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.

Student-Curated Video Collection: An Activity

AEG/Telefunken television from 1937. This was newfangled back when I started screening videos for this course. Eckhard Etzold, CC BY-SA 2.0

AEG/Telefunken television from 1937. This was newfangled back when I started screening videos for this course. Eckhard Etzold, CC BY-SA 2.0

I’ve been working on revisions to a distance-education physical geology course, and attempting to make it more interactive by offering videos. Have you ever tried to source relevant and accurate videos for multiple topics across multiple course modules? It involves going through hours and hours of videos, and rarely finding one that is directly on point or without problematic inaccuracies. My search technique has evolved to skipping anything longer than 5 minutes that doesn’t come with a transcript or clear description, and then screening the video at 1.5x speed.

So what to do about getting reliable videos without spending most of your adult life in the attempt… well, one school of thought would say let the students do it. I experimented with this kind of activity a few years back, but didn’t have an opportunity to deploy it full-scale. Here are the instructions I provided, with annotations. If you try it, let me know how it goes!

Curating Videos for Historical Geology

In this assignment you will assemble a collection of videos and complementary resources for historical geology students. You will work from the TED Ed* Lessons Worth Sharing video collection, Awesome Nature. This collection can be found at http://ed.ted.com/series/awesome-nature.

*I chose TED Ed because the videos are short. The student who did this moved on to TED Talks, which are  longer. I’d advise limiting the length of videos if you don’t want to spend hours watching videos in order to grade the results. If I were doing this today, I’d also recommend the fabulous video collection at MinuteEarth.

Your work will form the basis of a collection of resources to be made available to future students in Geology 109. If you wish, you will be acknowledged as the curator of the resources when they are posted, although I reserve the right to make any modifications that might be necessary to optimize the effectiveness of the collection.

Rationale

In the Independent Studies version of Geology 109, students do not have access to video lectures. Sometimes the textbook is unclear or written in too technical a fashion for students new to the topic to immediately understand what is being said. Videos designed by someone with a different perspective on the topic can be very helpful for reinforcing concepts, or clarifying points of confusion.

The problem is that not all videos are created equal. Some have factual errors, or even seek to mislead viewers. Some could benefit from clarifications. The task of looking for and vetting videos requires an understanding of the objectives a video should satisfy, and an assessment of how well the video accomplishes those goals. It also requires that viewers understand why they are watching the video and what they should get out of it. When an instructor looks for videos, he or she has an idea of what students find difficult, but it is really the students themselves who can most accurately identify where they need help, and what helps the most.

Your task

  1. Identify a video that satisfies one or more of the learning objectives for Geology 109. Provide the name of the video, and the link.
  2. Write an overview of the video. This should not simply restate the title of the video, but should summarize its contents in three or four sentences.
  3. List the learning objectives from the Geology 109 Course Guide that the video covers, and indicate which chapter they are from.
  4. Identify three key questions that the video answers. The questions should not be a restatement of the learning objectives, and should make it clear to other students why they would find the video useful. The questions will take the following form:
    1. Have you ever wondered …?
    2. Would you like to know how [something works or happens/ happened]?
    3. Have you ever been confused by …?
  5. Identify five terms that are technical in nature, and that are key to understanding the topic of the video. Define those terms in simple language, using your own words.
  6. Identify three “loose ends,” and explain the loose ends so that others watching the video will not be confused by them. The “loose ends” could be:
    1. Points that could be expanded upon
    2. Points that might leave some confusion in the minds of students watching the video
    3. Factual errors (hopefully there won’t be any of those)
    4. Points that are inconsistent with something in the course materials (e.g., competing hypotheses, more recent information, etc.)
  7. Write ten multiple choice questions so students can test their knowledge after watching the video. Supply the correct answers. The questions should cover key points. A good set of multiple choice questions will have the following characteristics:
    1. Four answer options (a through d)
    2. Little to no use of answer options like “all of the above” or “none of the above.”
    3. It should not be obvious to someone with no prior knowledge of the topic which is the correct answer. (Over-simplified questions are not helpful when trying to understand a topic.)
    4. Questions should be relevant to the topic of the video and to the learning objectives.
    5. After doing the questions, it should be clear to students what key points they have not understood.

Deliverables

You will write up each video following the layout supplied at the end of this document. This layout is designed to be compatible with the Blackboard system. The specific software you use to create the write-up is not important, nor is the font. (Blackboard has some formatting limitations, and formatting must be done within the Blackboard text editor, so this is something I will have to do afterward.)

Grading

Each write-up is worth up to 10 points. Those points will be calculated as follows:

  • Is the video relevant to Geology 109, and is the relevance clearly explained? (2.5 points)
  • Are all of the elements in points 1 through 7 above provided (e.g., the learning objectives, multiple choice questions, etc., are present)? (2.5 points)
  • Is the write-up scientifically accurate (e.g., definitions are correct, multiple choice answers are correct, etc.)? (5 points)

You may curate as many videos as you like*, however the maximum possible score for the assignment portion of the class will be 100%.

*This assignment was designed for a specific student. You may wish to rethink the “as many as you like” policy, or turn it into a group project to reduce the workload.

Format for submission

Square brackets mean text that you will insert. Text in italics are my notes, and don’t need to be included in your write-up.

[Video title]

[url]

 

Summary

[Three to four sentence summary of the video topic]

 

Why watch this video?

  • Have you ever wondered […]?
  • Would you like to know how [something works or happens/ happened]?
  • Have you ever been confused by […]?

 

This video addresses the following learning objectives for Geology 109:

  • [Learning objective], Chapter [chapter number]
  • [Learning objective], Chapter [chapter number]
  • [as many additional points as necessary]

 

Some key terms used in this video are:

[term 1]: [definition]

[term 2]: [definition]

[term 3]: [definition]

[term 4]: [definition]

[term 5]: [definition]

 

Special notes

  • [Loose end 1, explanation]
  • [Loose end 2, explanation]
  • [Loose end 3, explanation]

 

Note: these could take the form of, “In the video, [topic] is mentioned, but [concept] isn’t explained. Here is what it means,” or “The video says [this] about [topic], but in the textbook it says [that].   The difference is [reason].”

 

Self-test

[Questions 1 through 10]

 

[Solutions (e.g., 1a, 2b, 3d, …)]

 

Deadline

All write-ups must be submitted on or before Monday, March 30th 2015.

 

On Leaving the Circus

Circus_poster,_1890

Circus poster, 1890. (Library of Congress)

My last day of work at Athabasca University was Friday, June 3. That weekend was the most relaxing I’d had in… ever. Even finishing my PhD didn’t come close to the sensation of lightness. For the two weeks prior, it was almost impossible to concentrate because I felt like a kid about to start summer holidays.

If I had stuck around until September, it would have been 8 years. Unlike most schools, Athabasca University does not break up its year into terms or quarters. It has a continuous enrollment model, where new students start the course every month. Students can submit their assignments at any time during their contract period. The result is that there is no way to predict workload. There is also no way to predict income, because it depends partly on monthly enrollment, as well as the number of papers graded. For me this meant my life was in a perpetual holding pattern to accommodate the irregular income and schedule. Eight years is a long time to stay in an unproductive holding pattern.

The message I got upon being hired by Athabasca was that my position was intended to be a small auxiliary source of income, kind of like babysitting is for a teenager. Nevertheless, I would be expected to offer the highest possible standard of customer service. If I could coin a phrase, it would be “work like you’re full-time.”

But I managed this. I also had the opportunity to revise my courses, which made me feel like I was actually in a teaching position. However, Athabasca’s financial concerns soon came to the forefront. There was the email requesting that employees take unpaid vacation to reduce the burden on payroll. AU entertained the notion of laying off all tutors for a day to save money. Large-scale layoffs happened. There was the move to digital textbooks, where savings realized from the lower cost of digital textbooks were not passed on to students as a decrease in fees.

And then there was the call centre. This news came in the form of a sternly worded email from the acting president that a) tutor costs were unsustainable, and b) this problem would be solved by getting rid of the system of tutors and replacing it with a “one stop shop” for all inquiries.

The claim was that students contacted their (unhelpful, unprofessional) tutors infrequently, and when they did it was mostly with administrative questions that tutors were not equipped to handle. Therefore, there should be a call centre that students would contact first. Knowledgeable and professional call-centre operators (in sharp contrast to tutors) would then connect the student with appropriate resources. If it were deemed necessary, a highly qualified Academic Expert (former tutor) would be contacted and informed that the student had a question. The Academic Expert would then contact the student within 2 business days.

They argued that the centre could be open for longer hours, and on weekends, whereas there were limited office hours during which students could contact their tutors. First of all, these office hours were limited because AU was not willing to hire tutors full-time—so it’s hardly fair to blame the tutors for that. But second, and far more importantly, who uses the phone anymore? If I got more than 30 phone calls in the time I worked there, I’d be surprised. But I did get emails at all hours of the day and night, 7 days a week. The vast majority of those questions were about the course material.

The call centre would save money because the Academic Experts would be paid only for specific activities, rather than the “block pay” determined by the number of students assigned to a tutor. Getting paid would require filling out time sheets to document those activities. You can see a list of what counts here, in the appropriately named Outsider newsletter of CUPE 3911 (the tutors’ union).

And that’s were my self-respect threshold came into view. The notion of having to subdivide my job into the most miniscule bits and pieces, and keep meticulous track of them in order to get paid, seemed incredibly burdensome. That’s not why I teach. Add to that rumblings about Academic Experts having their time sheets rejected, and the suggestion that I could expect a 40% decrease in my income, and it just didn’t seem worth it anymore.

My initial plan was to wait until my courses were moved to the call centre. I would see how things went, and then resign if the situation got as bad as I thought it would. But I got tired of waiting for the axe to fall. I got tired of there being an axe. I started to feel like a chump for staying there.

I might have been able to tolerate the problems if I had felt valued, but I didn’t. Even before the call centre, I had the sense that AU felt its tutors needed to be scolded into doing a good job. On an employee pulse survey, someone commented that tutors as a whole lacked professional development. This is in spite of the fact that no-one had bothered to ask what kind of professional development tutors had done. There also seemed to be a pro call-centre PR strategy to denigrate the abilities and work of tutors, as a means of emphasizing that AU was making the tough choices and seeking solutions.

So I felt about as valued as a piece of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. I didn’t realize how deeply that feeling went until I received a 5-year service pin in the mail. I was surprised and confused because I honestly didn’t think tutors counted as employees for purposes of service recognition.

I’ve never quit a job before. I expected that quitting this one would happen when I was angry and bitter, but instead I was completely blissed out. If this post sounds like an angry rant, it isn’t. It is more of an exorcise- an exercise in exorcising those demons so I can leave them behind and begin whatever healing is required. Being chewing gum is hard on a person’s psyche.

My resignation letter was one sentence saying only what date my resignation would be effective. I didn’t say why I was quitting, and no-one asked. I was a little surprised that they didn’t ask for a hand-off overview of how the courses were going. They should have. Maybe I could have offered that information, but there would have been a lot to say. I’ve tried to communicate issues and solutions before, only to be disregarded, and I didn’t have it in me to try again. And anyway—not my monkeys, not my circus.

I don’t have a new job lined up, per se, but I do have a project that I’ve been meaning to start. I will get to use my research skills, and learn new things. I will have an opportunity to progress rather than being trapped in a holding pattern. I won’t have to read messages from administrators about how I’m not worth what they’re paying me. I won’t have to be afraid of decisions others are making about my future. I won’t need the approval of people who are less qualified than I am to make decisions. I’m not leaving higher ed just yet, but I am branching out and trying to make my own opportunities. What comes after remains to be seen.