• October 26, 2014

'Introduction to Ancient Rome,' the Flipped Version

'Introduction to Ancient Rome,' the Flipped Version 1

Lauren Rolwing for The Chronicle

I spent last year "flipping" my 400-student "Introduction to Ancient Rome" course. For those unfamiliar with the term, "flipping a class" means that students watch lectures online outside of class and then spend class time participating in discussions and working on problems.

It's a concept that has gotten an undeservedly bad name because supporters of so-called disruptive education have tied it to the controversial massive-open-online-course movement, which says students are served just as well, if not better, by an absent "star" professor than by faculty members employed by their university.

That's a pretty serious misunderstanding of what a well-run, successful flipped class looks like. It takes a lot of effort to make one work, but the rewards can be great, as I have learned.

For me it all started last August, when I naïvely assumed that the students would be delighted to listen to short lectures at their own pace and away from an uncomfortable and noisy auditorium.

The problem, I soon discovered, was that nobody told the students they were supposed to hate lectures. They were genuinely disoriented when I didn't spend class time lecturing. Only about 25 percent of them watched the prerecorded lectures before class. As a result, class discussion of content became an exercise in futility. Their comments at the end of the semester made it clear that about two-thirds of them preferred a typical lecture class.

I'm pretty sure my students would have been no more interested in watching a Superprofessor lecture on Ancient Rome than they were in watching me—it wasn't me or my style (as they clearly said in the surveys); it was the extra work required of them.

That fall cohort taught me a lot about how to flip a class. First and foremost, assume resistance and disorientation. Assume that you will need to spend a large amount of time training students in how to take such a class, and in what their role in a flipped class will be (and what yours is). Provide a lot of structure, including weekly quizzes that require students to stay on top of the course content. Recognize that, in a large class, students will need to consume about 50 to 60 percent of the content in forms other than class lecture.

As well, recognize that you can't just throw students into a flipped class; you have to ease them in and, in a very large class, probably can't ever entirely abandon lecture even if it can be greatly minimized. I found that my students needed to know that "the Professor" was still there, still in charge, still setting the vision and monitoring progress.

My Spring 2013 class was a pretty clear success. The students' graded performance—especially in the A-B range—advanced remarkably over previous versions of the same course. The same content, more difficult exams, and new instructional methods led to improved learning. More anecdotally, the students were able to discuss the complexities of Roman history in a way I've never seen among nonmajors. They were clearly thinking hard and engaged in the course content.

This kind of success is why more and more colleges are considering partnerships with education-technology companies, like Coursera and Udacity, which want to make the process even more efficient. Instead of teaching multiple sections of the same course on a campus (or at campuses in a state system), the "best" professors will be tapped to provide the content delivery, and then faculty members (or more likely, teaching assistants, or even some new breed of course curator) will be expected to use this content to flip their classes.

At first glance, this seems like a winning proposition. The best lecturers, either at other partner institutions or at that particular institution, do the lecturing while instructors work closely with individual students in their quest to master the course content.

But in the humanities, at least, a flipped class is unlikely to work very well with content created by someone other than the instructor because doing so reduces the instructor's authority in the eyes of the students. Mohamed Noor, a biology professor at Duke University, used his own Coursera course to flip his campus-based course. But I suspect that the flipped class would have been substantially less successful if he had been required to use someone else's lectures and other course materials as the "textbook" of his own course.

In basic terms, every instructor tells his or her own story with the course content. Not only is that part of the fun, but it's the place where our research intersects with our teaching. Furthermore, students tell us that an essential component of a successful flipped class is a strong connection between in-class and outside-of-class activities.

Another key secret about flipping a class: Content delivery is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what to do in class that keeps students engaged, and motivated to prepare for class. In other words, they have to come to see the value of doing assigned pre-class work and then see that coming to class is an efficient way to learn (or, more precisely, to earn high grades). It will take considerable effort and resources, not to mention additional classroom support staff in larger classes, to run pedagogically sound flipped classes. It will take a lot of energy to develop activities that work for one's particular audience—and what works for my group may well not work for a class at Haverford or Yale.

I have emerged from this experience a proponent of the flipped-class model—but also a careful and candid one. Contrary to what the fashionable disruptive innovators might have us believe, flipped classes are not easy to teach, and they are not easy to take. An effective flipped class requires much more classroom support than a traditional lecture course, and it requires more contact with and more engagement from students. At the same time, it can increase student learning and raise grades, even in a large cohort.

Any educator would like to see every course on campus capped at 30, but this is unrealistic at most publicly supported institutions. Given these limitations, the techniques of blended learning, applied judiciously, using evidence of effective practice, and coupled with instructor mentoring, can do a lot to improve classroom teaching—and learning.

Jennifer Ebbeler is an associate professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin.

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