I never thought I’d see the day when I had to confess to becoming a classroom flipper. After generations of teaching courses that focus almost entirely on interaction among the students, I’m now trying to learn how to create screencasts of my “lectures” so that students can “cover the material” before they come to the class session. The course I’ll be teaching this spring is an undergraduate course in the Mason School of Business on “using computers to make business decisions.” I taught the class last spring as an experiment, and if there ever was a course that begged to be put online, this is the one.
Defining the Flipped Classroom
The term “flipped classroom” is generally attributed to Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, two Colorado educators who pioneered the use of screencasting and video podcasting in 2006, using them to deliver content for their high school science classes. Many different models of flipped classrooms have evolved in recent years, but the term is commonly used to describe an instructional strategy to help build increased interaction with students during face-to-face class time. The class becomes a place for students to work on problems, to engage in collaborative learning, and to interact with the instructor and each other.
In many courses — particularly those of more than 30 students or so — the primary face-to-face activity is the lecture. Students watch the professor’s presentation, take good notes, and then work at home to review, understand, and commit the content to memory. (It’s that review and rewriting process where the students internalize the learning — most studies show that the lectures alone don’t accomplish much significant learning.) In most flipped classroom models, the lecture material is converted to online streamed video. More powerful computers and software provide inexpensive and (relatively) easy methods to record the video.
While the focus of many flipped classroom videos is reproducing what a teacher would have written on the board or delivered with PowerPoint, other productions can include simulations, video, animations — virtually anything that can be produced on a computer screen. (One of the most famous classroom flippers, Sal Khan of the Khan Academy — produced most of his 3000 videos on an inexpensive tablet connected to his computer.)
Surely You Jest; You’re Teaching in the Business School?!
This is a bit of a stretch, since the last time I worked for a business was when I sold Christmas cards in junior high school, but the class I’m teaching really is in the Mason School of Business. For the last couple of years, I’ve been teaching a class in the Executive Ed.D. Program at the School of Education that helps school administrators learn to use Excel to manipulate data for decision-making. The folks in the undergraduate business program offered me the chance to experiment to see how well the tools and techniques from the graduate program might map to working with younger students.
Four Classes in One
The one-credit course met last spring semester, six times for an hour and a half each time. There were 44 undergraduates in the class, all taking their first business school class. The students were delightful; they were hard working, communicative, and very smart. Still, the class was one of the most difficult that I’ve ever taught. The biggest challenge was that even though we met in one classroom, all at the same time, there actually were four classes in the room. The preliminary survey show that half the students had had extensive work with Excel — either in high school, in college, or in internships or summer jobs. The other half of the students were almost complete novices, with a few of them never having even opened up a spreadsheet program. And if that weren’t bad enough, the class was almost exactly half Macintosh users and half PC users. The Macintosh and PC interfaces for Excel are different enough that it’s very difficult for students to follow a demonstration on the other platform.
We muddled though, with me alternating demonstrations on the podium PC and my MacBook, but the results weren’t pretty. I finished the class thinking that there really had to be a better way. The Mason School has an integrated and innovative curriculum that requires students to be able to apply the specific computer skills that they learn in this class to the work they are doing in their other introductory courses in marking, finance, and operations research. It really is important that all the students learn to use a set of advanced features in Excel fairly quickly — regardless of their previous experience. This expectation is an important consideration in choosing the instructional strategy for the next iteration of the class.
The Plan for this Spring
The course this spring will be built around five in-class case studies that students will do in their preassigned teams. (Even though the classroom seats 44 and is tiered, it was designed to allow the class to be easily divided into small groups. Great facility!) I have five cases that worked reasonably well with the students last year, with designs that focus on critically analyzing a set of variables, clarifying assumptions, and building rudimentary data models. Prior to coming to class, students will work through a series of short videos — one set for Macintosh and one for PC — that demonstrate the skills that students will be expected to apply when working on the team problem.
There will be a brief automatically graded quiz, administered through Blackboard, that will help reinforce a student’s understanding and signal that they completed the module. Students who already know the material can skip over to the quiz at the end of the video and move quickly through the skills without having view the video lecture. The students who are less experienced this can go through the presentations as many times as they want to in order to make sure that they really understand the concepts they apply when they get into doing case studies.
There’s a fair amount of time required to develop the video material and accompanying written instructions and explanations. There will be at least ten videos required — five for Mac and five for the PC. I’m using ScreenFlow for the Mac and running two versions of Excel — 2011 natively on the Mac and 2010 in a virtual machine on the PC. It’s easily taking an hour to produce each ten-minute video, even after I have a pretty good idea of what the spreadsheet I want to produce looks like. I’m hoping that as I get more proficient with the software, I can get faster in producing the videos.
Watch this space for more updates on what I’m learning from this new venture — I’ll be checking back in with future posts. Below are a couple of links to online resources if you’re interested in reading more about flipped classrooms.