The Condensed Classroom

"Flipped" classrooms don't invert traditional learning so much as abstract it
Flickr/velkr0/Ian Bogost

This year, more university students and professors will encounter a trend that has come to be known as "flipping the classroom." It's been largely associated with massive open online courses (MOOCs), that edu-tech vogue committed to delivering classes to large numbers of students all at once via video lectures and automated assessments conducted over the Internet.

Some promote MOOCS as the future of lower-cost higher eduction, while others lament them a solutionist privatization of educational practice. Despite the polarization, both MOOCs and flipped classrooms enjoyed positive mentions last week from President Obama, who announced a White House plan to make college more affordable:

A rising tide of innovation has the potential to shake up the higher education landscape. Promising approaches include three-year accelerated degrees, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and "flipped" or "hybrid" classrooms where students watch lectures at home and online and faculty challenge them to solve problems and deepen their knowledge in class. Some of these approaches are still being developed, and too few students are seeing their benefits.

Even among those who have become accustomed to hearing about MOOCs in the media, the "flipped classroom" might be a new concept. What is it, anyway? Here's a definition from a forthcoming report on the subject by the Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) at my own institution, Georgia Tech:

A flipped classroom inverts the traditional structure of a classroom. In a typical traditional classroom, students listen to lectures in class and perform other learning activities, such as solving practice problems after class. In this traditional structure, students are exposed to material in class via lectures, and they attain deeper knowledge after class via various forms of homework. In a typical flipped classroom, students listen to pre-recorded video lectures before class and perform other learning activities in class. In this flipped structure, students are exposed to material before class via videos and readings, and they attain deeper knowledge in class via activities.

Generally speaking, educators have warmed to the idea of the flipped classroom far more than that of the MOOC. That move might be injudicious, as the two are intimately connected. It's no accident that private, for-profit MOOC startups like Coursera have advocated for flipped classrooms, since those organizations have much to gain from their endorsement by universities. MOOCs rely on the short, video lecture as the backbone of a new educational beast, after all. Whether in the context of an all-online or a "hybrid" course, a flipped classroom takes the video lecture as a new standard for knowledge delivery and transfers that experience from the lecture hall to the laptop.

And the idea of a "flipped classroom" does sound good on first blush. After all, classrooms are hardly the pride of the educational experience, for students or for teachers. Flipping them might be for the best.

Dissatisfaction with the structure of classrooms is hardly a new enterprise. Fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan cited the lecture hall as an example of a "hot" medium, one that exercises a single sense and therefore obviates the need for students to fill in the details. By contrast, for McLuhan the seminar exemplifies "cool" media, those that require more conscious effort from their participants. McLuhan had previously made the same observation about the print book, arguing that its single-origin, single-sense method of knowledge recording and delivery set the stage for industrialization.

More recently, Duke professor Cathy Davidson has reminded us that the lecture-style classroom is itself a product of industrialism, a tool meant to train students to sit quietly and conform to a single set of processes and ideas. No matter the learning content deployed in a classroom, its form embraces a disciplinary practice purpose-built for the factory or corporation who might later hire its compliant graduates. Given the collapse of industrialism and the rise of the knowledge economy, Davidson advocates for a more process-oriented, distributed, and exploratory method of learning more suited to today's post-industrial age.

Given the same critiques of the classroom can be found both a year ago and half a century ago, it's worth asking how the "flipped classroom" would improve the educational process.

Perhaps surprisingly, a flipped classroom doesn't fundamentally alter the nature of the experience in the way that McLuhan and Davidson propose. Both MOOCs and flipped classrooms still rely on the lecture as their principal building block. In a typical classroom students listen to lectures. In a flipped classroom, students still listen to lectures -- they just do so as homework, edited down into pleasurably digestible chunks. The lecture is alive and well, it's just been turned into a sitcom.

Of course, a flipped classroom is not meant just to deliver pre-recorded lectures. As my C21U colleagues indicate, it hopes to allow the reclamation of class meetings for "learning activities" meant to provide "deeper knowledge." Given the luxury of a small, McLuhan-cool seminar-style class, one can easily imagine that such an arrangement would prove beneficial.

But flipped classrooms and MOOCs are not meant to enable a larger number of smaller, more personalized classes. Or, when they do, such success is purely accidental and secondary. These new courses are first efficiency measures that hope to aggregate fewer higher-level (and higher-cost) educational encounters and standardize them for regularized future delivery. In practice, flipped classroom meetings usually involve additional assessments and exercises, most of which are non-synthetic and automated (clicker responses, low- or un-moderated online discussions, quizzes, and so forth). The abstract, open-ended engagement with ideas (what makes the seminar "cool") is subordinated to efficient, measurable productive acts. 

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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