I have a tenuous relationship with the flipped classroom. For two years now I've taught faculty development workshops and lead conference sessions on it. I've taught my American Government course using the flipped model. And once you brush away the hype, I do really like the flipped concept. But I struggle with the name. In my workshops I teach faculty that they'll encounter the flipped classroom under many different names—flipped, inverted, reverse. What they all have in common is a metaphorical switch. Even one of the more promising alternative names, time-shifted instruction, suggests a switch of time as opposed to place.
For many faculty this focus on change can be troubling in and of itself. The switches involved in a flipped classroom could appear to be a radical departure from the standard practices as well as the ideals of higher education. For reasons that will become clear, I think a general fear of flipped change is unwarranted; if anything, flipping bring us closer to our classic ideals of education, not farther from them. Instead my problems with the metaphor stem from 1) the prevalence of a poor and constrictive explanation of what flipping involves and 2) my growing belief that the flipped classroom doesn't go far enough to improve education.
First complaints first. The most common way to explain the flipped classroom in K-12 settings is to say that students watch lectures at home and then do homework in class. The "flip" from conventional practice is clear here, but I can't easily translate this into my college classroom. I teach American Government. I don't have workbooks or practice problems that I assign each night for "homework." If I were teaching research methods, the story might be different. But in my standard intro course my principal form of assessment is writing—research papers, argument papers, personal journals. I don't see much value in a flip that turns my classroom into a typing lab or a writing workshop. Admittedly, my complaint here isn't with the flipped classroom itself as much as it is with the myopic explanation it receives in the press. When I talk to faculty I explain that the homework/lecture flip is just one interpretation of a set of basic principles, including active learning and formative assessment.
My second concern about the flipped metaphor is a bit harder to explain. In a well-flipped course, it's not unusual for students to complain about their increased workload. My response to this is always twofold. First, we do have to acknowledge that today's students have many, if not too many demands on their time. We all wish that ours was the only class that students were taking. In reality most have a full load of courses, a slate of extracurricular activities, and a part-time or even full-time job as well. It's important, therefore, not to fall prey to "course-and-a-half syndrome"—mistaking the opportunities afforded by the flipped classroom as a chance to increase the amount of content or work beyond what would normally be required.
But with that proviso, when I hear complaints that flipped courses are more work than "normal" ones, I tend to shrug. Every faculty member knows that students spend far less of their personal time working on class content than they're supposed to. Each school's recommendation is different, but the average is probably between two and three hours for each hour in-seat. Why do most students spend far less than that on their course work? While it's tempting to blame the nature of contemporary students, we personally contribute to the problem when we design courses that either reward or fail to penalize students who come to class unprepared. So many succeed with so little effort that it makes me think the real problem isn't grade deflation. It's workload deflation.
And therein lies my real concern about flipped teaching. Both students and instructors may feel like it's a huge change from the status quo. But at its best it only prompts students to work as hard as they should have in the first place. Don't get me wrong. I believe that even without bullet-proof evidence that flipping increases student performance, the burden of proof has shifted to those who want to defend a more traditional model. But when it comes down to it, the flipped classroom sets the bar of educational innovation far too low.
The Trouble with Higher Education, Academically Adrift, Unmaking the Public University, Digital Diploma Mills, The University in Ruins: two decades—if not more—of books and reports have cast higher education in a dim light. With so few defenders of traditional practices, this would seem like an ideal time to shakeup the status quo. In his book Teaching Naked, José Antonio Bowen writes
"[o]ur challenge as 21st-century teachers is to leverage new content and new delivery systems into new course designs. We need to create courses that require and reward students who engage with material before and between classes." (p127)
The flipped classroom is a step in the right direction, but we need to stop framing it as a forward-thinking innovation. With flipped principles we get closer to having the courses we should have had all along. To truly transform education for the 21st century, though, will require something more than just switching things around.