Monday, 14 May 2012

Two weeks of 'flipping' the classroom

In a previous post, Chris Clow talked about using the Ted Ed site to help teachers ‘flip’ their classrooms using You Tube videos and I briefly talked about it in a post about the Google Teacher Academy. But what is this ‘flipping’ of the classroom? The basic concept behind it is to move direct instruction away from the classroom and onto video so that students can look at it at their leisure and watch it again as need be. The added benefit of this is that it frees up classroom time for practice of the concepts and individual help for students who have questions. If you want to find out more about it, Salman Khan's TED talk below is a good starting point and these articles, infographic and blog are also worth a look.

I've been wanting to try something like this for a while, not specifically because I'm a technologist but because I've begun to feel that my lessons have been getting very stale for my students. The same ritual of input-exercise-homework doesn't seem to inspire them anymore - or indeed me - and I thought trying something radically different might shake things up.

I also wanted to experiment with the idea of the paperless classroom as well. I've met a lot of teachers who complain about technology in the classroom as something that reduces communication in the classroom, that creates barriers and isolates students and teachers rather than improving communication. I wasn't always convinced by these arguments simply because my experiences using technology had always been pretty positive. Instead I felt that paper was far more of a barrier to genuine communication. My lessons that are least involving for the students always tend to be the ones where I have photocopied reams and reams of handouts for them to work through.

So, I decided to experiment with a class I am going to have for the next seven weeks for ESL exam preparation. The basic idea was to set up a website using Google Sites and all information regarding the lesson would be available there. I would also provide pages within the site that offered the students weblinks to additional resources they could use for self-study and out of class practice. One other goal of the course was to try to reduce - in fact eliminate completely - the need for students to do homework. I recently read an article that really hit home to me about the pointlessness of assigning homework to students and I wanted to make any work the students they did out of class optional. 

The Home Page of my class site

The strict definition of flipping the classroom seems to focus a lot on video instruction, created either by the teacher or using sources already available such as the Khan Academy, Ted Ed and You Tube EDU. There is not so much video content available for my subject and I don’t really have time to create it myself, so I relied on a mixture of video content from You Tube and other text content found around the web.

Two weeks in...

Ok, so it’s been two weeks now doing this, I’ve had six lessons with the students and it’s gone a lot better than I expected. From the outset I explained that this would be a different kind of class, a lot of it would be spent in the computer room, they would be responsible for their own learning more than usual and they would not get any direct homework. Having that initial conversation with them really helped, they asked questions, I clarified a few things and I haven’t had any seriously negative reaction since then from them.

I was a bit worried that students would get tired of sitting in front of the computers rather in the classroom but this hasn’t happened yet. I’ve tried to make their time in the computer room as interactive as possible: rather than them working individually, I tend to put two students round one computer to force them to communicate. I also take regular breaks from the screen for small group and whole class discussion.

The homework situation has been interesting as well. On the website I provide a clear overview of the lesson goals for the day and description of the tasks we are going to do with all the relevant links and videos. At the end of each lesson description I always add a few additional tasks for them to do such as contribute to our forum discussion, fill out a survey, read some information from an article and stress that these are completely optional. However, a surprising number of them - at least 50% - actually do them. 

Student task, watch a You Tube video and evaluate using a Google Form

I haven’t got any formal feedback from them so far and I’ll probably wait until the end of the course to do so, but I’ve asked them informally about the lessons and the responses have been very positive. One lady said she liked them because she’s not only learning English but also useful web skills as well such as uploading video to You Tube (I got them to video each other to practice interviewing) and using Google Docs. A couple of others said that the lessons were interesting because they were different. One student said he like the fact that homework was optional!

The biggest issue in the class so far - and this is something I hadn’t really thought about - relates to the use of browsers and window/tab management. The description of the tasks to do in class are on our website and there are numerous links to other pages within our own site or to external web pages. Most students still use Internet Explorer and this opens new windows when you click on links and this means they are constantly flicking between windows trying to navigate back to the page they want. I wish the University of Sheffield could find some way to officially support Chrome on our managed desktops, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

The other issue outside of the class is that it does take quite a long time to prepare the lessons, at least twice as long as I would for a normal lesson. Finding content online is time-consuming, as is the process of presenting it clearly on the website. But this is getting better with every lesson. As I collect more sources and become more comfortable formatting pages in Google Sites, the amount of time it takes me to prepare a lesson comes down.

What I've really loved about these classes so far is walking into them with nothing in my hands, it's an oddly liberating feeling and it has really improved my interaction with the students. Rather than hiding behind papers, I find I’m talking more to the students and I’m more aware of what they are doing in class and what problems they are having. This I believe is very much at the heart of the flipped classroom, this idea of freeing up class time for more personal attention and individualised instruction.
It’s very early in this experiment but I’m cautiously positive that this is something I would like to do more of with my classes. Once I get to the end of this course, I’ll get some formal feedback from them as well as reflect myself on how well it went. Then I’ll decide how much of this I want to incorporate into my future classes.



  1. Hi David

    Thanks for a really interesting article. I was wondering what kinds of interaction the pairs have at the computer.

    I like the idea of 'buddy learning', in the past, I've found sessions where students work in 3s, two do the task and the third observes and feeds back to be useful. I think pairing students in front of a screen might provide opportunities for similar types of interaction - one student drives and the other watches and comments. In IT, pair programming uses a similar dynamic

    How do your students generally approach it?

  2. Yes, it is always an issue making work at computer interactive, getting them to talk with each other rather than the screen. I try to swap roles as much as possible, so they take turns being the observer/driver

    I try to see the computer lab as a substitute classroom with the option to use the computers when necessary. The layout of our computer labs are not Ideal for this (very narrow, all the computers wall facing) but I try to get them to turn round, talk to me, talk to their peers as much as possible to avoid this over absorption in the screen.

    What I would really like is a class set of laptops (e.g. Chromebooks) that would mean we could stay in our normal classroom and they could interact as normal, but I don't see this happening any time soon - though we are getting a test Chromebook device in next week!



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