In my university days, I quickly discovered what any good third-year would tell you: tutorials are your friend. The lectures, I soon learned, could easily be downloaded and watched in your own time. Of course, back then, it was just the PowerPoint slides we were watching, rather than video clips, but it was still useful to have the flexibility available to us. I mean, who honestly was available for 8am macroeconomics lectures?

Tutorials, however, were different. They provided a smaller class to help go through problems and apply what was learned in the lecture; a chance to raise niggly questions in front of ten, rather than two hundred, others; an opportunity to go flesh out ideas with the tutor, one-on-one. For me, ‘tutes’ were the way forwards.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, I now see that what I was experiencing was, in essence, a form of flipped learning.

Flipped learning is essentially where the student absorbs the lesson at home and does the homework in class. The emphasis is shifted from a teacher-centred classroom to a student-centred learning environment. Or as J Wesley Baker stated in 2000 in one of the first papers about flipped learning, it’s about putting “the guide on the side, instead of the sage on the stage”.

Origins of flipped learning

Two rural Colorado chemistry teachers, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, are generally credited with pioneering the whole flipped learning concept in 2007. Concerned about students missing classes for school activities, the pair began to record lessons and presentations so that students could watch in their own time. When they came to class, that time could then be spent more flexibly, engaging in hands-on learning, collaborating with peers, and more one-on-one support from the teacher.

Seven years on, and flipped learning has started to take off in classrooms all over the world. Two things are thought to be driving flipped learning: poor learning outcomes and the prevalence of digital technology.

Both are factors in New Zealand education, so it stands to reason flipped learning should have a place in Kiwi classrooms. But it is from the United States where the flipped learning success stories seem to be emerging the most.

The Clintondale case

Perhaps the best known international case study is that of Clintondale High School near Detroit. In 2009–2010, the pass rate for students was around 48 per cent for English, 56 per cent for maths, and 59 for science.

“Four to five years ago, we didn’t have a lot of answers for our struggling students,” said principal Greg Green in a recent Radio NZ interview.

The school set up an experiment where they compared the more traditional model to the inverted model and were excited to see that those in the flipped classroom set-up outperformed the others.

Consequently, they changed the way they did things, and by 2012, pass rates had increased dramatically (67 per cent for English, 69 for maths, and 78 for science) along with graduation rates, attendance, and student engagement. Discipline problems declined in both number and severity.

The benefits also extended beyond the student body because parents often watch the online videos with their children at home. Where previously students became frustrated because their parents couldn’t help them and parents became frustrated because they didn’t understand the homework assignments, now both parties are relieved of that frustration.

“Not only are we educating our students, but we are also educating the entire community,” says Green.

Pillars of flipped learning

Green is a member of the Flipped Learning Network, which has developed the concept into a more formalised model, centred around four “pillars”: Flexible environments, Learning Culture, Intentional Content, and Professional educators – or FLIP. While the acronym may seem a little contrived, collectively, these elements represent a lot of what constitutes modern learning.

The flexible environment hint at learning spaces that can be transformed to accommodate group work or independent study – whatever is required to support that particular learning mode. They are also suggestive of flexibility when it comes to timeframes and assessment methods. Learning culture refers to the shift from a teacher-centred classroom to a student-centred approach that occurs, while intentional content is all about the teacher thinking carefully about methods and materials they can use to make learning meaningful for students. Professional educators – the teachers – need to be able to be adaptable to varying student needs, reflective, and open to collaborating with other teachers.

Certainly, teachers can really benefit from the flipped model. While more preparation is needed to pre-record lessons, the technology these days lends itself to this purpose. Teachers accustomed to flipped learning typically report that a pre-recorded lesson of approximately five minutes takes about fifteen minutes to record using a fit-for-purpose app.

Teachers can also draw on each others’ experiences to help with the task of lesson recording. Moreover, it frees up their time in class to listen, guide, and support their students.

The dog ate my homework

But what about the students who arrive in class and haven’t taken the time to view the presentations? Failure to do homework will continue to be inevitable for many students, even if that homework is watching a six-minute lesson recorded online. While this is barely a thorn in the side of flipped learning, it does support Stuart Middleton’s view that the flipped classroom requires increased responsibility from the students for their own learning. Middleton claims that this shift is perhaps more significant than any technological shift.

Perhaps this is why flipped learning became a natural fit for the tertiary setting, as my own experience found. A user-pays environment and a more mature approach to learning are both likely to contribute to a more self-motivated student, one who is likely to watch the recording in preparation for the class.

Certainly, the pace with which MOOCs are gaining ground is testament to this; students who elect to participate in a course will take it upon themselves to watch the lectures and engage in the course work and discussions.

Even so, more and more schools are bringing the flipped model into their classrooms, many reporting success, including in New Zealand.

Kiwi classrooms start to flip

Aidan O’Malley, head of department Social Studies at Waitakere College, is an advocate for flipped learning.

“I believe flipping my classroom has made me a better teacher,” he says.

O’Malley has Twitter to thank as the inspiration behind the decision to try the flipped learning model for his classes.

“I use Twitter as my main source of ideas in education. The concept of a flipped classroom kept appearing in my news feed. This prompted me to find out more. As I read and watched clips on the flipped classroom idea, a dawning realisation came over me: ‘Why on earth haven’t I done this before?’ It made perfect sense and seemed simple to implement.”

O’Malley then began to search for an app that would allow him to flip his classroom and decided to go with Educreations, “a recordable interactive whiteboard that captures your voice and handwriting to produce amazing video lessons that you can share online”. Students can replay the lessons in any web browser, or from within the app on their tablets.

O’Malley presented the concept to his Year 13 classical studies students in term three last year, providing a link to the presentations on Facebook.

“Maybe it was a generation gap issue, but I was expecting a bit more of a ‘wow’ response than what was basically, ‘OK. No worries, sir.’”

He established a pattern where students watch an Educreation online before the lesson. The lesson begins with a short quiz on the Educreation, which, according to O’Malley, “has the benefit of ensuring that nearly all will watch it, lest they look foolish come quiz time”. The remainder of the lesson is then focused on source analysis and communication related to the content of the Educreation.

O’Malley believes the major benefit is that valuable learning time is not taken up with him presenting content.

“The students get the content before the lesson and during the lesson I help them make sense of it. Thus the majority of the lesson is ‘real’ teaching and learning. I feel I am doing my job, rather than wondering if they are listening to me.”

O’Malley says one of the main advantages of flipped learning for the students is that they can learn the content when they want to – as long as it is before the next lesson. The presentations are archived on the internet, so students can return to them at any time for revision purposes.

“Watching an Educreation is in-your-own-time learning. If they should miss something, they can stop the presentation and go back; not usually an option in a traditional classroom.”

Inequality of internet access

While flipped learning has a large number of proponents, it is worth considering why some remain sceptical.

The flipped learning model relies heavily on the accessibility of technology and while we appear to be nearing the point where every student has access to the internet outside of the classroom, we are not there yet. Students who can’t easily access the lesson out of class will remain disadvantaged, maybe even more so, in a flipped classroom.

However, as O’Malley points out, more and more students have ready access to the Internet.

“At my school, a decile 3 school in West Auckland, a survey in 2011 showed that 86 per cent of students had the internet at home. Doubtless, this number would have risen should the same survey be conducted three years later.

“The school has wi-fi in most blocks. If a student does not have an internet-capable device, a friend usually will. And for those who just cannot access the internet before the next lesson – I make a simple, bullet-point hand out on the content available.”

Flipped learning seems to fit naturally as the next chapter to BYOD and other initiatives that are seeing more and more students using internet-capable devices to aid their learning.

In a 2012 Interface article, Orewa College’s deputy principal Mark Quigley said the school’s BYOD programme was the precursor to the flipped classroom.

“This will all mean that we can head down the path of the flipped classroom where teachers will truly become the guides and tutors for students, who can work independently on any unit of work or level they are capable of.”

And for schools that are nowhere near 1:1, it is worth bearing in mind the resources that are often part of the school’s library. Lisa O suggests on her blog on the National Libraries of New Zealand Services to Schools website that the school library can help in more ways than one.

“One obvious place is the provision of good broadband and decent computers so that students who have neither at home can still watch the videos. Another is to work with others to build and/or make accessible the library of locally produced content (video/audio/etc) for your school. For the increasing number of New Zealand schools that have the video creation suite in the library, you can facilitate your teachers’ creation of video content.”

She goes on to suggest that perhaps libraries could also be flipped, allowing students to access the pre-recorded lessons at any time through the library website.

It would seem the possibilities are endless. There have been some suggestions that flipped learning only opens the door to more bad pedagogy – the teacher eager to use lesson time for rigorous exam preparation, for example, or for imparting yet more content on top of the pre-recorded lessons. However, to dismiss the model on such a premise would be to miss the opportunities staring education in the face.


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