What does flipped learning have to do with online learning?

What does flipped learning have to do with online learning?

For almost 10 years now, I've facilitated flipped learning workshops with faculty at institutions all over the United States and outside the United States. I have really loved going around to different campuses, sharing what I know, and helping faculty get better at their work. In 2019, though, I was beginning to wonder if anybody out there was still interested. All during that year, I noticed a dropoff compared to previous years in the number of inquiries I was receiving about doing workshops and giving talks on flipped learning. I have an actual day job, so I wasn't exactly concerned about this dropoff β€” I figured it was just an echo of a trend I pointed out last year in the plateauing of research in flipped learning, namely that flipped learning might have reached the "plateau of productivity" where the strong early interest was turning into normative practice. And that would be "mission accomplished" from my point of view.

So I was a little surprised when, right around March of this year, I started getting a lot of emails about doing workshops (all webinars, thanks to travel restrictions) about flipped Β learning. I've done or will have done more workshops in summer 2020 alone than I did in all of 2019, and I've had to turn a couple of invitations down. I'm deeply grateful for this, but it also makes me wonder, What's with this resurgence in interest in flipped learning? Obviously, March 2020 was ground zero of the Big Pivot when suddenly there was interest in pedagogical training of all kinds β€” I think we can all relate to the sheer number of "covinars" that were given during March and April and continue to this day. But why flipped learning? When the order of the day seems to be figuring out how to teach well online, why not target that instead?

I've been thinking about this question over the summer, and I think there are at least three points of connection between flipped learning and the pedagogical environment that we find ourselves in now, that make flipped learning more relevant that it has been in years, perhaps ever.

First: Flipped learning optimizes face-to-face and synchronous time. The biggest collective shock to higher education in the Big Pivot was the loss of in-person face-to-face meetings. This was, and still is, both a psychological blow as well as a challenging pedagogical issue. But as difficult as this sudden and radical limitation on face-to-face meetings has been, it's forced all of us to recognize an important fact: That there are good ways to use face-to-face meetings, and there are bad ways to use them β€” ways that make the most of those times, and ways that waste them. We can't pretend any more that face-to-face meetings are in unlimited supply and therefore we can use them in whatever way works best for us faculty. Instead, there seems to be a healthy sense of remorse that back in pre-Covid times, we had all these opportunities to meet with students β€” in person, without social distancing, plexiglass shields, and the like β€” and we wasted them, by indulging in teacher-centered pedagogies as if there were no tomorrow.

What many of us wouldn't give now to have just one week of risk-free in-person meetings with students! We certainly wouldn't waste that time, if we had it, on lecturing. In fact, those high-minded (and poorly reasoned) "in defense of the college lecture" essays that usually pop up every 3 months or so have, strangely, fallen silent since March. Students sense this too, as many will simply opt out of school this year β€” to the ruin of many colleges β€” if all they get for their tuition is a talking head.

Faculty are wondering how best to use the time that they have with students β€” even if it's "just" synchronous online meetings or asynchronous discussion board interactions. Flipped learning provides a way to optimize that time. As I detailed here (and put into practice here), whereas traditional class structures focus class time on the lower third of Bloom's Taxonomy (the important but low-complexity Remember and Understand tasks) and leaves the middle and upper thirds to the students' devices, flipped learning places the emphasis on the middle third of Bloom β€” Apply and Analyze tasks, which make up the critical bottleneck where the learning stakes are highest. It puts the responsibility for basic tasks in the students' space and focuses all of the limited, precious time we have together on the tasks that matter the most.

Second: Flipped learning not only is predicated on student responsibility and self-regulation, it gives practice and training in these areas. A corollary to the above is that in flipped learning students are the "owners" of learning in the lower third of Bloom. They are the ones responsible for making the first move. One of the most common criticisms of online learning is that it requires a level of personal responsibility and self-regulation that many students simply don't have in sufficient quantities. It's a valid point, but it's not an immutable fact. Personal responsibility and self-regulation is something that we as instructors need install in our students β€” it's part of the job of teaching, like it or not. And so it behooves us to work on it through our teaching. Flipped learning provides a way to do this in a consistent, structured process. In a flipped learning environment, students are getting practice each day with engaging with new ideas in their independent spaces, teaching themselves what they need to know to be productive in the group space β€” even if that learning is flawed and incomplete. It provides just the structure and feedback needed to learn how to be individually responsible and self-regulating. Flipped learning does not just hang a rope from the ceiling and tell students to climb up it.

Third: Flipped learning environments are structured yet flexible, which makes them well suited for our current situation. Finally, speaking of structure, I've mentioned before that structure is key to an effective online learning environment, especially for the most vulnerable students. At the same time, too much structure can make a course brittle, prone to breaking when things don't go according to plan β€” and what has gone according to plan in the last five months? Flipped learning provides a balance between structure and flexibility that I think is appealing for anyone teaching online. In the excellent Four Pillars of FLIP framework, the "F" stands for flexible environment which refers to flexibility in pedagogy, physical environment, and instructor expectations; while the "I" stands for intentional content which speaks to the structure of the learning environment. This framework and flipped learning design frameworks are keyed toward a structured approach to planning and execution that still leaves plenty of room for student exploration.

As more faculty rediscover what flipped learning has to offer in these times, it makes me think that all of these models β€” flipped, hybrid, online, blended, hyflex, etc. β€” Β are really just different expressions of the same overall pedagogical idea: A pedagogy that optimizes for active learning at the most crucial moments, prioritizes and codifies student self-regulation, and balances structure with flexibility. That's a powerful combination that all students deserve.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.