Despite new studies, flipping the classroom still enjoys widespread support
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Go ahead and postpone the conversation about the backlash against the flipped classroom model. Supporters and skeptics alike -- and even the researchers behind a seemingly critical new report -- say the discussion continues to be positive.
Flipping the classroom -- the practice of giving students access to lectures before they come to class and using class time for more engaging activities -- hasn't been nearly as divisive as many other ed tech trends, such as massive open online courses or outsourcing digital services. So when USA Today last week reported on an experiment at Harvey Mudd College that had failed to improve student outcomes, it provided a rare contrast.
Some students “said they felt the flipped classroom had a heavier workload,” and professors “had to spend considerably more time making and editing ... videos and crafting engaging, hands-on sessions for their classes.” A comparison between the flipped classrooms and their traditional counterparts found “no demonstrable difference” in student outcomes. The researchers, the newspaper wrote, “have bad news for advocates of the trend: it might not make any difference.”
The study could have fit into a growing body of research calling the science behind flipping the classroom into question. Days later, however, the researchers behind the study said their results and words had been misinterpreted.
Yes, the article did point out that the results were preliminary -- twice in one sentence, even -- but the headline (“ ‘Flipped classrooms’ may not have any impact on learning”) and hook drew too many conclusions about a study that is set to continue for another three years, they said.
The researchers -- Karl Haushalter, Nancy Lape, Rachel Levy and Darryl Yong -- last year taught both the flipped and traditional sections of the courses, all of which were in the science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) fields. They declined to be interviewed for this article, but explained their side of the situation in a social media post after the article was scrutinized by higher education consultant Phil Hill.
"There could be an argument that this article is a case of a reporter trying to find a sensational topic from a nuanced report," Hill wrote. "But the real problems in this article seem to be direct quotes from one of the research professors, despite the qualifier of 'preliminary.' "
Yong warned "that we should be cautious about extrapolating our experience here to other contexts." Harvey Mudd's roughly 800 undergraduates "already spend a lot of time working together in groups in and out of class," and the college's size means there are few of the large lectures that the flipped classroom model aims to supplant.
"Our goal is to better understand the conditions under which flipped classrooms lead to better student outcomes,” Yong wrote. “[G]iven our study design and Mudd context, we have not yet seen any difference in student outcomes. Of course, this was only the first year of the study and we are admittedly working out all of the kinks in our flipped classes.”
More college and universities are growing comfortable with the idea of recording lectures and making them available online. According to data compiled by the Campus Computing Project, more than two-thirds of institutions see lecture capture as an important tool to deliver instructional content. That share has grown steadily in the past few years.
The widespread support may be why Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, two of the earliest advocates of the flipped teaching model, said they have not seen a recent surge in criticism. Bergmann called the study out of Harvey Mudd an outlier.
“They’re saying they’re still in the early stages,” Bergmann said. “Most people who have done this have seen positive -- and in some case dramatically positive -- results.” In one such example, Mike Garver, a professor at Central Michigan University, flipped his classroom and "noticed a huge increase in the number of students earning top marks on his (admittedly) toughest test."
Bergmann and Sams co-wrote the book Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day, which some credit with starting the flipped classroom trend. Today, they serve on the board of the Flipped Learning Network.
Criticism of the flipped classroom model usually stems from arguments between the didactic and progressive camps within higher education, Bergmann said. Members of the didactic camp oppose flipping the classroom to preserve the role of the lecturer, while the progressive camp instead advocates for a move toward project-based learning and inquiry. “That’s where I’m seeing the rub,” he said.
There’s also the knee-jerk reaction to something new. Students in flipped classroom can no longer expect to sit through a lecture and complete work on their own time. When coupled with challenging course material and a shaky internet connection, the change has led many to voice their frustration on social media.
The same goes for professors, who can no longer expect to give 90-minute presentations. The extra work that goes into recording videos and planning classroom session has led many faculty members to report an exhausting first year of flipping the classroom.
“Change is a process,” Bergmann said. “By year three it’s culture.”
Even Gary Stager, an education speaker and consultant who has been one of the most vocal opponents of the flipped classroom model, could not point to an intensified debate.
“My first inclination is that when anything becomes that popular, you should be suspicious of it,” Stager said. “In my experience, bad ideas are timeless. In education, good ideas are incredibly fragile. I’m not so optimistic there’s going to be a big backlash.”
Other critics, like Ian Bogost, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who placed himself in the “cautiously cautious” camp on flipped classrooms, said the model is only one of many factors in the larger debate about technology-based educational reform.
“It’s not the flipped classroom specifically,” Bogost, a game designer and professor in the School of Literature, Media and Communication, said. “It’s kind of the evolving anxiety involved with ... the operation and ownership of institutions.”
Bogost, who has written critically about flipped classrooms, said experiments such at the one at Harvey Mudd could provide valuable data to determine the effectiveness of larger online courses. “There is reason to believe that continued investment in even the local, non-scaled, modest version of flipped classrooms will at the end of the day benefit these MOOC-like solutions because they will provide evidence and fodder and materials in general,” he said.
Stager agreed, saying institutions will continue to experiment with flipping the classroom as long as there is a promise of reduced costs. “I suspect that people who have been cheerleading it without evidence will continue to do so,” he said. “There will be academics who continue to demonstrate that it’s ineffective. The question nobody asks is ‘Where’s the bibliography?’ ”