Bridging the Qual/Quant Divide 2: Flipping Out

So I hope that I made a decent case for why we need quantitative methods teaching in Geography in my last post. The next question is how to teach them, and for this I’m going to need two more blog posts: this one covers a new approach to instruction in general, and the next will cover some thoughts that I have on the programme that I’ve been working on here at King’s.

Flipping the Class

One of the most talked-about approaches for delivering quantitative material is ‘flipping’. The ‘flipped’ format has been trialled with some success in a STEM context in America, and has also been heavily promoted by the efforts of MOOCs such as edX, Udacity, and the Khan Academy, but it hasn’t yet really made enormous inroads into British academe.

The basics of flipping a class are straightforward: instead of students attending a lecture, then going off to work on the reading and problem sets individually, students are asked to view one or more lectures online and to study associated materials prior to coming to class. This last is often verified with a short online quiz that students must take before the start of class. Thus, classroom contact time can be devoted to group work in which students ‘analyse, argue, and solve problems’.

The flipped teaching format may be seen by some as a great way to cut costs, but it should be clear that developing the course material and management of the class will actually require substantial additional training and investment by the lecturers (and the university) and is likely to raise unanticipated challenges. In fact, I wonder if the seemingly greater popularity of flipping in America might not be linked partly to the fact that the top-flight universities can deploy vast resources to support it much more fully while it’s in its infancy at an institution.

The Potential Benefits of Flipping

What I like about the principle of flipping is the emphasis on small-group collaboration and peer instruction around practical problems and problem-solving. This helps to address a real problem in university lecture halls: the sheer number of students in a first or second year course makes individual attention nearly impossible, whereas here the students can support each other individually in ways that we could not anticipate. It’s often been said that the best way to learn something is to teach it, so it’s hard to imagine a better way for the students to learn than by teaching each other with the support of the lecturer.

Growth in Student Numbers since 2007

What I fell the current environment to be missing most is the ability to work with a small group of students in a way that challenges them and allows me to play to their strengths individually. My hope is that an approach like this would help students to acquire and integrate the quantitative material being taught much more effectively because they would get more of my time and spend a lot more time working together. What little evidence I can find on whether students like e-learning is mixed, but the potential value in this configuration seems to me to be in the active learning context: when you have to actively defend your ideas to others you will tend to formulate much more robust arguments and to have a much deeper understanding of the issues.

So the ‘loss’ of the traditional lecture would theoretically enable the lecturer to devote more time to working with students rather than lecturing at them. Moreover, the use of video and online content delivery — especially if lectures are broken down into shorter segments, each on a single topic — enables weaker students (or those with weaker language skills) to re-read or re-watch much smaller slices of material until they have understood what was covered. All lecturers have seen that moment on a student’s face when they become lost, but can you stop the entire lecture for just one person? (Obviously, it’s useful to try to determine if others are having the same problem, but try that with 120 students.) The video is then not a crutch, but gives the students a chance to catch up and stay caught up.

A secondary feature of the ‘flipped’ format is that it is possible for lecturers at one institution to take advantage of material developed at another. In principle, the single-topic, focussed ‘Mini Lecture’ outlined above could be delivered in a more generic way by the type of lecturer that everyone loves for his or her clarity and entertaining delivery. This could be done so that the lecture is relevant across, say, the social sciences in general, while the in-class time grounds the concept in a particular disciplinary context. Consequently, lecturers don’t need to constantly reinvent the wheel and can apply their knowledge where it’s most needed.

The Potential Dis-benefits of Flipping

So those are the looked-for benefits, what about the potential downside? There are two major ones that I can see: the first is the sheer amount of effort required to really make this work for the students; the second is the possible impact on the weakest students.

The first is the more obvious: flipping isn’t a way to reduce the load on lecturers, it’s a way to refocus their time so that it’s more effectively used. However, flipping a class doesn’t make a weak lecturer into a good one, and working with students in an unstructured, problem-solving context will require a lot of initiative, flexibility and humility. Developing good content for the practicals, adapting the material on-the-fly as students advance more or less quickly, and admitting when we don’t know the answer (but doing so in a way that doesn’t leave students questioning the whole enterprise) is going to be hard. In some ways, revamping the educational experience this dramatically while still carrying the full teaching load, research obligations, and administrative duties, is a little like trying to change the wings on a plane while it’s in flight.

Moreover, the material that we need to flip the class isn’t just ‘out there’ for the taking – a lot of the best is protected content because the early start-ups and teachers in the field rightly see this as their ‘USP’ (Unique Selling Point). So many of us (myself included) are currently in the dark about what a ‘good’ flipped course really looks like or how to go about developing one of our own. And the larger issue is simply that many universities will still want to develop the material from scratch to suit their unique requirements and someone needs to do this… presumably someone who already has a full teaching and research load.

The other challenge is that some students are going to feel that they are getting less value from their university experience (“I’m just watching videos so why am I even here?”) and may become even more disenchanted. It can be hard to see that the real value of university is in learning to work — and learning to learn — together, and not in having the lecturer’s knowledge spoon-fed into your brain via a lecture. This is one reason why higher education is not a bit like high school, but some students will fail to spot this difference.

However, the ‘loss’ of the lecture seems to me a false loss: from my own experience, probably 50% (if I’m lucky) of what I say in my lectures is not really absorbed — it doesn’t matter how many ways I try to communicate that there are better and worse ways of asking a survey question, the assignments suggest that some students aren’t getting it. This could well be a failure in my lecturing style, but I think it’s also the passivity of the learning environment in a lecture. But this is the environment with which some students are familiar — it is what they expect from a university — and so attempts to shake this up may not be welcome.

The A-Team (c) Duke CIT

Managing ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Students

If we take this a step further: I’m sure that all of the lecturers reading this have had the experience of teaching to a wide range of students. The students that we perceive as ‘good’ seem like the kind of students who will learn, no matter how good or how bad our teaching. They are the ones who do the reading. Who ask questions in practicals. Who are willing to say: “I don’t get this, can you explain it another way?” At the other end are the students who — for whatever reason: it could be a poor quality lecturing experience, it could be lack of motivation or interest in the topic, or something happening outside of the classroom — simply aren’t engaged.

The first group will benefit from flipping in the same way that they seem to miraculously benefit from anything else that happens in a university. For this second group the issue a lot trickier: without careful class design it’s possible that this group would fade further into the background and get even more lost — why come to class if you’ve not done the reading since you know you’ll be required to work on a concept you’ve not yet understood? At least the lecture made you learn some of the concepts in a general way. Or why bother to read if you know that the other students will have to explain it to you as part of the project? At least the lecture forces students to do some acquisition.

Frequent, short online tests could help to control this issue if we’re willing to assume there’s not much cheating. But unless the questions are easy for a computer to assess then we’ve just upped the load on the lecturer (or TAs) significantly again. My feeling is that at some point we have to recognise that not all students want to work and that some tiny percentage of those are willing to cheat in order to avoid doing so… in that case it’s hard to see what we can do other than to recognise that it happens and look out for it. You certainly don’t want it to happen, but there is no type of assignment that can universally control for this tendency in a student.

In Conclusion

For someone whose quantitative and programming skills developed very much through application and interaction with others, the idea of flipping is hugely attractive. It plays naturally to how I acquired these skills and seems to address some of the most fundamental challenges in the contemporary lecture hall: huge classes, weak skills acquisition, and weak connections to practical problems.

However, whenever a solution seems so profoundly obvious I can’t help wondering: is it obvious because it’s good, or is it obvious because it’s oversimplifying enormously. Does flipping work? Does it work only for some students? Does it only work in some disciplines or contexts? I have no idea.

So, with that in mind: have you looked into this at your institution? What did you decide? What are you planning, if anything, for the future? Inquiring minds want to know!