It wouldn’t be right to close out the year without somehow addressing / acknowledging / assessing the huge amount of energy and attention that was given over in 2013 to discussions of flipped learning (as opposed to MOOCs, which faced a pretty healthy backlash in the second half of the year). I contributed to this energy sink as well, with a post I wrote early in the year on flipping anthropology. I was pretty skeptical about the rallying cries for the “disruption of education.” I wondered if all this fancy talk about new paradigms wasn’t just the seminar / tutorial model scaled differently. Mohammed Noor at Duke University, who offered his first MOOC this year in an introductory biology class, seemed to agree when he said “for me a flipped class is a conceptual extension of what happens in small humanities courses.”
While my skepticism has remained healthy throughout the year, I’ve also come to learn a few things which may suggest that I’m starting to accept the shifting reality offered by a flipped classroom. While there may be no real truth to the claim that students have different learning styles, there clearly are differences between students in terms of ability, interest, and background knowledge. Addressing these differences while trying to hold the attention of students long enough to engage them is a pedagogical challenge that can only benefit from integrating a variety of techniques.
It’s the scaling of these techniques that seems to be the truly revolutionary element here. Just as algorithms have become a popular way to help large companies like Amazon or Twitter make educated recommendations for us, flipped learning can potentially deepen the educational experience while reaching vast numbers of people simultaneously. In anthropology, where introductory-level courses can be large, and may represent the one shot instructors have for imparting the value and excitement of the discipline, flipped learning could even be a huge asset.
So, assuming flipped learning is a reality I can and should accept, I’m led to the next obvious question (at least for a university press editor who publishes materials for undergraduate course use). What roles do reading and textbooks play in the flipped classroom? For most people, the key elements of flipped learning involve a 3-part process: pre-class prep, in-class active learning, and post-class assignments to cement this learning. Together these form a triad of learning that reaches the sweet spot where student interest is harnessed long enough to engage them in actual thinking while avoiding the frustration that can lead to boredom and shutting down.
My concern (and perhaps I am the only one concerned about this) is that in many cases, the pre-class preparation is often some form of recorded lecture or video rather than reading. While I’m not opposed to these forms of learning, I do think that reading should remain a crucial element of higher education and that even introductory-level courses should make as part of their learning objectives the teaching of critical reading skills. Besides, reading does have some definite advantages over video and podcasts. For one, it’s a far more efficient process: you can skim a page or skip a few pages a lot more quickly and easily than you can through a video or podcast.
That said, does the flipped classroom require something different from textbooks—something that is less about providing just information and more about supporting the kinds of pedagogy being utilized? Some suggest that MOOCs are, in effect, multimedia digital textbooks and that they represent a major disruption for the textbook industry. Others argue that their course focus makes them unnecessarily narrow and therefore not transferrable to others. I tend to think that rather than throw out the idea of reading and textbooks altogether, or relegate them to the status of security blanket (in which case they will rarely be opened by anyone other than the most dedicated learner), we might actually want to rethink textbooks. For instance, does a textbook that is assigned for pre-class preparation need to be better at engaging students than the regular encyclopedic approach? Does an exploration-first /abstract-reading-second approach require something different from textbooks? What does that look and sound like?
I tend to think that in the case of anthropology, we have an amazing resource at our fingertips. Ethnographies, the foundation of the discipline, offer an opportunity to bring together elements that lend themselves well to flipped learning—storytelling, dialogue, ethical controversies and problems, grounded concepts, and more—as long as they are written with students in mind.
Best wishes for 2014!
Anne Brackenbury, Anthropology Editor