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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012

A Hack Education Project

The Flipped Classroom

This post first appeared on Hack Education on November 28, 2012. Part 4 of my Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012 series.

“Flipping the classroom” is hardly new. But with all the hype surrounding both Khan Academy and MOOCs, it’s hardly surprising that the practice became incredibly popular this year.

Indeed, in his 2011 TED Talk (which has been watched over 2 million times on YouTube), Salman Khan talked about the ways in which his videos are used by teachers to “flip the classroom.” That is, in lieu of teachers lecturing in the classroom, the Khan Academy video lectures are assigned as homework; then students work on exercises in class where the teacher can more easily assist and remediate. “Flipping the classroom” has become a crucial part of the story that Khan repeats in his frequent talks and media appearances.

It’s also become part of the argument that Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller makes about how massive open online classes or MOOCs (which, duh, is another huge ed-tech trend of 2012) will change the offline university experience. When Coursera launched in April, she told me:

“There’s a growing amount of content out there on the Web,” says Koller, “and so the value proposition for the university is no longer simply getting their content out there. Rather, it’s fostering that personal interaction between faculty and students and students and students.” By being able to take advantage of online educational content – particularly lecture content from some of the best professors at the most pretigious universities in the world – students will benefit too. It’ll mean that the university classroom can be “flipped” – with lectures pre-recorded and assigned as homework. Koller, who’s been flipping her classroom since well before Khan Academy popularized the term, says that universities have been reluctant to add “active learning” opportunities at expense of covering “the curriculum” via lecture. And thanks to the increasing wealth of online classes, there’ll be more opportunities for hands-on on-campus experiences.

And in turn, by making that content available – freely and openly on the Web – that will mean a “better education for everyone,” say Ng and Keller.

The Tools of “The Flip”

Coursera and Khan Academy are certainly not the only ed-tech companies that are providing educational video content or the tools to create that content in the service of flipping the classroom.

There’s ShowMe, for example, which allows anyone — teachers and students — to create and share lessons via its whiteboard-like iPad app. (The company updated its app this spring, and at the time said that some 1.5 million lessons had been created with the tool.) And there’s Educreations, which offers a similar tool and raised $2.2 million in investment this summer. There’s the Web-based tool Sophia, which was acquired by Capella Education (parent company of the for-profit Capella University) in April. In August, former Flip (the video camera) execs launched Knowmia, a platform for “crowdsourced video lessons.”

And to bring the buzz about the flipped classroom full circle — back to the medium through which Sal Khan helped popularize it — TED decided that this was an “idea worth spreading” and officially launched its own education initiative in April. TED-Ed, according to its press release, seeks to “inspire curiosity by harnessing the talent of the world’s best teachers and visualizers — and by providing educators with new tools that spark and facilitate learning.” With “lessons worth sharing,” the TED-Ed platform allows teachers to submit their lessons and lectures which are animated by TED and released with additional exercise questions. (The latter are remixable; the lectures and animations are not.)

The History and the Benefits of “The Flip”

As I noted above, the idea of the “flipped classroom” wasn’t new to 2012. Nor was it something devised by Khan Academy or TED. Video-taped lectures assigned as homework can be traced back to Colorado math teacher Karl Fisch who had his work popularized in turn by a story in 2010 by Daniel Pink who called the practice “flip thinking” or the “Fisch flip.” But well before that, many other educators were thinking about ways they could “flip” or reverse instruction: chemistry teachers Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams recorded their lessons circa 2007. And in the 1990s, let’s not forget, Harvard professor Eric Mazur pioneered the idea of peer instruction in order to alter his own teaching practices away from heavy reliance on lecturing.

(As a humanities and literature person here, I can’t help but remark that the teaching practices in my field have always involved this sort of “flip” whereby you assign the readings as homework then ask students to come to class prepared to discuss it, not to listen to lecture.)

One of the great benefits of the growing popularity and adoption of the “flipped classroom” this year — and I will examine some of the criticisms below — is that it asked teachers and students alike to evaluate how we use the time in the classroom. Are we lecturing? Is there discussion (peer-to-peer, not just student-to-teacher)? Is there hands-on learning? How does technology (re)shape the way we teach and learn? What happens online? What happens face-to-face? How much listening — and clicking and pausing and fast-forwarding and rewinding — do we expect our students to do?

Flipping “The Flip”

Despite the buzz about the flipped classroom and its promotoin as the “real revolution” in learning, there has been plenty of pushback and lots of questioning this year about what exactly this practice entails. What expectations and assumptions are we making about students’ technology access at home when we assign them online videos to watch? Why are video-taped lectures so “revolutionary” if lectures themselves are so not? (As Karim Ani, founder of Mathalicious pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed this summer, “Experienced educators are concerned that when bad teaching happens in the classroom, it’s a crisis; but that when it happens on YouTube, it’s a ‘revolution.’”)

And how much of the whole “flipped classroom” model is based on the practice of homework that is dubious at best and onerous at worst? As education author Alfie Kohn has long argued, homework represents a “second shift” for students, and there’s little research to suggest they get much out of it — whether they’re watching videos or filling out worksheets after school. Gary Stager too has been highly critical of the practice (you can read his recent Storify of his tweets on the topic): “I believe teachers who lecture should be remediated,” he tweeted. Now that’s a flip.

And as the year rolls to a close, some teachers who’ve experimented with flipping their classrooms are evaluating the practices and questioning the hype about its transformative potential. Shelley Wright, for example, had written a blog post last year about why she loved “the flip.” But by October of 2012, she’d penned another: “The Flip: The End of a Love Affair.” She noted that she didn’t really disagree with anything she’d said last year, but that flipping the classroom “simply didn’t produce the tranformative learning experience I knew I wanted for my students.”

“It’s not about fads – it’s about ownership,” she continued.

I’ve learned that inquiry & PBL learning can be incredibly powerful in the hands of students. I would never teach any other way again. When students own their learning, then deep, authentic, transformative things happen in a classroom. It has nothing to do with videos, or homework, or the latest fad in education. It has everything to do with who owns the learning.

For me, the question really is: who owns the learning in your classroom?

And that question is likely to lead to an incredibly powerful “flip” — one that isn’t about video-based lectures assigned after school, but about flipping the classroom away from the focus on teachers’ control of content and towards student inquiry and agency. (Here's hoping that's a trend I get to talk about in 2013.)