My college is talking about “flipping the classroom” and “blended learning” so I went on wikipedia to find out what they were. Basically the idea is for a professor put his lectures on video so that the students can watch them before class, reserving classroom time for seminar discussions. Or, as a second stage (except that for many of the people hyping the project this is the first stage, and the whole point) for a school to purchase a set of standardized video lectures which the student can watch before class, again reserving the classroom for seminar discussions.
Here are my thoughts:
1. Video lectures are the equivalent of a textbook. In disciplines that use textbooks, I can’t see much objection to an on-line textbook as opposed to a hardback textbook. My guess is that learning the material would take more time, since the video has to be played in real time while a textbook can be read quickly. But I can see video demonstrations as useful.
2. Video lectures are not the equivalent of a classroom lecture. The wikipedia article says that flipping the classroom will mean that “a teacher can spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing.” This betrays a misunderstanding. Lecturing live, in the flesh, even to a large class, is already interacting with students. Think of the difference between theatre and cinema.
3. Much of the hype about this silly project mentions the Kahn Academy, which sells a video textbook on high school math. When I took high school math, we used a hardback textbook. Again, I have no problem with one substituting for the other, but neither is an adequate substitute for a good lecture. My high school math teacher explained how to do a problem while doing it on the board, with supplementary reference to the history of math, to how it fit with other kinds of problems we had learned, to her husband, bridge, and golf. We had a friendship with her, and that friendship helped us in our initial comprehension of the ideas she was trying to convey.
4. The project has no relevance to those disciplines where textbooks are not in common use, for instance my discipline. I assign Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem. I do not, on top of this, assign the relevant chapter in Norbert Samuelson’s History of Modern Jewish Philosophy, nor do I assign a tape from one of the several Open University courses on modern Jewish philosophy, nor would I ever assign a video of me or anyone else lecturing on the material. I want the students to work through the primary source without help, to make what they can of it. I want this both because I want them to learn to read philosophy and because I want each one to light on and ponder the parts of the text that are relevant to the synthetic, critical understanding he is building, not merely to buy into someone’s overarching narrative. A textbook would flatten our subsequent discussion, and a video textbook all the more so, because of the persuasive authority inherent to that medium.
5. The buzzwords attached to this project, not just “flipping the classroom” and “blended learning” but also “backwards classroom,” “reverse instruction,” and “reverse teaching” are laughable. Those sound like cool concepts. What they sound like is my learning from my students at the same time as they learn from me, and us all having a philosophical epiphany as we thrash through some difficult material. What they don’t sound like is what they actually mean: my assigning a video textbook instead of lecturing.
6. Some things are meant to be watched. I feel sure our classroom conversations could be deepened by all my students having watched The Wire, not to mention Sassy Gay Friend. I also have no objections to their finding youtube footage of Derrida or etc. Lectures, though, are not meant to watched; they are meant to be experienced.
These comments deal with the situation in my small liberal arts college. The project would play out differently in the broader setting of the university. It’s a push toward standardization of thought, and toward the elimination of the professorate; also it brings all the money there is to be made (which will be less and less, in the case of the increasing success of such initiatives) to a few centres manned by experts in technology.