Internet 'flips' the idea of how to teach a class

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 8, 2012 - 9:09 AM

Lectures go online while class time is used for student interaction.

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Tom Fisher, right, dean of the U’s College of Design, “flipped” his course, Principles of Design Theory, this fall and likes the result.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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ST. CLOUD, MINN. - Jason Carlson spends little time standing in front of his general biology class. He bounces around the room, checking a student's quiz, peeking in on a group exercise, suggesting a different idea. His students have already heard him lecture -- online.

Carlson, who teaches at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, is one of a growing number of college instructors who have "flipped" their courses. Students get lectured at home, through audio or video, and in class they debate ideas, work in groups or solve problems. Homework is classwork, if you will.

"We're so used to college teaching being a traditional lecture," Carlson said. "But it just made so much more sense to me to do the simple part outside of class. Then, in the class, that's when we should be working on understanding and applying and reinforcing."

The "flip" format is yet another example of how technology is transforming higher education -- and how universities are striving to set themselves apart from an Internet full of free online lectures.

"There has to be a reason you come to class. It's no longer to get information from a professor," said Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Design, who "flipped" his course this fall. "So why come? Well, I think the reason is to learn with other individuals, face to face, with a faculty member facilitating that conversation. Those are interactions you can't have in the online world."

New leaders of the U and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems are encouraging faculty to try "flipping" and other digital teaching methods. Soon, the U will fund a few programs that use technology in creative ways.

"It is no longer going to be true that ... an effective class consists of a person standing in front, rubbing a rock on a rock, while students transcribe that information into their notebooks," U President Eric Kaler said at a "Campus Conversation" last week. The university has the opportunity to "turn those classrooms inside out."

'We have time to think'

Most "flipped" classes rely on online lectures. Carlson's voice accompanies a slide show of diagrams, which students watch as they fill out a hand-out. He monitors their progress and checks their understanding with online quizzes, puzzles and other activities.

With class time freed up, professors do different things. By having her students watch 15-minute presentations before class, assistant professor Colleen Manchester is able to add practice problems during her class at the U's Carlson School of Management.

"We have time to think critically about the concepts and then apply them to real-world scenarios," she said.

Discussion about the future of higher ed got Fisher thinking about how he teaches. So this fall, he "flipped." Before class, the first-year graduate students in "Principles of Design Theory" watch him lecture online. A video of him speaking sits in the screen's upper left, with a slide show of terms, charts and photographs on the right. Students also read. "I'm still old-fashioned enough to require a book," Fisher said.

Class consists of discussions, tours and project proposals. On Thursday, small groups presented designs of the area surrounding the future Vikings stadium to three city of Minneapolis employees. One proposed underground streets, another tailgating in parks, rather than parking lots.

"I saw this as an experiment," Fisher said. "But, frankly, having done it this way, I don't think I'm ever going back."

One-third of faculty gave up

Many professors do go back, a study shows. A survey of about 720 physics faculty members found that 88 percent of those who responded had heard of interactive teaching methods, such as those used in "flipped" classrooms, and 72 percent said they had tried at least one. Yet the study, released in August, found about a third of those who had tried stopped using it.

"I don't think we had any idea about the scale of the problem," said Charles Henderson, the study's lead author and an associate professor at Western Michigan University. Instructors might encounter student push-back, he said, or have little help dealing with unexpected problems.

Now that most have tried interactive teaching strategies, the study says, "It may be more fruitful to focus on those who discontinue use than to focus even more effort on encouraging the remaining holdouts."

The state's public higher education systems are working to spot, fund and support teaching that doesn't rely on lectures. The U's old approach was "to let a thousand flowers bloom, and let's see how it goes," said Christopher Cramer, a chemistry professor working half-time for administration to drive digital teaching methods. "Now, there's an attempt to make it more strategic."

Cramer "flipped" his spring "Computational Chemistry" course but hasn't decided what he'll do next time. When lecturing, "even when I had my A-game going, I would look at the students sitting, listening and wonder, 'Am I really getting through?'" So he put his slides online and focused class on discussion. But student evaluations requested more lecturing.

They said it "felt like we were coming to a seminar about what we already knew, when we didn't really know it," he said. Cramer suspects it's partly the subject matter. But he also wonders whether some of "flipping's" success is due to students spending more time. "In effect, you double your class time," he said.

The first time Samantha Kluver took general biology, she was one of more than 100 students in a North Dakota State University auditorium. She failed. After transferring to St. Cloud Technical and Community College, she took it again, with Carlson. She loved the format and earned an A. Kluver is in another "flipped" course this semester, with a different instructor.

"He doesn't do an activity or study guide to go along with the lecture video," said Kluver, who is studying to be a nurse. "No student wants to listen to an hour video of someone with a monotone voice."

She believes it's more about the instructor than the structure. Carlson "is a good teacher. ... He puts it in a way that's not complicated," she said. "He knows how to talk to everybody."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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