Is flipping an online course possible?

6247271401_a39a9b0f5c_mI am emerging from a self-imposed blog exile that happened because of the usual end-of-semester chaos, plus the fact that I am currently teaching my very first online course — a fully online version of our standard Calculus 1 class. Being new to online teaching, designing and building the course was a major time investment. The class has turned out to be a microcosm of everything I have tried pedagogically in the last several years: it uses a lot of technology, it uses specifications grading, and it’s flipped.

That last part, about being flipped, has been a fascinating and perplexing problem. Flipping a fully online class challenges all the usual assumptions about the flipped classroom that we make. Our language about flipped learning is rooted in the concept of “class time”. Students gain first contact with new material “before class”, then there is some work on more advanced and creative applications “during class”, and then students do even more advanced work “after class”. Even my go-to operational definition of flipped learning avoids the idea of “class time” and instead refers to “group learning space” and “individual learning space”. But what if there are no synchronous class meetings whatsoever? Is it even semantically possible to flip a class that never meets — or rather, a class that always meets?

Kris Shaffer asked this same question about his upcoming fully online music theory class and came up with some excellent insights. Spurred on by his blog post, I wanted to give some of my own conclusions so far. Please filter through the caveats that (1) we are only in week 2 of the course and so all of these ideas are tentative, and (2) I do not fully know what I am doing yet. Also many of these points might be totally obvious to those who have been teaching online for a while.

  • The first step toward effective flipped learning in an online course is to decouple the learning process from time/space coordinates. In a fully online course there is no “before/during/after class” hierarchy. Even the line between individual and group learning spaces is nearly impossible to demarcate. When a student is working with a problem I post to the class discussion board to work, is this “individual space” or “group space”? I was making no progress in figuring out how to build my course until I let go of this notion.
  • The next step is to focus on that learning process itself. A recent talk by Derek Bruff that he gave on my campus was really helpful with this. He described the flipped classroom in terms of three phases: first contact, practice, and climbing higher. (Those aren’t his exact terms.) These describe flipped learning in a way that is agnostic with respect to space and time. In an online setting, you have to focus on the phases, on the process, and not on the coordinates we usually impose to guide and structure that process. Speaking of guidance:
  • You can guide those phases of learning and set up helpful guideposts for students as they progress through them, but you cannot mandate or control them. It’s a cliche, but a true one, that learning is messy and the process looks different for each student, and different for the same student from one topic to the next. If I were to try to structure the class experience in a highly regimented way — particularly with regards to the discussion board for the class where most of the collaborative student activity happens — I think this would only cause students to orient themselves towards extrinsic motivation (meeting the deadline and making the grade) rather than, as Kris points out in his post, using the discussion board as a means to an end. That gets me to my next point:
  • Everything the course is just a resource to meet learning goals. When I describe the Guided Practice model I use for “pre-class” work (there’s that assumption again) I often talk about a section of the assignment that lists resources for learning. In an online course — and perhaps this is true even of F2F courses — the primary function of everything is to be resource for meeting learning goals. Syllabus, videos, textbook, quizzes, the final exam — these are all servants to the ultimate goal of demonstrating sufficient evidence that the student has met the intended learning outcome. Even the outcomes themselves are resources, since without a clear statement of the learning goals it is awfully hard to meet them. The implication in my Calculus class is that while there is a fairly dense network of assessments that students do, there are not a lot of requirements. Instead, my design mindset has been to set up the course so that students are surrounded by helpful resources and clearly articulated learning goals, and it’s up to them to use whatever combination of resources helps them meet the goal.
  • The silence of students does not mean that they are disengaged. But it might. It’s hard to tell. Students in the class are not required to participate on the discussion boards beyond a bare-minimum specification (3 substantive posts for an A in the class; 2 for a B; 1 for a C). They are not required at all to show up for online office hours or to email me. A student who doesn’t participate regularly is not necessarily slacking; she might just be thinking things over. How many of us have been highly engaged lurkers on Reddit, or on a discussion board? Instead, I have to set up “sensors”, in the form of low-stakes assessments, in my class that measure student activity so that I can tell what students know, and when they know it, to a greater extent than any F2F class I’ve taught. For example, I can dip into WeBWorK at any point and analyze a students’ progress, for example. If a student has attempted a problem 52 times with no luck, I can tell that engagement is sort-of happening but that I need to check in with them. If there are no attempts, and no discussion board or even Blackboard activity, then this is a sign of disengagement and I should also check in.

At some later point I’ll describe how exactly the course is put together and how I’m working with specs grading in the course. For now, I will say that this has been a very interesting course to put together. I like it. The online setting puts students in a position so that they are the ones chiefly responsible for making sense out of what they are learning. And the usual expectation that the instructor will lecture on simple exercises that are then replicated by students on timed tests, is a non-starter. That makes online learning pretty compelling.

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