Trying the Flipped Classroom — A brief resume on the teaching technique

Posted on 2015-12-17 by lars
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Last summer term I had the opportunity to hold a lecture that I had prepared and tried twice already. This means that the curriculum was relatively stable and I could reduce the burden of creating new content. I, furthermore, had gained a little experience with lecturing in front of a camera from having a course video-taped the previous semester.

I actually enjoy live lecturing. It is somewhat of a live performance on stage and I always had the impression that I easily could connect to the audience. Feedback justified this impression to a degree and students that voluntarily visit your courses semester after semester are a strong indication for doing right to some degree. I nonetheless struggled with low passing rates in exams and the lurking impression, that I could improve the continuous active learning process as opposed to bulimic learning two days before the exam.

I myself enjoyed lectures that provided constant, low-latency feedback through graded assignments. But as this situation could not be facilitated within the boundaries of the rules of the faculty I decided to create a continuous learning environment through the structure of the lecture. Luckily I stumbled upon Professor Christian Spannagel and his experiences with teaching mathematics. His latest concept at that time could be described as assignment-driven flipped classroom.

The Flipped Classroom is a didactic concept that uses a uni-directional medium, i.e. movies, for frontal lecturing and presence time in the former lectures for bi-directional interactive learning. Students are provided with prepared lectures on video that they can watch at their speed and leisure as a kind of homework. Accompaniing questionaires ensure that students at least browse through the topics of the lecture and have a fundamental grasp of the topics. The classical assignments, formerly struggled while no teaching staff was available, would be (partially) moved into the former lecture times. This enables very short feedback and helps to circumvent situations where students get stuck unneccesarily on their assignments.

So far this seems like a brilliant idea. The only thing missing is movies and a complete overhaul of my production process. Where formerly I reworked my slides and lecturing was a very simple task of going to the lecture hall, producing a talk and leave, I now needed a whole technical toolchain for audio and video recording, screen capturing, cutting and arranging the movie, publishing the movie and additional questionaires. Additionally lectures, now called plenum, needed a completely different way of preparation than I was used to.

Creating Movies is Errorprone

I had only very little experience with producing movies. Productions at school comonly involved not much more than a camera and two video recorders. Slide presentation also requires tools for screen capture. Video editing requires different tools again and the final problem is the selection and creation of the final video. I struggled with astonishing problems. Almost all (free) tools I tried failed to deliver for various reasons. Tools that seemed to work on one computer failed on spectacularly on a second computer. Video and audio produced by tool A provided usable movies for player B, but could not be handled by editor C. Capture tool A could record audio and video, but no screens, B could record as many screens and video feeds you wished for, but no audio, and C turned out to not record anything at all on the recording computer although it kinda worked on the editing computer. The toolchain I tested two month in advance suddenly failed after any of the updates between testing and the start of the semester. Audio streams suddenly disappeared during post-production, video encoding produced huge files that reproduced only in one particular player and nowhere else.

All the while your head should be much more concerned with the actual content of the lecture. It will not come as a surprise that I wished for an assistant that could handle the recording and movie production. But all in all, I got the movies into the web, questionaires posted and preparing activities for presence time with the students is not too difficult if you can muster some playfulness (and are able to wing the remaining plot-holes).

Running the Lecture

The first thing you should abandon is the hope that this concept somehow reduces the work load required for teaching. It is not. In my experience it requires much more preparation time than classical lecturing and I do not expect that I will reuse many of the movies I have created. The reason is that, for a start, a lecture should always consider current developments, and no two courses are the same. At least my courses where always under development and progressed differently during the semester.

There are two ways to play the semester, the way of complete advance preparation and running the show on the fly — and obviously many flavours in between. To keep the experience and atmosphere of a fresh lecture, and to allow for adaptions of the content on the run, I am an adopter to the second path. Weekly productions of movies increase your workload, but if you are able to refer to the running semester your presentation becomes — or so I hope — more immersive and invites participation of your students. It takes approximately one day to produce a lecture given you have prepared your slides and practical assignments. (And your tool chain is not suddenly failing.)

I favoured to produce the next lecture directly after the plenum. Students had the next movie early in the week but I could refer to the plenum and take up cues from there. I would opt to prepare the videos before the course starts the next time as the workload during the week could be devastating to all your other work.

I further gave out additional homework assignments to students who wished to receive a grade as I would not taint the discussion in the plenum. Further I also think that it is important in academic education to actively practise writing.

Discussion within the Plenum

The weekly plenum turned out to be a very interesting exercise, surprising both for me and the students. For my part, I was slightly surprised how difficult it sometimes was to initiate a productive discussion. I tried various approaches to initiate some heat: contests in solving simple problems, presentation of assignments, guided exploration and development of new concepts, collective analysis of security protocols and even “roleplaying” client-server interaction.

Success depended mostly on the preparedness of the students. If the previous lecture had been punctually published and where accompanied by fitting questionaires then the probability of enjoying an educated debate and participation increased. This is not really surprising.

The second factor for participation probably was to provide interesting, very practical exercises. Exercises that involved physical activity, e.g. the exchange of paper, standing up to the whiteboard or the odd calculation race we know from school separated the students from their laptops and chairs and left them with no options but to participate. This worked at least most of the times.

Semester Project

During the first work the discussion within the plenum gave me the opportunity to engage the students in the development of their own communications protocol. Every student worked through, at least rudimentary, steps of protocol design, focussed on some artefacts; state-, interaction-diagrams and interface definitions.

The results differed widely. It would have been helpful, if the formal syntax had been established in greater detail in a previous lecture. For most students this was the first time to be confronted with protocol descriptions. A solution to this would be to restrict the students more strictly, both in respect to scope and objectives of the protocol as well as in syntactic form.

Conclusion

I actually enjoyed the format very much. The connection between students and teacher seemed to become much closer during the course. The feedback on learning success was much more direct, with very low latency as compared to normal lectures where the teacher is often has no feedback until the day of the exam.

Explicitly logging a whole lecture on video is, nonetheless a mixed blessing. I think, if it is not accompanied by exercises and plena within which the student is motivated (or even forced) to continuously learn, video lectures actually encourage bulimic learning as the impression seems to be that the whole semester can be reviewed before the exam. Thus the important part actually is the development of exercise. Video lectures should be designed around the exercises, not the other way around which probably is the current default.

The upside is that students feel much more inclined to learn even the dryest concepts, if they are provided with some goal and instant feedback on their success. And, currently, the novelty of the approach is good advertisement for the course, increasing the number of willing participants.

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