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Flipped learning skepticism: What about technology?

May 16, 2014, 9:46 am

90720334_b9af55cc90_mTo continue the blog post series  I’ve been doing (installments one, two, and three) that addresses skepticisms about flipped learning, I wanted to dip into something other than my own comment sections, and go to a general class of skepticisms I’ve heard when I do workshops. Those skepticisms involve technology. Specifically, although I’ve never heard a single formulation of this skepticism, there are two ways it can occur:

  • I’m skeptical about the flipped classroom because implementing it requires technology, and not all students have access to the technology they need.
  • I’m skeptical about the flipped classroom because implementing it requires technology, and I (the instructor) don’t have the time/inclination/skill to learn what I need.

As I’ll explain, I think it’s possible these are legitimate concerns[1], but they’re easily dealt with in a number of ways.

Let’s deal first with the assumption in both of these skepticisms that flipped learning requires the use of (high) technology. I actually don’t think this is the case. What flipped learning requires is that students have access to, and control over, the information that they are receiving so that they can study it and get feedback on it at times other than the class meeting.

Well, an instructor can simply give information out in print form – transcribed notes, printed-off websites, or just the old-fashioned required reading from a textbook or course pack. Pre-class assignments like Guided Practice can be given on paper as well, and students can hand in their work at the beginning of class on paper. In short, there’s no reason that flipped learning should require the use of computers or the internet or any other high technology.

So one way to deal with skepticisms about technology is just simply to keep the tech low, and there’s not anything really wrong with that. However, I can think of two compelling arguments against it and in favor of using computers:

  1. All this distribution of content and assessment of student work is a lot easier and more flexible if you introduce computers. The overhead of making copies is eliminated. You can have students submit pre-class work through a Google form an hour or a day before class instead of at the beginning of class. You can use multiple media types – video and audio in addition to print. And so on.
  2. The computer itself can be a tool for pre-class assignments in which students make sense of new material prior to the class meeting. This fact is often overlooked by instructors, even the ones currently running flipped classrooms. The computer can be so much more than a means of conveying content. If I may channel my inner Seymour Papert, the computer instead is a kind of meta-machine that can be used to construct, evaluate, and reason about concepts that students are learning. This is especially so in mathematics, but I think it also holds for other disciplines as well.

Let’s move on to the two forms of skepticism I listed.

First: Not all students have access to the technology they need. The more technology one requires, the more valid this criticism becomes. Therefore it’s important to have a sense of just how much technology is needed for a course – in a minimal sense. I would maintain that if we keep the list minimal, it will be rare that a student simply cannot get sufficient access to the technology on the list.

For the prototype flipped classroom, the ideal setup would be for students to have ready (preferably 24/7) access to a computer that has a high-speed internet connection. This would be for watching videos, downloading potentially large text files for reading, and submitting one’s work. Of course not every student is going to have this kind of access. But this doesn’t mean students don’t have access to sufficient technology. What if a student doesn’t have his or her own computer with a high speed network connection? Here’s the decision tree I would traverse:

  • Does the student live on campus? In that case there’s no problem, because the student is within walking distance of a computer lab in all likelihood. Is there a campus anymore where this is not the case?
  • Does the student live near campus? This is a bit more of a problem, but it’s not insurmountable since the nearness to campus makes it simple to just drive or walk or bike over and get the work done. And this is not a problem at all if the student has a personal computer and good internet at home.
  • What if the student lives away from campus, and has a computer but no internet (or only dialup)? Then the main issue is that the student can read text and watch video but there are issues with downloading it. In that case, the instructor can burn the text and video files to a DVD, and the student can take them home and watch and read offline.
  • What if the student lives away from campus and has no computer? Then the instructor can still put the video files on a DVD and the student can play them on his or her DVD player on the TV at home, and the text files can be printed out. Or, if the student has a smartphone (a smartphone but no computer – this could happen!) then the instructor can give the files on an SD card or sync them on his (the instructor’s) computer, and the student can play them back on the phone.

At this point, we have addressed the access issue for the vast majority of students – students who live on campus, and those who live off campus and have at least one of a computer, smartphone, or TV with DVD player. There are two edge cases left: Students with a TV but no DVD player, and students with no TV.

0073139841512_180X180For students with a TV but no DVD player, I would personally buy them one of these, a bottom-end DVD player from Wal-Mart that costs $24.99. Is it sexy and loaded with features? No, but it plays DVD’s, and that’s all that matters. I would just buy this and give it to the student to keep. Or if I couldn’t afford $25 (or I had a lot of students needing one, which is very unlikely) I would ask my department to buy four of them for $100 and loan them out.

0002724284064_180X180What about students with no TV at all? In that case, I would buy them, or loan them, one of these,  a bottom-end portable DVD player that requires nothing other than electricity. (And headphones, but those are cheap.) I actually have one here in my office that my kids used to use on car trips, so I personally wouldn’t even need to buy one. The model in the picture is a Sony, also from Wal-Mart, for $68, but I have seen off-brand models at the Walgreens near my house for under $40. If the student really had no other way to watch videos, this would be the final solution.

What I am getting at here is that there is a solution for every student to the “access” issue as long as we are determined and creative enough. I think many faculty simply give up on technology when confronted with the access issue, not because there are no solutions, but because it requires determination to use the technology — a determination they don’t have.

One time in a workshop I was giving, a faculty member told me of a student who attended her college who was homeless – and therefore had no TV, no DVD player, no nothing. So, the faculty member asked, how can such a student be expected to participate in a flipped classroom? I asked the faculty member whether she’d considered having the student over to her house, first of all to make sure the student is fed and clothed, and second of all to make sure the student got her work done. Why not view this as an opportunity to care for your student in more ways than one?

While it may be absurd to imagine a student in such dire circumstances to participate in flipped learning, it’s not impossible, and in fact it’s no more absurd than expecting the student to go to college at all. There may be other issues that the homeless student would have to overcome – like group projects, or assignments that use the computer to create something, and those require more careful thinking. But watching videos before class and doing required readings? That’s doable.

Now to the second skepticism: I (the instructor) don’t have the time or skill to learn the technology I need for a flipped class. As a faculty member I can certainly appreciate that time is a major issue. But it’s always going to be a major issue, so I don’t think it’s wise to let this prevent us from doing something we believe will benefit students. If you really want to try the flipped classroom, then just keep two related ideas in mind: keep it simple and take it slow. For taking things slowly, rather than going whole-hog into flipping a course – or all your courses – choose one course and then some proper subset of that course (the lab or recitation session, every Friday, etc.) and flip that. Keep careful track of student’s progress and attitudes and see how it goes, then ramp up the level of implementation later.

As for keeping it simple, don’t make any videos if you don’t feel comfortable doing so; just curate existing ones from YouTube, or use none at all. Use the level of technology you personally feel comfortable with, while you explore the next level of what you might do. I think faculty members do have the time and skill to pull this off, for a sufficiently bounded definition of the technology being used.

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thearchigeek/


  1. It should be noted that sometimes these are not legitimate concerns but rather just a way of masking over laziness, fear of change, or a low view of students. I hope that’s not any of you. If it is, you should still read the article and then make an effort to come to grips with the real issue here.  ↩
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