Flippin’ Awkward

I’m starting to plan next year’s teaching and one of the questions that is preoccupying some of my time is whether or not to jump on the flipping lectures bandwagon. I’ll call it a bandwagon to indicate the quantity of stuff I’ve read or could have read on the topic recently through various routes including Twitter (which may or may not be more indicative of the social media circles I inhabit). I find the idea of lecture flipping, getting students to watch the lecture before coming to the teaching session then doing other stuff with the time, simultaneously fascinating and repellent and I’m struggling to put my finger on why precisely I feel this way about it.

I could use this teaching method if I wished in some classes. I screencast my lectures and so have a bank of last year’s material that could be made available to the new cohort and I could spend the prep time developing other activities. OK the lecture screencasts aren’t professionally produced (digital voice recorder, camtasia for slides and an old style tablet PC*, edited to remove the announcements at the start and end of the lecture but otherwise left as is), and so have a ‘you had to be there’ feel to them. There’s the loud sneezing student**, the  5 minute digression on what a doughring is versus a doughnut***, and a few temporarily appropriate but cohort specific attempts at humour****. Definitely a bit weird for a new bunch to experience. I have neither the time nor the inclination to edit further than that.   So other than a slightly odd lecture screencast, there’s no reason why I can’t do it. But should I?

There are a couple of things that give me pause with the whole idea, some typical considerations when thinking about any activity with a bunch of students, others perhaps more institutional or course specific.

Firstly, I’m wondering what happens to the students who don’t engage with the pre-lecture activities. I’ve done plenty pre-lecture activities but my barrier to going further is always the question of integration: how does a student who has not had time to do this activity fair in the classroom in which it was required? And I’ll take a particularly liberal view of not having time and the generous approximation that it was for good enough reason rather than disengagement. The disengaged are a different matter and less likely to show up to the timetabled session. My pre-lecture screencasts (upto 10 minutes in length) are often revision of prior knowledge and therefore not critical to the matter in hand. I don’t repeat the information but I believe it possible to have a reasonable grip on the material in the lecture without it. If I were to shift more of the new content into the pre-lecture activities, as theories of cognitive load would imply is a good thing to do, where does that leave those who haven’t had the time? And is it a slippery slope? In finding the time to catch up on, and make sense of, the previous material, does that prevent the desired engagement with what is next? Do they end up constantly behind?

Secondly, I’m wondering what happens with respect to course hours. We run 15 credit modules and this should correspond to 150 hours of student effort that we’re required to account for. A typical module looks like this:

Lectures 20 hours, Labs and Workshops 18 hours, Class Test 2 hours

And a typical assessment breakdown looks like this:

Exam: 50 %, Lab type stuff: 30 %, Class test: 20 %

So 75 hours should be spend on stuff to do with the exam, to which we might as well add the 20% class test time as it’s basically the same thing. That gives us 105 hours in which to have the students do stuff for exam type assessment so we’ll include our 20 hours of lecture and 2 hours of class test. That seems to leave plenty time for pre-lecture activities – I could demand 20 hours of pre-lecture stuff, expect the generally recommended 1 hour of post-lecture stuff and still leave around 43 hours for general revision stuff. 45 hours remain for lab/workshop contact time (some of which will reinforce lecture stuff), and preparing any assignments relating to that. It all looks good.

What’s my problem? Well that’s considering one module. Students will do four of these so we can quadruple our numbers. During the x weeks of semester, a student will attend 80 lectures, and with our maths, that corresponds to 240 hours of lecture related stuff. With an average of 8 lectures per week and 12 hours per week of lab/workshop contact time, that takes us to around 36 hours. OK I can hear you saying, that’s like a typical full time job, where’s the issue. The issue is that we’ve not allowed for any time to do assignments. We’ve not factored in additional revision time for class tests, the need to spend longer on areas of difficulty (of course, the converse of spending less time on easier areas is also true), and we’ve not factored in that we’re dealing with human beings with other stuff going on.  And if there are more than 20 lectures per module, the exam revision time basically evaporated (typically we have more than 20 lectures per module).

My second point relates directly to the first point: more flipping will probably lead to more students not doing the activity. Is the privilege of lecture flipping therefore that not everyone can do it? At a recent Keele Teaching Day, one presenter flipped the majority of his lecture course (with the exception of a couple of topics that needed revision) and the students liked it but didn’t want everyone to do it. Is the novelty in lecture flipping that only some academics can/will do it and so simply doing something different works?

I’m sure I’ve got more concerns with lecture flipping. In writing this, I’ve reassured myself that lecture flipping is probably not for me in my general teaching. I’ll continue to roll my eyes at the hype declaring it ‘the future of education’, and settle down and revise my teaching materials like a good wee academic should.  If anyone can point me in the direction of information on what happens to the non-engagers in the flipped classroom, that would be great.

* one with actual processing power designed for people who do work, not just a portable thingy with barely enough computational oomph to open excel.

** and the likely 2 minutes of laughing and mocking that follow these nasal outbursts of extreme volume.

*** apparently it’s a me thing, but I call ring doughnuts doughrings (has a certain linguistic brevity to it), and in describing the dz2 orbital, it became necessary to refer to the doughring (ditto CERN, and other such facilities with their big doughring shaped buildings).

****the recordings do tend to pick up on polite attempts at laughter.

6 Replies to “Flippin’ Awkward”

  1. For your first point, the Just In Time Teaching model (Novak et al, 1999) might be worth trying. As well as the screencasts etc you set a short low stakes or formative MCQ test via the VLE – which will often include an unscored question asking them to reflect on gaps in their knowledge – and you set a deadline for that which will give enough time for you to design your lecture to be based around the issues with the test and the reflection has picked up on. Our experience was that students soon realised the value of doing the work when they saw the lecture spending time in class going through the issues their peers had raised. We also saw decent levels of engagement with the online test whether it was formative or summative.

    I think your second point is a fair one, but it’s worth remembering that you don’t have to flip every lecture. Just use it where it’s going to have a particular benefit- perhaps something that is very dry to deliver in a lecture or where you want to make space for in-class activities. Arguably using flipped classroom as a default without sufficient consideration of how appropriate it is is just as bad as blindly defaulting to lectures without considering the appropriateness.

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