Flipping the Academy
While flipping the classroom is not a new concept, the advances in technology and media make it possible to flip the academy around a whole new angle.

I “flipped” my course last semester, by recording my lectures and having them available for students to watch at home, online, while spending class time reviewing the readings and lectures and engaging my students in the conversations that once occurred outside of class, in hallways and at home. In the process, I learned a lot about what it takes to “flip” a class and what this might mean for higher education generally.

My students all reported that I went on for too long in my online lectures. A 50-minute talk may hold their attention when delivered in person, but that seems an eternity in the online world to students accustomed to 18-minute TED talks and 5-minute YouTube videos. Breaking a topic into bite-sized bits seems like almost a requirement when delivering knowledge online. This also allows students to mix-and-match ideas more easily, as I discovered when some in my class took parts of various lectures and recombined them in their conversations in new ways. They helped co-create the course content rather than just accept it in the order I gave it.

I also learned that variety matters. My students liked it when I flipped back and gave an impromptu lecture in class. Education in the online world may be less about “flipping” and more about “hybridizing” classes, utilizing the full range of technology and a wide array of teaching strategies to reach different types of learners. Some students seem to learn better by listening and seeing, others by interacting and talking, and still others by making and doing, and the more a class utilizes all three learning styles, the more students absorb.

These lessons seem to apply to the academy as a whole, not just to individual courses. For all of the cutting-edge work that goes on within them, colleges and universities remain some of the world’s most conservative institutions when it comes to their structure and operations. Most still have two- or three-term school years with a relatively small amount of instruction in the summer months, and most still follow the pattern of large lecture classes, with smaller seminars, recitations and labs — formats that date back at least a century.

In my discipline — architecture — the unquestioned assumptions about academic structure reaches an almost ridiculous extreme with design studios. Studios have for so long occurred on Monday/Wednesday/Friday afternoons — a time slot established in the 19th century at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris — that it seems almost impossible to change. I have seen some of my faculty colleagues react in horror at the very thought of moving studios to another time, even though their simultaneous offering creates overcrowded and noisy teaching environments, while eliminating the possibility of students taking other classes on those afternoons.

Given the hidebound nature of academic structure, it sounds almost pointless to talk about “flipping” or “hybridizing” the academy. If some of my colleagues can’t even imagine a Tuesday/Thursday studio time, how will they ever embrace a more distributed, diverse form of education, partly online, and mostly conversational in class? The irony is that, of all of the pedagogical formats in universities, the studio may come closest this idea.

Leaving aside the immovability of its time slot, design studios have long had a “flipped” structure. Faculty members spend class time mostly in one-on-one or small group discussions with students about their studio work as well as a wide range of other ideas and issues. To colleagues in other disciplines, this can seem very ill structured and free-floating, but that is the point: studios have more of the character of how learning occurs outside of class, that is, in conversations. Meanwhile, studio faculty members expect students to gather information and to report on what they have discovered in studio and to reflect upon it in their work. The information absorption of lecture classes, in other words, happens outside of studio, not in it.

Studios also have a very hybrid character. Some involve mostly listening and seeing on the part of individual faculty and students, others engage in a lot of conversation and interaction among groups of students, and still others do a lot of visiting of locations outside of class or fabricating of models and prototypes in hands-on workshops. And because students often have the ability to choose among a variety of studios, they can take the ones that more closely fit the way in which they like to learn.

The academy, in other words, already has a format for a “flipped” or “hybridized” structure. Students in my college, for example, now work almost everywhere, in settings better suited or more comfortable than a classroom and often in locations not thought of as teaching or learning space. This foretells an academy that, enabled by new technology, may have more of the character of higher education prior to the establishment of lecture-oriented and space-intensive institutions, when students and educators came together — in coffee shops and markets hundreds of years ago, or in groves and under trees thousands of years ago — to teach and to learn.

The academy, in short, has flipped many times before, hybridizing itself in new settings and with the advent of new media. And it seems poised to do so again in this era of mobile devices, wireless connections and cloud computing, with one of its most flexible pedagogies from the past — the studio — as a possible model for the future.

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Readers Comments

Cindy Chao 2013/02/21 at 10:20 am

Reading about the studio experience you describe, I could not help but be reminded of the ‘salon’ style of learning that was popular during the Enlightenment. Salons were informal gatherings of people that were intended to increase the knowledge of all participants through conversation. What was unique was that women were often the hosts of these ‘meetings of the minds,’ at a time when they were still largely excluded from the formal academy.

    Ewan Philipps 2013/02/21 at 3:19 pm

    It seems that each time the academy opens itself to innovation and new pedagogies, we engage a new group of learners. In the 17th century, it was women; in the 21st century, it might be adult learners.

Quincy Adams 2013/02/21 at 1:02 pm

This article provided valuable insight into “flipping” the classroom. For example, your example of providing bite-sized lectures to the Youtube generation demonstrated that “flipping” is not just a matter of reversing your course schedule, but is about developing new teaching tactics and strategies.

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