The Accidental Sorta-Flipped Classroom

A “flipped classroom” involves having your students do a substantial part of their learning before they get to class (such as by doing readings, watching videos, and the like), then having them engage with that continent in a more applied way when you meet.

My view of this approach has been that it sounded nice, but it was double the work for students, and at least double the work for instructors who somehow had to create what seemed to be a fully asynchronous course that students would do between actual class meetings.

As I write this, I can’t believe I didn’t see this sooner… Duh, me. You’ll see what’s so blindingly obvious in a second…

My online classes are normally fully asynchronous (you’re starting to see the obvious thing, right?) but this term I decided that students could probably use the additional support of a face-to-face (well, video-to-video) meeting. Over the years I’ve found that when my online students have requested a meeting, that meeting involved me telling them exactly the same things I had been via email and written instructions, but somehow their light bulbs went on, and one even hugged me after. I concluded this had more to do with an emotional need to connect than it did a misunderstanding of course content.

These days, coping with COVID means that students are even more stressed-out than usual, so that emotional element is important. Plus, students are being inundated with online coursework, and they have enough trouble keeping the logistics straight normally. I’m not insulting students here. What I’m talking about is akin to the “hit submit” phenomenon where you don’t see the typo in your work until after you hit the submit button. We miss things when we interact with text, even when we think we’re reading it with the utmost care and attention, and students are interacting with a lot of text.

My course meetings happen once a week via video conference, and my original plan was the following agenda: logistical announcements and reminders, open the floor  to questions via the anonymous whiteboard tool, address the questions, then give a brief overview of the content of the upcoming module. Guess when students began leaving the meeting? Right as I started talking about course content. I thought they might want that little preview, but apparently not.

To be honest, I didn’t like doing the preview part. I’d already expended an enormous amount of energy on the online content, including considerable creative energy, so the preview just felt flat to me, and probably to them as well. Partway through I got sufficiently bored with that part of the meeting that I gave up on it and just pulled out a weird rock that I found in my yard the previous weekend. I realized that my initial assumptions about what was going on with that rock were actually wrong, but in a “teachable moment” kind of way. Lucky for me, students had just covered the content relevant to understanding that particular teachable moment. (You see it now, right?)

I wove together a detective story of sorts, explaining what I originally thought was going on with the rock, and then what was wrong with that idea. I even managed to bring Bowen’s reaction series into the conversation. I showed them a few other rocks that helped me realize what the heck was going on with the weird one. I explained how I started from being wrong, and reasoned through to a better answer, asking myself questions along the way. I made a point of tying in key concepts as I went so they could see exactly how the things they were learning fit together. I enjoyed this far more than the boring preview, and it sounded like they did as well. I decided that “weird rock” story time would replace the preview for the remainder of the term.

At some point through the weeks that I was making this change, I actually engaged in a conversation about flipped classrooms, and thought to myself, “That seems like way too much work for questionable benefit.”

But what I was doing was actually a version of this pedagogical approach. There was an extraordinary amount of work involved to get to the point where I could do it, but that work was to build an asynchronous online course, not because I had this in mind all along. For students, this doesn’t actually involve the extra work I envisioned. They attend the meeting because they get information that will make the course an easier experience for them (attendance isn’t mandatory, so it’s their choice to be there), and the “flipped” part is just story time. There is no assessment tied to this, and there doesn’t need to be, because they already do short quizzes for each course module. 

I fell into this completely by accident because it just worked better than what I was doing, not because I felt the need to attempt a particular pedagogical approach. And I think that might be significant—while it’s great to experiment and try new things, we shouldn’t be attempting a pedagogical approach just because someone tells us it’s the latest thing to try. I mean, you could, and maybe it’ll turn out well, but that will only happen if it’s a good fit for what you need to accomplish in your course, and realistic in terms of your resources. If your inventory of resources has just one item in it—you—then it’s extra important to make sure there is enough you-budget to go around.

What do you think?

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