Are You Flipping the Wrong Way?

Finding many educators are using outdated flipped learning techniques, a new group proposes global training standards to keep them up to date.

March 27, 2018
 

More and more educators around the world are experimenting with flipped learning -- a technique where students review learning materials (typically online) before class so they can do more active learning in the classroom.

But according to the Flipped Learning Global Initiative, a for-profit organization that wants to increase adoption of flipped learning and offers its own training courses, many educators, and people who train educators, are using outdated techniques.

Around 80 percent of instructors around the world teaching or training others in flipped learning are three to five years behind current best practices, the FLGI says. For example, many practitioners think of flipped learning as asking students to watch a video of a lecture before class, but some researchers suggest that video may not be an effective preclass preparation tool, and a more interactive activity (such as reading and working through questions) should be assigned instead.

To help raise awareness of current flipped learning practices, last month the FLGI launched the Global Standards Project. The project has already published a set of global training standards, which 19 K-12 and higher education institutions have adopted.

The 25 training standards clearly apply to the FLGI's own training but include general tenets such as: training should be based on the most current global research and practices, training should be evolving and include a post-training support system, and trainers should be required to demonstrate competence. The FLGI currently offers three levels of flipped learning training, starting from $70 for individual training and certification.

Errol St. Clair Smith, co-founder and director of global development at the FLGI, said that these standards were a "first draft" that would evolve with input from the flipped learning community.

The standards were developed by a team of international academics from the U.S., Spain, Turkey and Taiwan. Among the group are Eric Mazur, a professor of physics at Harvard University, and FLGI co-founder and chief academic officer Jon Bergmann, who was formally a high school chemistry teacher. Both Bergmann and Mazur are considered pioneers of the flipped learning movement.

In addition to setting training standards, FLGI has ambitions to become the pre-eminent authority on flipped learning -- developing common terminology, sharing best practices, identifying emerging technologies and fostering research collaboration.

Robert Talbert, a professor of mathematics at Grand Valley State University, was involved in the early development of the FLGI, which launched in 2016. Talbert said that the development of flipped learning standards is “both good and needed.”

Talbert noted, however, that the FLGI’s Global Standards Project is primarily about setting standards for flipped learning training, and not for flipped learning itself.

The FLGI’s training standards "seem reasonable," said Talbert. He praised the emphasis the standards place on keeping up to date with global best practices and new global research -- reflecting that flipped learning is a “global movement” and “not just a localized niche concept.”

Standards for flipped learning generally would be welcome, said Talbert. He described flipped learning as something of a “Wild West” with a wide range of “often contradictory practices.”

Talbert, who published a book on flipped learning last year called Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty (Stylus), said that there are several competing definitions of flipped learning in educational research which make it “nearly impossible to frame research questions or interpret research results in a generalizable way.”

Silos at Home and Abroad

The FLGI's efforts to define flipped learning are driven by the fact that many instructors are working in silos -- unaware that they are using methods that might not get the best results.

In the global flipped learning community, there is "very little communication, cross-pollination or collaboration,” said St. Clair Smith. Frequently, St. Clair Smith said he encountered groups devoting time and resources to problems that have already been solved -- a situation he described as "staggering, and a little heartbreaking."

In Brazil, for example, researchers were struggling to find a way to introduce flipped learning to areas with limited access to computers. The researchers had no idea that a team in Argentina had already found a solution. Another group in a low-income country spent time and money building a redundant learning management system -- "We were too late to point them in the right direction," said St. Clair Smith.

Even in the U.S., there is a lack of awareness of recent research, said St. Clair Smith. He mentioned a 2017 newspaper article praising two teachers who had secured funding to buy flash drives for students without internet access so that they could watch instruction videos at home before class.

“It was a great community support story, but it revealed that the teachers were unaware that this problem was solved over eight years ago with a solution called the ‘in-class flip,’” said St. Clair Smith. In this model, instructors set up computer stations at the back of the classroom so that students who haven't viewed the lesson at home can do so during the lesson.

"All around the world we see educators who argue that flipped learning can't work in their populations because many of their students don't have internet access."

Research on flipped learning is doubling every 18 months, said Talbert. If an instructor picks up a book from 2012 and models their teaching on it, they could be missing out on roughly 90 percent of all research on flipped learning, he said.

The Challenge of Keeping Up

Common practices quickly become outdated in flipped learning. For example, many instructors ask their students to watch videos of lectures before class so that in class they can do more active learning activities. But research suggests that students who do more hands-on activities before class perform better than those who watch videos. St. Clair Smith said that the belief that “necessarily requires videos and technology” is outmoded.

“Using video for preclass work is still by far the most common approach, but more instructors are using some interactive activity instead,” said Talbert. Some instructors are reverting to assigning students a text to read with structured questions before class, he said. “Making a video is very time-consuming, and it's not clear if video provides benefits to students commensurate with the cost of making those videos.”

Emphasis has also shifted in recent years from what happens before class to what happens in class, said Talbert. “In the early days, instructors tended to put a great deal of emphasis on students’ preclass work and then do nothing particularly special for class meetings. Now there’s a much broader understanding that the in-class activity needs to be designed first.”

But keeping up to date is challenging. Instructors are pressed for time, and identifying the best research is difficult. There is also a tendency for instructors to “reinvent the wheel” rather than sharing techniques, said Talbert.

José Antonio Bowen, president of Goucher College and a proponent of active classroom learning, said he isn’t sure there needs to be a single set of standards for flipped learning, though he agreed that the development of resources to help instructors avoid common mistakes would be a good thing.

“There are lots of common pitfalls, and it’s likely that in almost two decades somebody has tried what you’re thinking of and failed,” said Bowen. But finding out what hasn’t worked can be difficult, because positive results are more likely to get published than negative ones. Access to journal articles is also expensive, he noted.

Bowen, who wrote a book on active learning called Teaching Naked (Jossey-Bass), said that instructors need to remember to have patience when trying something new. “Initially your students aren’t going to like it and you’re probably going to be terrible. You’ve got to persevere.”

Though instructors might not necessarily be doing flipped learning “wrong” by failing to employ the latest techniques, both Bowen and Talbert agreed it was important that instructors try to stay up to date.

“Just as we expect doctors to practice medicine that is tune with the latest medical findings, teachers and professors need to teach using methods informed by the latest educational research and practice,” said Talbert.

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