Flipping Classrooms – An Introduction with Video Guide

“there is a lack of consensus on what exactly the flipped classroom is”  – Bishop, Verleger

There are many videos, websites, organizations, and blogs on the subject of flipping a classroom. While the technique of flipping a classroom is currently a hot topic, there is not a clear definition of what it is. A 2013 paper by Bishop and Verleger, which provides a meta-analysis of flipped classrooms, defines a flipped classroom as having interactive group activities during class, and computer-based instruction outside of class (videos). The Flipped Learning Network (FLN) describes flipping as moving “direct instruction” from the “group space” to the “individual space”, freeing up group time for interactive learning with the educator acting as a guide.

Jon Bergman and Aaron Sams are considered pioneers of the flipped classroom. Rather than providing a specific definition of flipping, Bergman gives what it is meant to achieve. The goal of flipping is to maximize the utility of face-to-face time between the teacher and the learner. So while the ‘classic’ definition of flipping is to have students watch video lectures at home and do homework in class, this technique is not always the straightforward choice for all situations. How to optimize the face-to-face time varies by topic, field, age group, locale, institution, etc. With this goal, ‘flipped’ is almost a misnomer in that it indicates something must be getting swapped, lecture and homework being the quintessential example. It has likely acquired this name due to that flipped often presents itself as a way to improve the direct teacher to student contact time of traditional approaches. By understanding this distinction of the goal of ‘flipped’ classrooms, it should help one to identify and design flipped classes.

Continuing from Bergman’s definition, if the goal of flipping is to optimize face-to-face time, we could ask: why is this valuable? Often discussed with flipping is active learning (see the book, Promoting Active Learning Through the Flipped Classroom Model). Naturally, active learning is in contrast to ‘passive learning’ by making use of activities and discussions. It was first pioneered by Charles Bonwell and James Eison in their 1991 report, “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom“. They advocate for: the development of skills rather than the transfer of information, more motivation, immediate instructor feedback, and higher level thinking. The aforementioned 2013 paper from Bishop discusses the learning theories and models which form a foundation for the flipped approach. Active learning acts as the “super-set” for these foundational theories:

“in the context of the college classroom, active learning involves
students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” – Bonwell, Eison

Active Learning


The DIKW pyramid is a hierarchy model between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. A person starts with data, which with processing transforms into information. Drawing connections and contexts among information can lead to knowledge. Finally, learning to use knowledge to make decisions can result in wisdom. While this post is not trying to be a proponent of the DIKW model, the model can offer an interesting perspective for looking at the benefits of flipping.

Relating the flipping of a classroom to the DIKW model, traditional lecturing involves presenting data and information to the learners. Then at home, students are expected to build on this to develop knowledge and wisdom from activities, homework, assignments, reviewing, etc. Difficulty can arise from this arrangement, as growing to levels of knowledge and wisdom can be tough and unclear. Flipping tries to provide more capacity for the teacher, the subject matter ‘expert’, to better facilitate and individualize the learning. Data and information uptake take place outside of class, and in-class time can be used for expanding upon this with discussions and activities. Rather than adhering to a strict, inflexible model of content uploading, flipping allows the teacher to work more closely with the student to help them ‘progress’ through the pyramid, which can be a distinctly different effort for each student.

If the principles and gains of flipping are plausible or appealing, the next notion might be how to go about flipping a class. Implementation may not always be an easy task, but maintaining the goal of optimizing direct contact time (face-to-face time) may be helpful. Bergman also has a video, “Overcoming Common Problems”, which discusses some of the issues encountered trying to flip, and present five tips listed below. Other suggestions include limiting videos to 15-20 minutes, and breaking down content into multiple videos if needed.

  1. Access – make sure the students have access to the materials. If this is a problem, try flash drives, DVDs, or even grants for laptops.
  2. How to Watch – teach your students how to watch your content. Watching educational videos can be a new experience for students, so show them ways to get the most out of them.
  3. Safeguards – what if the students don’t watch the videos? Try ways to increase the accountability of students, maybe by seeing their notes on the video, have them fill out a quick online quiz or form, etc.
  4. Perfection – DON’T aim for or expect perfection in making your videos. Producing online content can be a new and difficult task for educators, but you should not stress yourself by requiring exquisite videos.
  5. Start Small – if flipping an entire course is daunting, or you are unsure about the outcome, try flipping only pieces of your course. A single lesson or unit can help for starting small.

Deep Processing – Conveying Structure with Lectures

I was happy to discover that “Four things lecture is good for” by Robert Talbert comes to the defense of lectures. I’ve observed in the past that traditional lectures are very often dogged on, almost to the point of being unfair. Perhaps I’ve just wanted to play Devil’s advocate, but maybe the traditional lecturing style was the best we could do with what we knew in the past. Many learning theories are relatively young disciplines, with learning sciences and engineering education being younger still. Further, lecturing had to have some capabilities or it wouldn’t have been practiced. In fact, there might be certain fields or topics for which it is very useful.

As Talbert points out, there are some purposes for which lectures are useful. Of the four purposes listed as being “well-suited” to lectures, the sharing of “cognitive structures” stuck out to me. The Cambridge Handbook of Engineering Education Research provides a set of principles for three learning theories, or what it calls “conceptual frameworks” of learning and knowing. In the cognitivist framework, one of the principles in designing instruction is to aim for “deep processing” of information:

The general idea of deep processing is that learners should understand the structure of information to be learned, such as the main ideas and how they relate to one another and to sub-ideas that might derive from them…

The more organized information is, the easier it is to remember and understand. In “Successful Lecturing: Presenting Information in Ways That Engage Effective Processing”, it is also presented that the provision of structure in lectures results in better learning. Providing students with outlines or knowledge maps (concept maps) of the lecture material results in better notes, better testing results, and better memorization (sidenote: if you’re interested in knowledge maps, you should check out The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge). Even as sparse as a title can be beneficial. At the other end of the spectrum, if outlines become too full and veer towards content, their benefits become negated:

Outlines containing only headings and subheadings are maximally effective in that they encourage note taking, whereas outlines that provide too much detail inhibit note taking

Assessment as a Single Tool Among a Mixed Toolbox

I recall back to the TED talk from Ken Robinson (“How to Escape Education’s Death Valley“), how we do need some agreed upon notions of what is generally good or bad (cholesterol was the given example). This isn’t meant to exclude the need for individualization, but it does indicate the use for standardization at some level. Further, though a number for cholesterol may not be an accurate reflection of one’s overall health, we need to be able to represent and communicate status efficiently. Having a single number, letter, or symbol allows for broad but quick insights and high level comparisons. Having a cholesterol level also doesn’t exclude the ability for other tests or information to be considered.

My point with this is that assessment can have a scope of application, but it should be limited and taken into account with a myriad of other factors. It is simply one tool among a whole toolbox. It might be thought of as a hammer – useful with nails, but it plays a role aside saws, wood glue, levels, etc. If the focus of a worker is to always use a hammer, they’ll smash beams rather than saw them, nail rather than adhere, and further. Alfie Kohn in “The Case Against Grades” echoes the pitfalls of focusing on a single tool in terms of grading:

  • Students force grades rather than understanding out of learning
    • They become less interested in what the tools are actually making and instead center on just using the tools
  • Students do enough to get a grade rather than enough to learn
    • They finish the exterior of a house to make it appear done but leave the interior unfinished
  • Students don’t concentrate on or care what they’re meant to be learning
    • They forget the overall goal of what they’re meant to building

Assessment shouldn’t be thought of as the end goal. It isn’t the house being built, it is just one of the tools. Tests of various forms can be used to try to gauge a student, but it shouldn’t be considered a perfect representation of them. The results are a part of the holistic student, used with other facets to try to individualize education to best suit that student.

I’m reminded of how there are numerous learning theories, each which looks at the learner and their environment from a different perspective. Each one tries to capture and study a subset of all that a learner is or affects the learner. A behaviorist approach treats learners as black boxes with inputs and outputs. Social learning considers the societal and cultural contexts that gives meaning to what one does or come to understand. Different perspectives each have their use, and some can help explain situations that others cannot. Some or all of them can be used to help build a better and more complete learning experience.






Goals of an Engineering Research University

I was curious what one would need to focus on if they were going to create an engineering research program. With this aim, I compared the Mission Statement of two electrical and computer engineering departments: Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, VA), and MIT (Cambridge, MA). Both are research universities, though Virginia Tech (VT) is a public university while MIT is private. VT has a much larger undergraduate base, while MIT has a larger research portfolio.

Virginia Tech
Undergraduates: ~23,000
Graduates: ~6,500
Endowment: ~$800 million

Undergraduates: ~4,500
Graduates: ~6,500
Endowment: ~$13.5 billion

Overall, both universities have similar tenets in their mission statement. Not surprisingly, both discuss research as an important part of the program’s structure. The department should perform cutting edge research, and provide these opportunities to the student.

Important traits of graduating students should be:

  • foundational knowledge in math, science, and engineering
  • ability to problem solve
  • ability to communicate
  • understand ethical concerns
  • have an appreciation for life-long learning

These traits were shared by VT and MIT. Virginia Tech in addition stressed the ability to design, to work in teams, and to understand modern issues and tools. In contrast MIT discussed more the path of a student in their program, starting with “foundation subjects”, selecting “header subjects” to focus on, and then concentrating further on their chosen “intellectual themes”. Here, MIT expresses the ability of their students to study what interests them most.

To achieve these various goals, both universities place an importance on recruiting skilled faculty. Professors and researchers are able to create and run labs, which allow them to produce research while also opening the door for students. Similarly, through courses skilled professors are able to help endow and inspire the desired knowledge, skills, and attitudes in graduating students.

What is Connected Learning? Why is it useful?

My two major thoughts after our first class were:

1) What is connected learning? Why is technology such a large part of it? Why is connected learning needed or important for the future?

I still did not have a concrete definition of connected learning. I was unclear what traits a course would have to feature for it to fall into this model. Are connections being made to people, to ideas, etc? My initial impressions was that connected learning was ambiguous, more of an abstract philosophy than a specific, concrete model. So I did some light research to try to get a clearer vision of connected learning. At first I found this difficult as descriptions seemed vague. Phrases such as “seeks to”, “it asks”, and “it seeks to” seemed to stress ‘what’ connected learning wanted to achieve rather than ‘how’. After continuing to go through the course materials, websites, articles, and reports, I found myself getting more settled. I was able to synthesize common principles and see how they would aid learning.

My current short-definition of connected learning is: sharing knowledge, interpretations, and ideas with others, to the benefit of both the individual and the community. Technology is a prominent feature due to its ability to connect people across huge spectrums of age, gender, wealth, ethnicity, location, education, etc. While allowing for a broader range of individuals to connect, technology also allows for focus and specialization by connecting people with particular interests. Technology is “enabler and facilitator of human capability”.

The course material of Seth Godin speaking on YouTube in a way related to this definition of connected learning in the context of blogging. By forcing yourself to express your thoughts in words, even in rough or undeveloped fashion, it helps you to consider and articulate your ideas. This is beneficial to yourself. You’re also forced to think and to verbalize your thoughts, which adds your insight into the community of ideas, benefiting others.

2) Does connected learning work? What evidence is there that demonstrates it is beneficial?

On the Connected Learning Alliance, it lists one of the six principles of connecting learning to be “interest-powered”. It states: “research has repeatedly shown that when the topic is personally interesting and relevant, learners achieve much higher-order learning outcomes”. Reading this really helped to make things click for me. I was already curious about the relationship between interest and learning from my previous experiences as a GTA. I noticed some students would perform well and express enjoyment doing their work, while others moaned, complained, and struggled. I wondered how people are driven by different motivations such as interest, money, careers, fame, peers, parents, etc. Believing that interest could be a powerful driving force, the claim that connected learning is beneficial because it allows people to learn what they’re interested in seemed to make sense to me. With this said, I would still like to delve deeper into the data and research.