gathered, listened to the lecture and took notes to more dynamic classrooms where almost everyone has a laptop open and access to almost anything on the internet. As a professor, I sometimes wonder, “What’s on their screens?” “What’s on in their minds?” “Was it the material I was presenting or was it something else?”

Are they really taking notes? Are they Facebooking? Tweeting? Are they on YouTube? Are they really paying attention to my lecture at all? This is one of the reasons why I explored the flipped classroom approach. Maybe some of you fear this as a lecturer or administrator. Heck, nobody wants to “Flip Out” during a semester as a result of an idea gone bad!  But this isn’t meant to be a scary story. I like to describe this process as a real-life drama, a story where teachers like me and students take on these challenges and try to come up with happy endings.

Taking on this teaching style can seem intimidating. I was scared that I would walk into a classroom and no one would be there because students would just watch recorded lectures and I wouldn’t be needed: a concern I had as a non-tenure tract lecturer.  But I soon found there was no reason to fear the flipped classroom, and I have actually enjoyed the experience.

Why flip at Clemson?

There were several forces that really pushed me into this new teaching style.

At Clemson University we saw a high demand for our health sciences major. We were seeing approximately 600-700 students apply every fall with approximately 50 actually getting accepted into our small department. Also, we had a limited number of faculty available to teach these courses, and, like institutions worldwide, we’ve been experiencing budget cuts. All of these things resulted in an even greater need for effective and efficient teaching strategies.

The university looked towards growing our online education program to accommodate these needs as well as other factors key to enhancing the cost effectiveness of providing quality education to Clemson students.

Over the 20 years I’d been teaching I realized I’d grown older, and the new generation of learners coming into my classroom was very different. They had laptops, they used cell phones, and their way of thinking and studying was different. I felt I needed to adapt to their style, because what was working very effectively 5, 10, even 20 years ago was not the case anymore.

What was my plan and strategy for change?

I went into this with a limited understanding of technology and terminology, but there was one phrase that made the most sense to me —flipping the classroom. One day I looked into a classroom and saw a camera on the back wall and I had this idea. What if I could record my lectures and provide them to students outside of class time allowing more in-class time to be spent helping students with higher level learning and specific questions? And, this could potentially help me deliver more consistent course material over multiple sections and semesters.

My students were looking for technology. I was hearing it from the higher ups at Clemson. I was seeing it show up on my campus, and I wanted to get involved and stay on the cutting edge.

I knew I didn’t have the skills to become a movie maker. So I watched some online tutorials and used Clemson University’s various technology support services and an unexpected technical resource: the students themselves. They get technology! Even if it may be a little scary to those of us from a somewhat older generation.

Flipping takes time: How to phase it in

I stayed simple.

Prior to flipping, I would have students read the textbook with companion PowerPoint slides that outlined key material I felt was important. I’d spend my lecture time bringing the textbook and slides to life, but I struggled delivering enough material in that short period of time.

I phased in my new flipped style over several semesters.

Phase 1: I started with recording my traditional classroom lectures and then giving students 24/7 access to the on-demand lectures after class for review. I also spent the last quarter of the semester providing recorded lectures without any in class lecture to elicit student feedback on these different styles of teaching.

Phase 2: I delivered recorded lectures to students in advance of class. Students were instructed to study the material ahead of time and class time was spent clarifying and discussing material in more depth.

Phase 3: Based on feedback from students, I developed targeted, shorter lectures for students to watch prior to class. Class time evolved/morphed into more dynamic and engaging discussion sessions. I focused more on developing my newer classroom teaching style.

Phase 4: I continue to refine the process based on student feedback. As I move from semester to semester I take the lessons-learned from course evaluations and work them back into the classroom, my newly created online version of the course and other courses I teach.

Impacts of flipping?

The Department of Public Health Sciences at Clemson University increased student access to education by offering a three-course certificate program for non-majors and a more flexible course schedule for our majors. At the student level, teaching with technology met the needs of the 21st century learner. More students are able to enroll in key courses, and they are more engaged in learning. They’re getting the material at a much faster pace, satisfaction is high and test scores are up.

At the faculty level, I’ve provided a new, more intensive teaching style, and slowly phasing in flipped instruction eased the transition. Delivery methods and student interaction has morphed over time, and lessons are more tailored to students’ abilities. There is consistency across sections, and I am now providing more higher-level class discussion.

It’s not just “capture my lectures and go on vacation.” There’s a lot of work that comes with this, and one of the biggest challenges is changing the teaching style. It is going to be different, and I think different for the better for everyone involved.

Lessons learned?

  1. Be willing to make mistakes. I think it’s better to make a mistake stepping outside the box and pushing the envelope than it is to make the mistake doing the same thing over and over and over again and being left behind by the evolution of education our students are looking for.
  2. Students will not only like it, they will thrive. I actually found that I was teaching to the mean of my students, and less to the upper level. So what this allowed me to do is really teach more to my upper level students while still fully accommodating my other students. And in addition, my students were satisfied. I found that learner outcomes were being improved.
  3. Your support staff is there to support you. I’m a very independent professor. But one lesson I’ve learned is that I can’t do this alone. You need to work with your support staff. Educate them on your needs and let them know where you’re coming from. They’re there to help.

I encourage everyone to see how flipping your classroom and embracing technology will positively impact your ultimate goal, which is to educate our future generation of learners.

Ralph Welsh is a professor at Clemson University in the College of Health, Education and Human Development. He uses Mediasite by Sonic Foundry (www.sonicfoundry.com/mediasite) for his academic video initiatives. Learn more at www.sonicfoundry.com/customer/ralph-welsh.

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