Teaching: The Flipping Challenge

As I contemplate posting my course syllabus for the coming semester, the central question I face is whether a college-level American government course can be "flipped".

Having logged many iterations of the basic course over the past 40+ years (my first was in the summer of 1970), and attempted both online and “hybrid” variations in recent years, I am intrigued with the pedagogical promises and challenges associated with
course flipping. I contemplated attempting the approach this past fall term in my Median and Politics course, but at the last minute I stuck with tradition when I realized that (despite having taught the course before) so much had changed in the subject matter (e.g., the rise of social media) that I faced an entirely new course preparation. One basic condition for course flipping is that you better have your course content down pat before constructing a flipped course. My comfort level with the basic American government course is supported by the fact that the core textbook is one I have co-authored through 11 editions…. That said, backing off this plan is a possibility as the semester approaches if I cannot overcome some of the potential drawbacks.

Course flipping is a
relatively simple concept that developed as a pedagogical strategy over the past decade, primarily in the high school environment. There are a number of reasons why the flipped classroom is catching on, but the most significant seems linked to the development of technologies and technological competencies that make it possible to consider such a move.

On the instructor side, the availability of both institutional platforms and individual programs conducive to the delivery of online content has increased and improved over the past few years. In my case, the
Blackboard platform at UNH has several useful tools, although I have relied as much on my personal video recording and editing program (ScreenFlow) and Skype (or Google+ Hangout) for my online courses. Since a flipped course requires that material once delivered in class be provided prior to class sessions (lectures, readings, other items such as videos, podcasts, etc.), these technological options (and the competency to use them) is critical.

On the student side, the main cohort I am dealing with (18-22 year olds) are not only competent in the use of relevant technologies, but
actually expect to have instruction that is in one way or another delivered or accessible via information communication technology (ICT) platforms. Gone are the days (not many years ago, actually) when a major part of the syllabus and perhaps the first two sessions of the semester had to be devoted to getting students signed on and familiar with using emails and learning platforms. Issues such as the digital divide seem quaint now, unless you are talking about some of the older faculty who have decided not to opt-in when it comes to ICT tools. Where the flipped classroom will run into problems, I suspect, is in getting students to take class preparation seriously -- that is, having them actually view the assigned online material before class as critical.

After reviewing online examples and “case studies” of course flipping, I am also questioning whether -- and how -- the material covered in a basic American government course can be made “flippable.” One general characteristic of flipped courses is that most are problem-focused -- that is, in class activity typically revolves around finding solutions to problems directly related to the lecture material that seems to actually have answers — or at least foster the idea of being solvable. Finding interesting sets of “problems” that can work in the classroom for each of the major topics will take some doing, and in future posts I will report on how that effort is going.

But even more challenging for me is how to break old patterns in the classroom. After years of straight lecturing using powerpoints for 50 to 80 minutes each session, actually engaging students via discussions or break out groups is going to mean a radical reorientation for me. Those are skills I need to hone for flipping to work. I’ve watched with envy how many of my colleagues work their magic in the classroom, getting students to actually engage with enthusiasm. When I attempt to do the same, I typically end up breaking the silence with those famous
Ben Stein lines from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”: “Anyone? Anyone?....” (It doesn’t help that I hate to wear my hearing aids….)

Posting these thoughts on my plans is, in part, an exercise in thinking this project through -- and to that extent the posts involve me talking to myself. But obviously I can use any advice any reader wishes to offer -- Anyone? Anyone?
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