Is flipping an online course possible? (Throwback)

A throwback post from 2015, wrestling with the possibility of flipped learning in an online setting.

Is flipping an online course possible? (Throwback)

I thought it might be fun/amusing/instructive to look back at a post from 2015 (edited), when I was teaching my first online course. It was asynchronous, and I was trying to reconcile the modality with flipped learning principles. This was pre-book and obviously pre-pandemic. I don't know of anyone who was writing about flipped learning and online courses at the time; most people I mentioned the concept to, thought it was impossible. Experience and necessity have taught us differently. Stay tuned to the end for some 2021 updates.


I'm currently teaching my very first online course — a fully online version of our standard Calculus 1 class. The class has turned out to be a microcosm of everything I have tried pedagogically in the last several years: it uses a lot of technology, it uses specifications grading, and it’s flipped.

Flipping an online course has been a fascinating and perplexing problem. It challenges all the usual assumptions about the flipped classroom. In particular, typical language about flipped learning is rooted in the concept of class time. Students gain first contact with new material “before class”, then there is some work on more advanced and creative applications “during class”, and then students do even more advanced work “after class”.

But that concept is actually ambiguous, it turns out, and may not make sense in all cases. I noticed that my go-to operational definition of flipped learning avoids the idea of “class time” and instead refers to group learning space and individual learning space. What if there are no synchronous class meetings whatsoever? Is it even semantically possible to flip a class that never meets — or rather, a class that always meets?

Kris Shaffer asked this same question about his upcoming fully online music theory class and had some excellent insights. Spurred on by his blog post, I wanted to give some of my own conclusions so far. Please remember that we are only in week 2 of the course and so all of these ideas are tentative, and I do not fully know what I am doing yet. Also many of these points might be totally obvious to those who have been teaching online for a while.

  • The first step toward effective flipped learning in an online course is to decouple the learning process from time/space coordinates. In a fully online [asynchronous] course there is no “before/during/after class”. Even the line between individual and group learning spaces is nearly impossible to demarcate. When a student is working with a problem on the class discussion board, is that “individual space” or “group space”? I was making no progress in figuring out how to build my course until I let go of the notion that learning activities must map onto only one particular combination of time and space.
  • The next step is to focus on the learning process itself. A recent talk by Derek Bruff was really helpful with this. He described the flipped classroom in terms of three phases: first contact, practice, and climbing higher. (Those aren’t his exact terms.) These describe flipped learning in a way that is agnostic with respect to space and time. In an online setting, you have to focus on the phases and not on the coordinates we usually impose to guide and structure those phases. Speaking of guidance:
  • You can guide those phases of learning and set up helpful guideposts for students, but you cannot mandate or control them. It’s a cliche, but a true one, that learning is messy and the process looks different for each student, and can be different for the same student from one topic to the next. If I tried to structure the class experience in a highly regimented way — particularly the discussion board where most of the collaborative student activity happens — I think this would only cause students to orient themselves towards extrinsic motivation (meeting the deadline and making the grade) rather than, as Kris points out in his post, using the discussion board as a means to an end. That gets me to my next point:
  • Everything the course is a resource to meet learning goals. When I describe the Guided Practice model I use for “pre-class” work (there’s that assumption again) I often talk about a section of the assignment that lists resources for learning. In an online course — and perhaps this is true even of F2F courses — the primary function of everything is to be resource for meeting learning goals. Syllabus, videos, textbook, quizzes, the final exam — these are all serve the ultimate goal of demonstrating sufficient evidence that the student has met the intended learning outcomes. Even the outcomes themselves are resources, since without a clear statement of the learning goals it is awfully hard to meet them.
  • The silence of students does not mean that they are disengaged. But it might. It’s hard to tell. Students in my class are not required to participate on the discussion boards beyond a bare-minimum specification. They are not required to show up for online office hours or to email me. A student who doesn’t participate regularly is not necessarily slacking; she might just be thinking things over. On the other hand, such a student might also be disengaged and falling behind. So I have to set up “sensors”, in the form of low-stakes assessments, in my class that measure student activity so that I can tell what students know, and when they know it, to a greater extent than any F2F class I’ve taught. For example, I can dip into WeBWorK at any point and analyze a students’ progress, for example. If a student has attempted a problem 52 times with no luck, I can tell that engagement is sort-of happening but that I need to check in with them. If there are no attempts, and no discussion board or even Blackboard activity, then this is a sign of disengagement and I should also check in.

This has been a very interesting course to put together. I like it. The online setting puts students in a position so that they are the ones chiefly responsible for making sense out of what they are learning. And the usual expectation that the instructor will lecture on simple exercises that are then replicated by students on timed tests, is a non-starter. That makes online learning pretty compelling.


Updates for 2021:

One thing I learned from teaching this asynchronous class is that the ideas I outlined above are not just for asynchronous classes. Every class I've taught since then — F2F, hybrid (with synchronous or asynchronous online portions), and synchronous online — follow the same overall principles: focus on the process rather than the time/space coordinates; don't try to control the process but rather guide it, and let things happen organically; use learning objectives as the guideposts; and don't freak out over quiet students, but also check in on them to make sure they have what they need.

I'm not so sure anymore about that phrase, "Everything the course is a resource to meet learning goals". There is a lot that happens, or that I would like to see happen, in a course that's only loosely related or sometimes completely unrelated to learning objectives; and I definitely don't want my courses to become a dreadful mechanistic process of checking competencies off of a list. But I do think that having clear, measurable learning objectives is still essential to an environment where real learning is maximally likely for the greatest number of students — for my students at least, and assuming that I'm the one setting the objectives and not a third party who doesn't know the needs of my students.

Finally, I am continuing to learn that maybe the hardest part of teaching, regardless of modality or anything, is found in that last point: staying in contact with students, keeping them engaged, and making sure they have what they need when they need it. The biggest problems with teaching are not some sort of engineering design problems, they're human problems. And at this point in the pandemic, I think we've learned how wicked those problems can be, but also how fulfilling it can be to work on them.