The Condensed Classroom

By Ian Bogost
flipped-classroom.jpg
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. 

An astute observer might start to wonder... what's so flipped about the flipped classroom? Looking at the two side-by-side reveals one major difference that will help us reformulate this concept without the bluster of its trendiness.

A traditional classroom has readings before class, lectures during class, and assignments after class. A flipped classroom has lectures before class, assignments during class, and assessments after class. Flipped classroom supporters like to argue that traditional classrooms only provide first exposure to materials via lecture, but that claim assumes that nothing whatsoever happens before such classes, that students enter class blind. In reality, digging deeper than hearsay is a hallmark of university education. Classes in all disciplines ask students to engage with primary and secondary materials beforehand.

The flipped classroom abstracts these materials, overloading them into the lecture, which itself is usually shortened and condensed into modules less than 20 minutes in length. This condensed primary material then becomes fodder not for discourse or practice, but for evaluation. 

A cynic might say that the flipped classroom ushers in the CliffsNotesfication of university courses. Slate's Will Oremus has offered a more moderate take: the MOOC-style flipped classroom lecture might be best understood as a replacement for textbooks and other reading materials students traditionally encounter in university.

But "replacement" is an imprecise characterization, particularly for courses in which a singular, canonical textbook doesn't (or shouldn't) exist (hint: most of them). More specifically, video lectures compress both primary materials (readings) and their clarification (lectures) into a single format, one shorter and necessarily less detailed than would be possible with a combination of pre-class readings and in-class lectures or discussions.

In essence, the flipped classroom is really a condensed or an abstracted classroom, one in which primary and secondary materials are refactored into pre-built lectures for the sake of value propositions other than the student's direct encounter with the currency of ideas. A condensed classroom is a compromise.

Even so, such a classroom isn't necessarily a bad thing. A guide published this year by Vanderbilt University suggests that flipped classrooms offer better opportunity and incentive for students to gain exposure to material before class. For example, it's possible that non-major students taking introductory courses might find more gratification in a short, summary lecture than they would reading esoteric textbook chapters or difficult primary material. In this case, condensation means encapsulation, compression: making materials more condensed so as to render them more easily and broadly digestible.

But then again, one could easily argue just the opposite: that a condensed classroom is a false copy, one that exchanges detail for facility -- a particular concern especially in introductory courses whose students won't later enjoy deeper contact with primary materials. Thumbnailing or abridging a subject might be fine in a magazine article or a TED talk, but isn't higher education supposed to provide genuine mastery, not just glib adequacy? Aren't college courses meant to place students in direct contact with the history of knowledge, not just to offer another channel of short-form entertainment students can collect and assemble into a credential?

No matter its benefits or faults, it is inaccurate to call this flipped classroom "flipped," when really it is condensed, abstracted. But you can see why it's an effective rhetorical term. "Flipping" implies an ambitious and visionary overturning of the sort Davidson advocates, rather than a simple refactoring of resources that might allow classes to better prepare students for assessment -- one of the other principal benefits cited in the Vanderbilt findings. Worse yet, many instructors who are legitimately interested in increasing the "cool" and reducing the "heat" of their lecture classes may be inadvertently tricked into thinking they are "flipping" their classrooms, thus lending credibility to a project with incompatible aims.

flipped-diagram.gifA diagram by Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching director Derek Bruff, published in Coursera's "Flipped Classroom Field Guide." Bruff's diagrammatic explanation demonstrates the abstraction of primary and secondary materials from the "traditional" classroom, where they are not distinguished from "homework," a term apparently reserved for assessment. (Derek Bruff/Coursera)

As ed-tech learning practices become commonplace, we would do well to remember that technology does not improve some underlying, pure nature of their subject. Rather, it changes those things, transforming them into something new, something different. The telephone doesn't improve communication; it alters it. Facebook doesn't improve socialization; it alters it. When it comes to the process of condensation, blanket statements slip through our fingers. Condensed milk isn't necessarily worse or better than fresh milk. Winnie the Pooh likes it. It can be spread on toast or dolloped atop New Orleans snowballs. But it is not an improvement over fresh milk. It's something else entirely. Likewise, the condensed classroom ought not to be thought of as an evolution. Instead, we should see it just for what it is: one approach to learning whose merits are hardly sufficiently justified by its correspondence with current trends in Internet culture.

Indeed, flipped classrooms may not even offer the benefits of efficiency touted by ed-tech startups and parroted by the White House. Contrary to the common wisdom about MOOCs and their ilk, condensed classes actually seem to require more work rather than less. Not only because they require the creation of elaborate video lectures, but also because in-class activities have to be designed, monitored, and evaluated. The likely end-game of flipped classrooms isn't a proliferation of high-contact, expert-run seminars, but the condensation of fewer, more readily distributable "online textbooks" with armies of low-paid instructional personnel cleaning up after them. Flipping-off the classroom, in other words.

Stripped from its current context of cost-cutting and oversight-amplification, the more abstract idea of flipping the classroom harkens back to Marshall McLuhan's hot and cool learning environments. If anything, a truly flipped classroom would just look more like a seminar, not more like a series of TED talks with associated assessments. The error of flipped classroom advocacy is not a distaste for the big lecture classroom, but that its reversal entails online lectures and in-class assessments instead.

Of course, it's theoretically possible to turn every classroom into a small-scale, discussion-heavy period of reflection and exercise. But such a feat requires investment, and both Obama's plan and the MOOC advocates make the false assumption that today's educational austerity is both incontrovertible and acceptable. Now we can get on to the privatization of education (Coursera, Udacity and other harbingers of publicly-supported short-term ed-tech speculation), or the administrative bureaucratization of it (ObamaEd, which has already been called the higher education version of No Child Left Behind). Parents and students who have worried about increasing size and decreasing attention in K-12 classrooms should note that flipped classrooms are an extension rather than an interruption of this practice, one tightly aligned with long-term financial deprivation in education (despite also costing more in the short-term).

The proliferation of such signals help us imagine what a truly "flipped" classroom might look like, one that really did reverse the worst aspects of education for the sake of improving it as a long-term social practice rather than converting it into a short-term appraisal contraption. It would be one in which administration and commercialization take a backseat to high-touch teaching and learning, one in which educators have the resources required to conduct what we've long known is better for students, and perhaps most of all, one in which compromises and short-cuts aren't palmed off as innovation.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/08/the-condensed-classroom/279013/