Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Flipped out over flipped classrooms

Salman Kahn is in the spotlight these days for his Kahn Academy which promotes the idea of "flipping the classroom." Kahn Academy publishes educational videos online. Teachers prepare the videos and students watch them as their homework. Instead of listening to teachers talk, classroom time is "flipped" into a working homework session. In this model it is hoped that teachers can then work more closely with students trying to solve problems and complete assignments.

Kahn makes a compelling case for why this is a good idea for education. Students get personalized attention, the focus is on mastery of skills and not memorization of content, and teachers get to spend more time working directly with students.

If you listen to Kahn it's difficult to see a downside of this idea:

But is this the next big thing for education, a fad that will go away as quickly as it came, or worse, something that will send education down the path of robotization? Let's take a closer look at a couple of examples and try to decide which it is.

It turns out that Stanford University undergraduate Ben Rudolph thinks online video lectures leave much to be desired. Rudolph took one course where all of his professor's lectures were presented via online video. In addition, homework assignments, quizzes, and tests, were automatically graded through a web interface used to complete programming exercises.

Ben Rudolph
"Online lectures suck" complains Rudolph. " Sure they're great for rainy days or people learning at a distance or people that don't go to Stanford. However, these new classes are getting rid of in-person lectures completely. I met barely anyone in my class. Everything was done alone in my room, which is kind of crappy especially when there is such a nice campus right outside."

In an article for the Chronicle for Higher Education, writer Marc Perry describes how Rudolph's professor, Andrew Y. Ng and other Stanford professors came up with the idea for these online lectures in the first place. Their motivation came from the fact that it turns out students weren't showing up for class. Ng and other Stanford professors decided not to show up as well. They presented a video of their lectures and let their students listen to them from the comfort of their dorm room.

Professor Ng says that he may have started his "flipped" classroom as a response to 70% absenteeism in his classes but he argues that other elements of a course based on video lectures such as digital quizzes and tests make this a win win situation for students and teachers. The instant feedback of electronically graded assessments are much better than having to wait days or even weeks for teacher feedback.

Ng says online course could be even better if professors created shorter and targeted video lectures more in line with the Kahn Academy model. This model is designed to improve the teacher student relationship and increase the opportunity for interaction.

Another model, "massive online open courses" (or MOOCs) is designed to reach the widest possible audience. By definition this is a model that provides decreased opportunity for student and teacher interaction. This doesn't stop proponents of this method from talking about how they will be enhancing the educational experiences of the future.

"Educating the 21st Century" is the motto at Udacity which is Stanford's MOOCs system begun this year. Professor Sebastian Thrun taught a class with over 160,000 registered students last fall and hopes to teach this class to 500,000 people. Most of the 200 Stanford students enrolled in the class chose to watch the videos rather than go to class.

MITx is the online education initiative started at MIT this year. MITx hopes to "enhance the educational experience of its on-campus students, offering them online tools that supplement and enrich their classroom and laboratory experiences." 

It is interesting to note that all of these online college classes involve computers and technology as the subject. Kahn Academy's courses are mostly math and science topics. It is likely schools believe people interested in learning about and with computers are more likely to take an online course.

Perhaps they also believe other types of courses are less likely to be successful when offered online. Imagine 160,000 people taking a poetry class. Who's going to read all those poems? How are you going to discuss them?

Which brings us to the most important question: Does this all add up to the same or better education you might get by being in the same room with all your classmates and teachers? What are we gaining and what are we losing by moving in this direction?

Clearly online courses provide learning opportunities on a significantly larger scale. There are many other benefits to online courses including being able to learn at your own pace, on your own time, and from wherever you are located. Online learning is especially beneficial for people who find it difficult to speak up in a classroom setting. They can take the time they need to formulate their comments before chiming in to the discussion.

However, at what price does this occur to the the learning that goes on in a "normal" classroom discussion?  Engaging in dialog with other people in class helps students gain perspective on the information and provides an opportunity for them to join in and share their views in ways that are just not possible any other way. This also helps create a sense of a learning community among the members of the class. Some of this is possible online but not with the immediacy and depth you can reach in person.

Technological advances have made it easy for learning to take place outside the four walls of the classroom. But they may also be helping to create a culture where people spend less and less time face to face talking to each other and more and more time engaging in virtual communications.

It's funny to think about a computer program called "FaceTime" or other applications like Skype which allow you to chat online "face to face" using technology. If we can't be there in person at least we can get some "face time" with each other using this tool. The problem is that it doesn't allow for the back and forth of all the members of a class trying to participate in the discussion. It really only works on a one to one, or few to few, basis. No teacher is going to carry on a face to face conversation with 160,000 people no matter how powerful the technology. It's just not possible.

There are plenty of people flipped out over the idea of online courses, "flipped" classrooms, and the like. We are certainly going to see more and more of this type of learning over time. Let us tread lightly in this direction though. It is important to keep the learning front and center. Too often what we are learning is secondary to the simple idea that "teaching" can take place on such a broad scale.

If we do only that then we are surely revolutionizing education. However, we may not end up liking the revolution.

May 2, 2012 Update:

Harvard and MIT announced a 60 million dollar investment into their online courses. This investment intends to keep their online courses free to anyone who wants to take them. These universities have not figured out a way to make these courses sustainable but they do not intend to keep funding them. They have created a non-profit to run the courses and have offered the software free as open-source to anyone who wants to use them for online courses.

Click here to hear a brief discussion of this announcement from NPR.

May 3, 2012 Update:

In April 2010 the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) published a report of their 21st Century Curriculum/Technology Task Force. In the report there was a strong call for NAIS schools to begin looking at how they can take their classes online. Here is the comment I made to that report:

"I am somewhat bothered by current discussions to take our school’s courses online. Part of my concern is that some people see it as a money making opportunity. I’m not opposed to the idea but too often the opportunity to make (or save) money overshadows the pedagogical choices we make in how we design our schools.
I have a hard time getting my arms around the idea that our classes can somehow be taught better online then they are taught in the classroom. I have yet to see that be the case.
Mostly I don’t believe we should loose the direct contact our teachers have with our students.
All of us, especially young people, spend an increasing amount of time online:
“Average number of hours a U.S. child aged 8 to 18 spends using an electronic device or watching television each day: 7.6″ – Harpers Index, April 2010 (from Kaiser Family Foundation study 2009).
What we need in education is more time spent engaging with each other as humans and less time engaging with each other via electronic media.
Do I believe we should be using more interactive tools in education then we currently use? Yes, of course we do. This does not necessarily mean we ought to be teaching our courses entirely online. Are there opportunities to open a new world of learning through online courses? Yes, but this does not mean all or even most of our courses make sense being taught online.
Even though the tools of online learning have improved significantly over the past two decades they still remain simply that — tools. Tools for the educator to use (or not use) depending on the subject and content. We should use these tools wisely and make sure we stay in touch with our human side."

December 11, 2013 Update

Mixed news today on the MOOC front. The NY Times reports on how MOOCs "flopped" at California State University, San Jose. The Times reported on a University of Pennsylvania Graduate School for Education report that shows a very small percentage of students every complete these massive online courses. In fact, the Times goes on to say that San Jose State experimented with smaller online courses and personal mentors designed to increase participation but this had little impact.

Meanwhile, the PBS NewsHour profiled Detroit area high school Clintondale this evening in a piece on flipped classrooms. The NewsHour included an interview with Justin Reich, a professor with the Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Reich was clear that the power of online learning is directly related to the connection between teachers and students and the curriculum in the classroom:

"What is exciting to me about the flipped classroom" says Reich, "is that it gets teachers asking two really important fundamental questions:

'What are the best ways for me to use my time, especially the very precious time I have in classrooms with my students?'

and then,

'What are the kinds of direct instruction that I can provide that could be digitized so that people can watch it again?'"

However, Reich adds: "If what we see from the flipped classroom is that we take bad lectures and uninteresting worksheet problems . . . and we simply flip the order of those two things the odds that we see significant improvement in our schools is pretty low."

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