Flipping the classroom

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.

6 thoughts on “Flipping the classroom

  1. Regarding your point #3, which I think is largely irrelevant to you overall argument — video textbooks are immensely helpful in the instruction of high school math.

    Many math algorithms hide step 1 in step 2 and then hide step 2 in step 3. If you think about a fully worked out long division problem, the work that is left on the page once the problem is done does not show the steps that you should have done to complete the problem.

    By having a video textbook which allows you to see someone performing the steps of a process individually and pause as is necessary, students are able to repeat the parts of a lecture that confused them at their own pace. And in a country that is not good at teaching math to everyone, rather than just the smart kids, that’s an invaluable tool.

    But, as I said, it’s a tool. It is a tool that I use frequently as I have to re-explain concepts as exams are approaching and students and I are incapable of meeting during office hours. It does not replace the classroom lecture. I would not want it to replace the lecture, even if it gained me a full 50 minute period to help students process through the work itself — because without the give and take of a lecture environment, I don’t truly know what my students have watched, witnessed, and heard. And they haven’t engaged with me in the moment where I say something confusing or asinine.

    When I think of the college classes where I was completely and truly out of my element on every level, I think of Ran teaching CS60 at HMC. (Your Jewish Mysticism comes a close second.) I was not a CS person; I hadn’t even really heard of CS prior to living across the street from HMC. I would have earned a C in that course, flat out, if not for his engaging lectures that took into consideration the confused, bored, and excited looks on his students’ faces. He adjusted the lecture to the level and needs of the class on any given day.

    A video lecture can’t do that. And, last I checked, my alma mater now costs around $55K a year. I wouldn’t pay that amount of money to have small classes in which the primary method of imparting information involved no interaction between professor and student.

  2. I could not agree more about lectures being interactive, even if they are not obviously a discussion. I loved calculus because I loved my calculus teacher–everyone did. Even non math people excelled in his class, or more so than they would have, because they tried their hardest to do well for someone they liked so much. Even if it were that same teacher in the video, I doubt it would have had the same effect on how hard we paid attention and how well we learned.

    Also the idea of standardization of thought is scary. Measurements are meant to be standardized, or alphabets, or various technologies so they can work together. But the whole point of thought is that it can bring new ideas. That cannot happen, or only rarely, if thought is standardized.

  3. “Video lectures are not the equivalent of a classroom lecture …” How true! I remember four years of lectures with Sam A. The great thing about Sam A’s lecture’s was the alnmost constant interaction that went on throughout the lecture. it was during these interactions that much of my learning and new insights occured.
    Allan Howie

  4. What’s particularly dangerous about this model, to my mind, is that it’s very easy to turn the second stage of learning — the seminar discussion — into a boutique offering only for those who can pay for it. I can already hear the usual suspects saying, “Oh, just watching the videos is more than adequate education and offers value for money.”

    And then everything we’ve done in the past 70 years to democratize the liberal arts will be for naught.

  5. Pingback: Cognitive Learning Behaviors, E-books and MOOCs | 经世济民 | Wendy's Musings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s