In 2004, a former hedge fund analyst began recording and posting videos of himself explaining some math techniques. He created the material to help tutor his young cousin. Rather than keeping it private, however, the analyst posted the videos to YouTube. By 2012, Salman Khan had more than 3,000 lessons online, 140 million views, and a reputation as an education guru.
In addition to students viewing his handiwork 100,000 times each day, Khan Academy drew enough interest from teachers, philanthropists and investors to justify a career change from financial consultant to educational technologist. Khan’s videos are now supplemented with software to support formal curricula, “flipping the classroom” by assigning lectures to watch at home and working on homework together in class en route to student-led mastery of a variety of subjects. The idea has even proved inspirational to other technology-challenged domains (e.g., health care) to spark better use of online information to prepare for face-to-face encounters.
What Khan Academy is not, though, is a panacea for education. Khan’s timing — when digital media consumption is high and devices like iPads are widely popular (50 million units sold, through 2011) — helped mainstream the use of video for educational material. People like Bill Gates pump money into software development, and schools line up to try to capture a cost-effective genie in a bottle. Ultimately, success with a flipped class is a combination of understanding the pedagogical goals and using the technology and method to support them.
The Flipped Class Is an Ideology
Educators experimented with flipping the classroom long before Khan started shooting video.
Dr. Laura Berry, Dean of Arts and Sciences at North Arkansas College, remembers her college professors assigning chapters to read and expecting her and her fellow students to return to class prepared to discuss the material. “For as long as we’ve been trying to help students learn,” says Berry, “we’ve wanted students to take responsibility for their learning, and we want to use our time with them to work on the meatier stuff and deepen the learning.”
Two decades ago, Harvard’s Eric Mazur used the Peer Instruction teaching method to move information transfer out of his classroom. His technique combines “Just-in-Time teaching” and ConcepTests to empower students to learn at their own pace away from the instructor and lead conceptual discussions when together. J.Wesley Baker described this as becoming “the guide on the side.”
The term “flipped classroom” is most attributed to two chemistry teachers from Colorado, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, who pioneered the use of screencasting and video podcasting in 2006 to deliver content for their high school science classes. Those techno-centric terms made parents and other teachers recoil, however, so the innovators began calling their method “Reverse Instruction.” It wasn’t until September 2010, when Daniel Pink wrote an article about Karl Fisch did the method become known as the Flipped Classroom. Fisch subsequently credited the Colorado teachers with the inspiration.
Thanks in no small part to Khan’s use of the term during his 2011 TED talk, the Flipped Classroom now has a following that includes an online network of 2500 educators, an annual conference, and a Twitter hashtag (#flipclass). Bergmann (now in Illinois) and Sams have a book, Flip Your Classroom, due for release early this summer.
Sams notes that his version of a flipped classroom has undergone continual revision since the initial live recordings of lectures. The Khan Academy model, which relies on proving mastery of particular topics through earning badges, has evolved into empowering students to consume information and demonstrate understanding of concepts in a variety of ways.
“If you structure your class exactly the same way you have always done but employ it flipped,” warns Richard Talyor, CMO for Echo360, “effectively what you have done is added an extra hour of class for every hour of class the student has. Respect the students’ time.”
Evansville (Indiana) science teacher Brian Bennett describes the Flipped Classroom as an ideology, not a methodology:
Video itself will not help kids achieve more in your class. The flipped classroom is about making connections with learners and differentiating your instruction. If videos are a part of that multi-faceted plan, great. If they are not, still great.
Sams seems to concur: “Anyone who blindly adopts ‘The Flipped Classroom’ (or inquiry, or lecturing, or unschooling, or whatever) model and never modifies it to meet the needs of his or her students will blindly lead his or her students into educational ruin.”
Entering Phase Three
Moving a lecture online changes where that information is consumed, not necessarily the degree of student engagement or its effectiveness. Curricula provider Mathalicious critiqued Khan Academy as “one of the most dangerous phenomena in education today.” That argument is not directed at the site itself, but centers around the negative impact Khan may have on innovation. The Khan style of teaching is the same step-by-step process that students have seen for generations:
Khan Academy is great for what it is — a supplemental resource; homework help — but we’ve turned it into something it’s not. Indeed, something it was never intended to be.
For Fred Singer, CEO of Echo360, the Flipped Classroom movement represents an important progression toward “Phase Three” of education reform: blended learning. Meaning, the digital form moves beyond simply augmenting face-to-face teaching into a peer role where online and offline interaction directly supports learning goals. State legislators are coming closer to endorsing blended learning as a required experience.
Echo360 began several years ago as “Tivo on campus,” focused on capturing lectures to make the learning material more accessible for students. When teachers began to realize video could benefit them as well, Echo360 added features like Personal Capture, video viewing statistics, and communication channels to turn the process into asynchronous feedback. (“Khan doesn’t do that,” says Singer, “that’s what we do.”)
For several years, North Arkansas College used Echo360 to support different kinds of teaching methods. The versatile platform is useful for facilitating online classes and supplemental material for traditional “sage on the stage” instruction, as much as true blended learning. Over time, the College has increased faculty adoption to 44 percent, with 28 classrooms now Echo-enabled. However, only a handful have implemented a flipped classroom.
“We’re trying to find a way to get that basic-level content out to students,” says Berry, “without using valuable professor and classroom time to do it.”
Technology is now entrenched in higher education. Its presence urges instructors to teach differently and think more deeply about what information can be delivered before class, during class, and after class. Students drive that change.
“We can’t expect students who are carrying interactive devices and an ‘always connected’ social life to sit still for a couple hours while professors just lecture at them,” said Valerie Martin, Director of Distance Learning at North Arkansas College. “We had to engage them on their terms.”
In 1999, tweens and teens were exposed to 7:29 hours of media every day, and a quarter of them were using two media simultaneously. After a decade, the media exposure increased 44%, and two-thirds of these kids had cell phones. They won’t watch a video lecture start to finish; they will watch 15 minutes and focus on areas that are important to them.
“We have had students at other institutions who have found our instructors lecture capture,” says Berry, “and they ended up transferring here as a result. Students want the lecture capture.”
Making the Flip Work
While Echo360 products are used by 500 universities and colleges in 30 countries around the world, budgetary and other resource constraints make adoption of such a platform challenging for elementary educators. Teachers like Bergmann and Sams tend to start with stand-alone video production tools, such as Camtasia Studio, TechSmith’s screencapture software. The tools used to create the flip, though, are secondary to the motivations to change current practices.
Innovation has to overcome inertia. Resistance to video lectures typically begins with predictable fears, a few of which Bergmann recently addressed:
- Video lectures lead to less engaged students. — “This is actually the opposite of what I experienced as a teacher,” wrote Bergmann.
- Classes will become too big to support engagement with students. — “I talk to every kid in every class every day.”
- It’s just bad lecture on video. — “I see the flip as a stepping stone for teachers who have lectured for all of their career. For them the idea of moving to an inquiry, problem based learning model would be very difficult.”
- Students with limited access to technology are hurt — “We simply took 4-6 videos and burned them onto a DVD and handed the DVDs out to students. Some students who had a computer at home but not high speed internet brought in flash drives and took home the videos that way.” Bergmann points to principal Greg Green’s success in Michigan.
Singer notes that a fifth common concern — Creating a record of content the teacher doesn’t want — is alleviated with editing tools that allow the professor to remove unwanted comments at any point.
“Flipping Classrooms is not a gimmick,” says Berry. “We’re trying to do more than help our students pass the next test. It’s about bettering learning and this approach is making a big difference.”
Early in the Flipped Classroom movement, educators Mike Tenneson and Bob McGlasson argued change begins with clear goals for both instructor teaching and student learning. They observed that the things teachers most want to address about their classrooms include issues of student motivation, teacher productivity and support for innovative instruction. Any use of technology or design of in-class content must strategically support those goals to allow Flipped Classroom to be effective. Furthermore, new skills are likely needed, both to use the technology and to adopt new teaching methods.
Educational consultant Andrew Miller suggests that the primary focus should be on increasing student engagement. As learners, we humans only retain 10 percent of what we read and 20 percent of what we hear, but we comprehend 90 percent of what we say and do. If students are engaged with their learning enough to apply their knowledge to a project and explain it to others, learning metrics will assuredly rise. Miller’s best practices for Flipped Classroom begin by creating a need for students to know the video content. This is done by finding uses for the material that are relevant to their lives outside of school. A variety of instructional models are capable of creating this demand, including project- or game-based learning, understanding by design, or authentic literacy.
“People learn differently,” Singer explains. “The reason schools teach the same way is economics; they can’t afford to customize for every single student. What our platform allows is for schools in their own way to leverage technology to teach in a more personal fashion.”