• July 23, 2014

It's a Flipping Revolution

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

I was getting ready for the coming semester when out of the blue I got a call from my sister, a high-school chemistry teacher. She had "flipped" her chemistry class, and loved it. I should try it, she said. There was a note of conviction in her voice that was hard to ignore.

For those who haven't been paying attention, "flipping" is a teaching technique that involves abandoning the traditional lecture (or just not relying on it so much) and replacing it with interactive approaches that experiment with technology and require students to gather information outside of class and be prepared to engage the material in class, rather than sit passively listening to a faculty member talk.

So this semester in my chemistry courses (yes, the discipline runs in the family), I'm making videos about concepts like acid-base theory, uploading them onto YouTube, and using class time for interactive work. The in-class sessions are problem-based and often computational, so my videos range from "How do you 'fill down' in Excel?" to "What do antibonding orbitals looks like?" With less than a semester under my belt in flipping, I'm already a convert: I've never felt as effective or as efficient as this. But I think there is more afoot here than efficacy and efficiency.

I'm not talking about MOOCs. I'm talking about how technology, in tandem with innovations in pedagogy and the evolving nature of our students, is driving changes even at traditional private liberal-arts colleges like mine. Those changes were starting to become clear to me almost from the first week of the semester, and certainly by the first exam.

For years now, the first exam in my general chemistry course has been brutal. About a third of the class usually fails it. Then I offer individual conferences, the essence of which is me telling students what I have told them forever, "You must take responsibility for your own education."

This year the exam went a little better than most. Only a quarter of the class failed. But some students did very well. One in particular, "Sam," scored an astonishing 97 percent. I'm not sure I would have done so well. He came in for a conference anyway, so I asked him: What's your secret? Did you take AP chemistry in high school or something? And it turns out, no, he hadn't.

Sam has an unconventional learning style. It's far more efficient for him to learn from online videos and Wikipedia than from texts and lecture notes. In my lecture-based course a year ago, he might have been struggling among the failing 30 percent. In a flipped classroom, he shines.

Another student, "Rolf," dropped by a little later. He had scored in the lower 30 percent. I asked if the problem was the weird way I've structured the course, with all the videos and hands-on activities.

"I am having trouble adjusting to the classroom lectures," he said.

What?

Rolf explained that in his high school, the entire curriculum used problem-based learning. He gets fidgety in a classroom lecture. But when the lectures are on video, that's altogether different: He can watch them as many times as he wants, and it doesn't matter if he fidgets.

So my first insight as a result of flipping my general chemistry course was this: The combination of technology and innovative pedagogical approaches emerging from high schools is mixing up who excels in college classrooms.

It took a little longer to get clued into the second insight. It's about how technology is also changing relationships in the classroom, which, in turn, is affecting what it means to excel.

One relationship shift is between professors and students. It has to do with who knows what. YouTube lets you track video usage, and I could see that after the first exam, the viewing numbers were down. The effects were confirmed in the next in-class exercise. So I sent this slightly aggressive e-mail out to the class:

"I couldn't help noticing that some of you came to last week's Thursday/Friday session with little or no preparation and consequently did not benefit very much from the exercise. This observation is consistent with the fact that about a third of you didn't watch the video, 'Computational video 1 Preparation for the MO computation.' It is your education, of course, and you are free to manage your time as you see fit; I just want to be sure you understand that putting class preparation at the low end of your priority list in the hope of making up that time later is a suboptimal strategy."

Mortified, Sam fired back, "Is that a general e-mail or is it just for me? Because if it's just for me, I take great offense at the accusation."

I guess I deserved that.

But once I knew that students couldn't be bothered to watch a five-minute video before class, I couldn't unknow it. And once they knew that I knew, they (or at least Sam) had to make some decisions. My relationship with my students had been changed by technology, and the outcome of that change was a greater sense of ownership on the part of students.

I believe that deeper professor-student shifts are in store for us. It's not controversial to say that the Web has significantly eroded the special claim that professors have as unique repositories of knowledge. That doesn't mean we're useless in the classroom. Quite the opposite, in fact. "It's not about memorizing the structure of the periodic table," I tell my students these days, "because that's all on Wikipedia. It's about communicating to me that you can solve problems. Because the world has a lot of problems." In short, the information age makes it easier to make it clear to students that the central pillar of their college education is what we have always believed it to be: their responsibility.

Finally, there are relationship shifts among students themselves. One has to do with the inclusion and acceptance of a greater diversity of learning styles in the classroom. This year I have special insight into this because my daughter is a freshman at another small private liberal-arts college. She has permitted me to meet her friends. Her roommate, Mary, has a lab partner, Martina, who is dyslexic. Martina uses electronic text readers that allow her to process laboratory handouts. Then she and Mary discuss them at length—they explain, articulate, argue, and listen. Those critical communication skills are notoriously hard to "teach," but here at the intersection of technology and diversity, they have arisen spontaneously, as a matter of necessity.

Of course, those shifts are not the result of flipping alone. They're happening because of Wikipedia, integrated high-school classrooms, and innovative high-school teachers who know how to bring out the best in their kids (and who have led the flipping revolution).

Maybe that's the shape of the future. Parents send their kids to college because it is a place their (possibly brilliant) teenagers might not merely survive but discover new routes to a 97 percent on killer exams, or find the courage to call out aggressions (even if it's a professor who commits them), or to learn how to think, argue, explain, listen, and get chalk on their hands. All of which is high-octane liberal-arts education, desperately needed in the very challenging world these students will soon face.

As for me, I just hope I'm ready for my sister's next phone call.

Steven Neshyba is a professor of chemistry at the University of Puget Sound.

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