I am optimistic that the “Flipped Classroom” learning strategy has the potential to enhance learning. The actual class material is presented on-line and then the classroom becomes a setting for questions and in-depth analysis and discussion that builds on the on-line lesson. I know that this learning strategy is presented as the newest approach to learning. It may be very effective but in reality it builds on what has been in place for many many years. When I was an undergraduate and also when I was a doctoral student, it wasn’t that unusual for a faculty member to assign material to be covered and then assume, when the class next met, that the students had done their homework and were prepared to move on from that point. And moving on often took the form of questions followed by an in-depth analysis and discussion. There was no online education at that time and in fact there was no online but flipping was already in place.
Today, the “Flipped Classroom” is looked at with favor for three reasons. First, the potential to enhance learning. For serious students, it presents the opportunity to sit through the lesson more than once, or sit through parts of the lesson more than once, or skip parts of the lesson where the material is already familiar to them. As a result of this, class time becomes more valuable. Second it is a high tech blended approach to education which may be a best practice for online learning. And third, and perhaps this is the elephant in the room, there is the promise of cost savings at a time when virtually all of higher education is constrained and cost savings are enormously helpful.
But the cost savings may be more imaginary than real depending on what you are looking for the education to accomplish. The more you expect education to accomplish and the more personal the educational experience, the lower the actual savings (if any) will be. For example, if the faculty member involved in preparing the class material and the faculty member meeting with the class for questions, projects, analysis and discussion is one and the same and if the class size remains unchanged, there will be no savings in moving from in-person to blended. There are still variables that can result in savings: an adjunct faculty member in place of a full-time faculty member, or a larger class in place of a smaller class. At the other cost extreme, you can have students take the free online courses now offered by a number of Ivy League schools and couple that experience which would count as the lesson with a classroom experience that covers questions, analysis, greater depth, etc., taught by graduate students or adjuncts at a significantly reduced cost. Smaller class size and greater use of full-time faculty will increase the cost of this experience.
Finding savings in higher education is not that hard to do. Showing consistency in test scores across these various options is also not that hard to demonstrate but test scores are not the full measure of the education received. As we work to reduce costs, and I am not suggesting there is necessarily a choice, we pay a price. Technology may help mitigate that price but, at least in the short run, will not be the magic bullet. In life, in educational quality, and in dollars, we are always dealing with tradeoffs and as a result compromises. What choices will we make?