In September 2015 I committed to deliver a thirty-credit module, called The Teaching Practitioner, using A flipped classroom pedagogy. The module is the first of two in a PgC Teaching and Supporting Learning in HE; it is associated with Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy.
My motivation for flipping the classroom was three fold:
- My contact time was limited and therefore moving ‘delivery of content’ outside of the classroom was an answer to a specific timetable challenge.
- In learning and teaching provision of this type I wanted to actively avoid ‘preaching’ or appearing as the ‘authority’. Everyone, without exception, on a work-based programme brings experience and the class dynamic is much more about guiding equals and facilitating mutual learning.
- I would rather place my energies in to discursive, challenging and unexpected contact time, rather than repeat sessions of transmitting content, which can be accessed in other ways.
The pattern of delivery was simply that each week I shared materials to work through, including narrated presentations, videos (commissioned and existent), reading, reflective tasks and then we would gather to discuss. The discussions varied in formality, structure and style as the module progressed. Over the course of the module I learnt a great deal, the key points from my mental list of lessons are shared below.
Essential to do list: Each week I published what needed to be done in advance of the face-to-face class. Importantly the list split out what was essential and what was optional. Participants reported that this was a helpful organizing distinction and allowed better management of their activity. This is something that I would definitely adopt in future modules of any type to act as a pacesetter. Simple, perhaps obvious, but actively encouraging participants to make choices about the level of engagement they can make is a pragmatic way of supporting work based practitioners who have so many competing demands on their time.
Slides not videos: I experimented with the media format of presentational material (pre-class content). The staple across most weeks was the narrated PowerPoint. I found more editing control by using Audacity to record the audio and then drag and drop in to PowerPoint, compared to recording direct in to PowerPoint. Audacity gave me opportunity to edit out any major interruptions with ease (phone calls, door knocks etc). I included some video lectures of studio production quality however participants found them relatively less engaging, with a preference for visuals and audios mixed in together with the ability to more easily navigate the presentation. I was surprised by this preference, but there is no doubt narrated presentations are easier to create.
Don’t force theory: We took a discursive approach to our face-to-face time (which was usually two hours per week). I provided questions and starters and then tried to guide the discussion. At first the conversation was loose, multi-directional, on and off-topic. I worried that we were not being ‘very level seven’ and the participants shared some of these concerns. However an under the surface, a process of sense making was going on; each person, in their own language and terms, through sharing and reflecting on their own experience got chance to reconceive, affirm and evaluate their practice. The explicit linking to theory was a more private activity, which seemed to occur in response to assessment. It was only obvious that this had taken place at the end of the module as discussion and theory were fused. Perhaps the discussions were a shared liminal space in which we muddled through difficult issues, then we went away to individually reflect and make clear.
Facilitation skills matter more than online production skills: My role can be linked to all the activities of a facilitator, including:
- Providing occasional expertise
- Sharing anecdotes
- Collating the issues that we couldn’t solve and referring them to other forums, or mentally ‘parking them’ as knowingly messy
- Archiving ideas (e.g. photographing shared lists and posting them online for future reference)
- Providing clarity as needed
- Providing confidence
- Managing the group dynamics
- Modeling active listening
As we progressed through the weeks, methods for each of these aspects became more developed e.g. creating graphics for summaries, defining the discussion purpose to keep us mainly on task. One thing I did from time to time was add a summary of the discussion as a resource for reference so that everyone had opportunity to revisit key points. This involved simply using my mobile phone and talking through the diagrams that we had created in class such that everyone had a record. This was not onerous at all if done straight after the session while fresh in memory.
Quick and dirty production process: If the model of delivery is going to be sustainable then resources need to be produced within a realistic time frame. By taking a quick and dirty approach to development, those on the programme see the approach as achievable and replicable; it provides accessible modeled practice. For me there is also a really clear sign in this approach that the value of the learning experience is the interaction and not a resource. To avoid perfectionism I never listened to my own presentations after they were recorded other than for a quick sound check.
Shared endeavor: While new roles were not formally defined, we fell in to a more even relationship. I sensed that we were co-researchers (in to the effectiveness of the pedagogy) and co-learners (about all aspects of the programme). We were facilitators and facilitated, rather than ‘teacher and student’. To reinforce this role equality, I tried to be very open about when I was learning too.
Allow choice about levels of engagement: As grown ups, participants face a simple rational choice about whether to engage or attend; sometime this choice is made in light of personal life and professional workload. In the weeks where individuals had not done the preparation for class, no action was taken or penalty applied. This approach relies on a commitment to engage and the rewards are implicit in the design. It also reflects the idea of running a community of equals. The group dynamic needs to be honest about the need for preparation, but pragmatic when this slips. If the facilitation works well then even those who have not prepared should be invited and able to contribute experience, and hopefully then inspired to retrospectively visit the online class.
A human process not a technical one: Flipped classroom may evoke thoughts about complex online tools and an unfathomable methodology of teaching promoted by centres of e-learning and academic development, but for me the experience of flipped classroom is a fundamentally human process which involves a respect the opportunity to explore individual experience and knowledge. It allows social learning and creates space for the discussion of any issues arising that matter to the group. I hope the language around this practice, and the identity of the learning model as slightly exotic, does not take away from the collegial simplicity, which resonates with traditional seminar based learning.
Support for the flipped approach from participants was demonstrated in three distinct ways: i) the adoption of flipped classroom by some group members ii) protest when classes are not flipped iii) outstanding, highly personalized, deeply connected assignments to demonstrate the culmination of meaningful engagement (though I am a little bias on the last point).
If I had a point nine on my list, it would be to keep faith that the approach will pay off, even when there is angst about its effectiveness. That said, when I saw in the module assessments that we had reached our destination (albeit a fleeting one on the way to the next module) I was very relieved!