Published on 2012/04/30

I Blame Johannes Gutenberg!

I Blame Johannes Gutenberg!
Using the flipped model of teaching, adult students can watch lecture material on their own time, as many times as they would like, and they can use in-person time for more engaging and advanced material. Photo by Jerry Bunkers.

I was having a good time lecturing to my classes, and they were paying careful attention and trying to write down every word I said.  This was necessary if they hoped to learn the course content, as they couldn’t possibly afford to “buy” the book – i.e. to have a handwritten copy made for them.

Some time after that, this infernal printing press with moveable type made it possible for publishers to provide affordable books, and my students flocked to that solution.  I had to adapt! Sometimes I read the book to them, and they would underline my sentences in their copies.

That way they emphasized what I knew was important.

But those cheeky students didn’t think I was adding much value, and so I would often read from a different book. Ha! I wouldn’t tell them which one, and so they would have to write down what I was saying.

Unfortunately, some of the brighter students would pore through the library collection and find the book I was using. With this book in hand, many of my students were stopping paying attention to me or even attending my lectures. Low attendance made it look as if I wasn’t earning my pay. I had to adapt again!

This is all because of Johannes Gutenberg!

Luckily, someone invented the Internet. I don’t think it was Johannes Gutenberg – but he probably shares the blame. Now I was able to write my own script and record my lectures and put them on the Internet using some “web” stuff – and the students could watch them on their own – taking notes or not, and I didn’t care. They could play the lectures over and over – and I could just relax in my office.  This was easy for me, but there was a catch! While many of the students were able to master the course content this way – too many were not. To live up the educational outcome standards, I had to adapt!

Relaxing in my office was actually getting boring, and so I came up with a way to use that time in a more interesting way – I invited the students in my classes to come visit me, and to come in groups. After all, they really do enjoy their own peer company more than they enjoy my company – and we could then have group discussions and work sessions. If they had a question about a point in one of my excellent recorded lectures, they could ask what I really meant. Of course, remembering Socrates (that was a while before Johannes Gutenberg, so I can’t really blame him for this) I seldom answer, preferring to throw the question out for the rest of the visiting students to try to answer and explain the significance of what I had said. There has been some wonderful repartee among the students as they exchanged opinions, worked out problems on the blackboard, and I could be the referee and guide.

For some reason, the students seemed to learn more than they had before, and so I decided to keep this arrangement.  But then other faculty heard about my strategy to get out of lecturing and took it as an indication of a mental breakdown. They said I had “flipped”!

I took this as a compliment, and have labeled this a “flipped class” – but really I do blame all of this on Johannes Gutenberg.

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Readers Comments

This article reminded me of the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” contest Netflix ran a few years back, which validates how quickly and pervasively innovation can change whole industries.

The contest, which sought to improve NetFlix’s mail order DVD recommendation accuracy (i.e., “you might like…”), took about three years to conclude. The problem is their business model changed a year into the contest. While Netflix was focusing on optimizing its DVD rental business against Blockbuster (which later filed for bankruptcy protection), video streaming was the next innovation lurking, forcing Netflix to start streaming movies. Fast forward about five years, Netflix’s business model has completely changed – instead of aiming at sleepy Blockbuster, they are struggling to stay relevant in a radically new environment against companies like Google, Hulu, Amazon, Verizon and Comcast. Even Blockbuster (purchased by Dish network) is now coming to the iPad with a new business model.

Like the change spurred by the introduction of the printing press, Henry’s “flipping” experience with virtual classrooms provides a glimpse of the innovation lurking in the shadows of today’s higher education industry. Though I don’t blame Gutenberg, I’m glad Henry has “flipped.” Thanks for sharing your story, Henry!

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