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Flipping the Classroom Made Simple

Did you ever have one of those home improvement projects that started out so simple and then it got away from you? You started by wanting to hang a picture on the wall and then before the weekend was over you had to take five trips to the home improvement store, borrow your brother-in-law’s pickup truck, and hire a plumber? Flipping the classroom is just like that; it seems simple enough at first but it gets more complicated by the minute


The basic idea is that the teacher assigns an online lecture as homework and the class time is reserved for what would traditionally be done at home. For example, the students watch a recorded session on quadratic equations as “homework”. Yeah, they probably IM each other about the lecture, they Tweet, they post jokes on Facebook. But honestly, all that actually may help them retain and comprehend the content. The next day when they come to class they’re prepared to practice the problems with the teacher’s assistance.

It sounds simple enough at first, right? Ah, but here’s the rub … just where do we get all of those online lectures and materials?

Early on, the answer was simply to put the textbooks on line in an electronic format. But that wasn’t enough. After all, if a teacher in a traditional classroom did nothing more than hand you the textbook and said that’s the entire course, you would be a little frustrated. This is equally true if the textbook is in an electronic format.

In the traditional classroom teachers actually take on three distinct roles. At times they are administrators ― taking attendance, filling out paperwork, grading homework, etc. Other times they act as learning coaches, the so-called “guide on the side.” And finally, they are lecturers, subject matter experts who deliver their knowledge and wisdom to their students. This is referred to as “the sage on the stage.”

So the next evolution of the flipped classroom happened when the teachers created their own online content. The “sage” went from stage to screen to allow extra time for the “guide on the side.” They were able to record their lectures, making them available at any time. Here’s an example.

It suffers from some production issues and is likely to put you to sleep, but at least it gives you the information in a straightforward fashion.

Ultimately though teachers strove to be more clever and entertaining and introduced higher production values like this.

Now, while that’s quite entertaining, it’s hardly a replacement for a real math lesson and it must have been quite an effort to produce. Moreover, it lacks the interactive component that you would get in the traditional classroom. Do you remember Ben Stein in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?” Anyone? Anyone?

True, he was trying to involve the students … but he wasn’t very engaging. So teachers (and later other programmers) began creating interactive educational tools like Spelling City.

This is (generally speaking) the state of the art for online education today. It’s very egalitarian in that anyone can contribute and everyone from students to teachers to corporations to not-for-profit organizations to true subject matter experts actually do contribute.

A few educational resources have risen above the others, such as Khan Academy.

This is due in part to great public relations and the backing of the Gates Foundation but it also succeeds because Sal Khan has hit upon the right tone. The visuals are nothing more than Khan’s own handwriting and the lessons are narrated in his soothing articulate voice. The lessons are neither rushed nor edited so that even when Khan stumbles it seems jovial and nonthreatening. Khan has wisely decided to keep each lesson very short and confined to a single concept. There are longer lectures available from places like MIT but Khan Academy allows the student to search easily for just the information needed and to have it “just-in-time” to help with the student’s current assignment.


On the other hand, it isn’t a complete answer as it is hard to cobble together a full course out of Khan’s bits and pieces.. This could really only be construed as homework help, though it seems that Khan Academy wants to be a full-service solution in the future.

The Khan model also comes up a little short in the arts and humanities. Subjective topics are much harder to express than objective ones. Two plus two will always be four but the repercussions of the Civil War are a little harder to express. Khan Academy is covering history, art history, and American civics but it is a bigger challenge for them and I don’t think they have it perfected yet. They have, on the other hand, included questions and answers below the videos now, so that does make it more interactive if not Socratic.

Khan Academy is also delving into educational management – some of the administrative duties that teachers currently have to handle. In my opinion, this is scope creep for them and it would probably be better if they would stick to what they do best. Of course, I’ve been wrong once or twice before.

I think the huge number of educational offerings available on line is an indication that no one has figured out how to do it well yet. There are a lot of choices but I would rather have one good choice than a lot of bad ones. I anticipate that there will be some consolidation and best practices will become evident. I also think that greater consolidation will lead to higher production values and wider distribution. That will make it more profitable to produce this material which will lead to better results.

Right now there are a lot of educational do-it-yourself-ers out there trying to make this work but like simply hanging a picture on a wall, it isn’t as simple as it appears. These are very exciting times though and in the future most classrooms will be flipped.

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