Flipped classroom: pros and cons for academic planning in universities

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Many readers are researching about new trends in higher education software. One of the most interesting and challenging methods to improve skill based training and make the most of schedules, rooms, labs and workshops, is the flipped classroom.

What is it? What are its pros and cons not just for the teacher and the student, but academic planning, curriculum design and campus management?

The Flipped Classroom

Educause defines it as a “pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed.”

There isn’t a single model for this type of higher education technology, as the term is used to describe “almost any class structure that provides prerecorded lectures”. These “short video lectures are viewed by students at home before the class session, while in-class time is devoted to exercises, projects or discussions”.

Educause considers the video lecture as a key ingredient in the flipped approach, whereas the material is either created by an instructor and posted online, or selected from online repositories and massive open online courses (MOOCs).

“The notion of a flipped classroom draws on such concepts as active learning, student engagement, hybrid course design and course podcasting. The value of a flipped class is in the repurposing of class time into a workshop where students can inquire about lecture content, test their skills in applying knowledge and interact with one another in hands-on activities”.

The “flipping” of the class works as teachers or instructors turn into coaches and advisors, as they encourage students in inquiring and collaboration.

The benefits of a flipped method for higher education

This approach can imply a radical change in class dynamics, especially in disciplines where teachers need to develop hands-on skills, such as medicine, applied sciences and technology.

Depending on the university, either individual faculty members try this model or the entire curriculum of a college major dives deep into it. For instance, it is key for blended learning education, where students take most of the classes, research and some testing online, and they attend a college campus for specific, practical activities and evaluations, where resource scheduling is a problem.

For instance, a person studying human resource management in this method may:

  • Read lectures, watch informative videos and discuss in online forums with peers.
  • Take standardized testing and submit papers on an e-learning platform.
  • Prepare from home a series of intensive, practical activities on campus.
  • Attend a class where they run simulation games and activities moderated by their teacher, to develop specific social skills and crisis management abilities.

Among its features, Sara Arnold-Garza from Towson University underlines that:

  • It “focus[es] on efficient use of class time which accommodates different learners”.
  • It “engages with problem-based learning”.
  • It “increases student-teacher ratio”.
  • It “allows students to take responsibility for learning so that they may transfer these skills to other contexts”.

In fact, academics from Bergen University College evaluated the approach in the field of management education. They concluded at the Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice that students reported preparing better for lectures and were more satisfied with course overall.

The cons of a flipped classroom

There are many detractors of this tool. The most common one is that the use of video technology without proper academic planning is just “using an old teaching method with a different tool”.

In fact, scholars from the Eshelman School of Pharmacy contributed a paper to Medical Education with some downsides of the misuse of flipped learning environments in medical subjects:

  • The cumulative workload of multiple concurrent flipped courses quickly became overwhelming and stressful.
  • An “unmanageable” volume of pre-class learning may lead to students coming to class unprepared which prevents them from properly engaging in classroom learning and ultimately undermines the pedagogical model.
  • Instructors tend to underestimate student workload. Therefore the use of actual time and workload data is recommended.

The academics found patterns of “instructional misalignments”, as students were sensitive to differences in higher or lower learning outcomes in the activities designed.

Therefore, they conclude that the curriculum-wide adoption of this method needs to go hand in hand with a “thorough analysis of the total time and effort required of students in and out of the classroom for all concurrent courses”.

On the other hand, while they valued the flexibility of activities and learning strategies for students within the model, this variability could have adverse effects in student learning, “in the context of multiple courses and multiple instructors”.

Flipped classroom: a solution for campus management, a challenge for curriculum design

Managers in universities tend to juggle the use of very scarce resources on campus. One of them is the use of physical spaces, making the most of the workshops, lecture halls, labs and computer rooms. Another one is reducing the student: teacher ratio, especially in disciplines where the academic needs to nurture the student in a personalized basis, and develop a dynamic where everyone in the class can participate.

On the other hand, colleges offer graduate degrees and continuing education options that require some degree of flexibility to welcome full-time workers and make them part time students. To them, they can only schedule sessions one or two days a week, or over the period of several months, force teachers and administrators to make the most of the time together with the students.

Hence, a flipped classroom method shouldn’t – and mustn’t be – just the initiative of a single teacher, but involve a comprehensive curriculum design process should the academic program consider it a priority.

Diane B. Mark from Appalachian State University had another approach. She reported her findings at the Journal of College Teaching & Learning, and she points out that, “with careful curriculum design, both content and methods learning objectives can be taught and mastered with flipped classroom methods”.

She reveals that higher level thinking skills instructors – who often feel pushed aside because of time constraints – found the most use of this tool, as “more time was dedicated to discussion, analysis and authentic application of course learning objectives.”

However, Educause also points out that the flipped classroom approach “is an easy model to get wrong.”

“Although the idea is straightforward, an effective flip requires careful preparation. Recording lectures requires effort and time on the part of faculty, and out-of-class and in-class elements must be carefully integrated for students to understand the model and be motivated to prepare for class.”

Professor Mark adds that “online tasks need to provide the same quality curriculum as their traditional counterparts but must utilize different methods, strategies and materials to do so”.

In fact, Sara Arnold-Garza from Towson University adds that the self-paced nature of the model can be a disadvantage for some students and an advantage to others. Some will work through material more quickly, while others may take the time to review the information at a slower pace.

Using data science technology to improve flipped classroom design methods

Professor Mark pointed out that the model allowed the instructor “to facilitate student learning more effectively since students came to class with questions from the online assignment and the instructor could monitor online work, collaboration and discussions to better plan face-to-face lessons.”

Hence, to comprehensively design flipped learning strategies, as part of the higher education curriculum, teachers must not only work together in collaboration. They must also take note and learn from the data that course management systems (CMS) gives them, to accurately tailor the content to the amount of time it takes a student to watch a video, read a case study or prepare a test.

On the other hand, they must make the most of the behavioral information collected via big data in the software to develop more enhanced on-site practical sessions.

Has your institution used flipped classroom tools in its curriculum? What are its pros and cons?