Guest post: Blending and flipping modern architecture

June 23, 2014, 9:41 am

There’s a lot on this blog about the flipped or inverted classroom, and it’s primarily from the mathematics and STEM perspective. I am often asked how the inverted classroom might look in the humanities or social sciences. I’d like to welcome Jeff Schramm, an associate professor of History and Political Science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, whose guest post today details his use of the flipped classroom in a history of architecture course. Enjoy! –rt

IMG_4765How many of you reading this have a formal dining room in your home? A separate room, not just a dining area in a kitchen or great room. How often does this dining room get used for its intended purpose? Daily? Weekly? A couple times a year on major holidays?

This is how I begin my Architecture, Technology and Society, 1750-present class. It’s my first attempt at helping my students to think about the built environment and what their house, school, favorite sports arena, and place of worship says about them and the society and culture in which they live. I’ve been teaching the course as a blended (or hybrid) online and face-to-face course and utilize a flipped model where substantial lecture is delivered online by short videos and classroom time is used generally for other, non-lecture activities.

I’m an associate professor of history in the department of History and Political Science at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Missouri. We are the former Missouri School of Mines and classify ourselves as a technological research university similar to institutions like Michigan Tech, Colorado School of Mines and Rensselaer Polytechnic. One of our high demand engineering programs is architectural engineering. When this program was started roughly ten years ago I was asked to teach a required course for the architectural engineering students on architectural history of some sort. They already take some courses in art and architecture in addition to their engineering courses but needed some historical background. I was given free rein in constructing the course as long as it contained some architectural history and talked about the social impacts of engineering to satisfy ABET accreditation requirements. The course combines the history of technology with architectural history and is solidly held together with modern social and cultural history. As an historian of technology I stress the two way street aspect of technology. How we influence the technology we develop due to our society and culture and then how that technology in turn influences our lives and structures, both physical and social.

I taught the course face-to-face for the first time in 2005. I generally offer two sections of about 35 students each in the fall semester. It is an upper level course and most of the students that take the course are seniors. I had been teaching this course on a Tuesday-Thursday schedule for about 5 years to ever increasing numbers of students when an old friend who works for our educational technology group on campus approached me about taking some or all of it online. I was quite skeptical at first for many reasons. I thrive on the interaction with my students in the classroom and didn’t want to give that up. However, I was having scheduling issues with students who had conflicts with labs but only on one day a week. In addition increasing enrollment meant that classroom space was at a premium on campus. Plus much of my lecturing consisted of me showing pictures of buildings and talking about them. This didn’t seem to be the best use of classroom time. I bit the bullet and decided to go for a flipped and blended model. A small campus grant provided some necessary funds for some hardware and software upgrades and some limited summer support to transform my class. I also received excellent support from our educational technology folks on campus. They are expert course designers and technologists, all of whom have teaching experience and most also teach courses on campus. They helped me examine what I did and how to do it better.

So here’s how it works. Instead of meeting twice a week for an hour and 15 minutes each, we meet once a week. I’ve found that students need structure and a weekly meeting at the same time and place gives them that. Much (but not all) of my content heavy lecture is now online in short (7–12 minute) video clips that the students access via our learning management system prior to attending class. The videos are recorded with Camtasia and are voice over PowerPoint with a tablet that allows me to draw on the screen and annotate photos and text. My narration is closed captioned so students can read along as well as listen to me speak. I do not have my face visible and the videos are not a green screen type of production, although I’m looking into that for the future. After viewing several videos and completing the required readings for the week, both online and in a traditional textbook, students take a short online reading quiz to check their comprehension. The quiz counts but not for much. The bulk of their course grade is still in-class essay exams, papers and an end of semester group project.

So if the students are getting the lecture online, what do we do in class? What incentive do they have to come to class if all the info is online? Well, first, not all the content is online. A few topics that require extensive discussion and interaction are still presented in an interactive “lecture” format. Class time is also used for small group work, discussion, guest lectures, and other interactive activities. For example, one of the central ideas we talk about is progress. After discussing what progress meant to Americans in the 19th century and how we can see this progressive vision in structures like railroad stations and bridges, we then split into small groups where students in 10 minutes sketch a structure that embodies what progress means to them today. They then present their sketched structure to the class using a document camera at the front of the room. Another popular class activity is a think-pair-share exercise. I project photos of various structures that the students have not seen before. I ask them to identify the architectural style and give an estimate for where and when it was constructed. They do so individually then pair up and compare. I then call on random groups to explain their choices. We then dive deeper. I ask them how they know what they think they know and often we talk about what a certain structure says. Class time is precious, doubly so when I only see students once a week. It seems to me the best use of this precious time is in as much interaction with me, each other, and the content of the course as is possible. A lecture just doesn’t cut it.

So has it worked? In short, yes. The first time around I purposefully kept the main assignments; the exams, papers and project, as similar as possible to my previous traditional class for comparison purposes. The students in the blended course had a better basic understanding of key terms and roughly the same higher level analysis and syntheses skills. For the first time teaching a massively redesigned course I was happy with these results. I’ve since made several small changes to the course structure and assignments, requiring more small papers rather than a few large ones for instance. The changes have helped students with their higher order thinking but I’m continually working on this objective. Students like the blended and flipped course. My teaching evaluation score increased slightly the first time the course was offered as a blended course and increased significantly the second and third times. Comments indicated that the students liked the overall structure of the course, the online videos, and amazingly enough, the weekly online quizzes. I did not experience the often reported desire of the students to be just told the answers. The increase in my course evaluation numbers was not due to grade inflation, average grades remained essentially the same before and after the redesign.

As an historian of technology I’m naturally skeptical of “silver bullet” claims for new technological gizmos. I’ve been trained to look behind the curtain to examine the complex power structures and social and cultural construction of complex technological systems. As Langdon Winner said, “Artifacts have politics.” There is certainly a lot of politics involved in online learning. But we can recognize the politics in the artifact and still use it to transform our teaching on our own terms. Online learning and flipped classrooms are not a panacea for all that ails higher education, but when paired with thoughtful and deliberate course design and execution they are worthy tools, albeit socially constructed ones, that we can use to enhance student learning.

Image: Jeff Schramm

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