Flipped Learning and Higher Education are rarely found together in the same sentence. Well, rarer than I would expect at least. Perhaps that is the case because the idea of flipped learning is attributed to two high school teachers and is a rather new concept, while stakeholders of Higher Education prefer to refer to it as “reverse instruction”. While not exactly the same, both concepts shift the focus towards students and their learning needs rather than the instructor.

Terminology aside, flipped learning should be standard for Higher Education if we want our universities to deliver successful graduates into the world of tomorrow.

Discipline, standardization, conformity

The traditional educational model goes something like this: students of approximately the same age go to school, sit quietly in rows in a classroom and pay attention to what a teacher or another has to say, for most of the day; then, they go home and do their homework, based on the day’s lectures; later, at regular intervals of time, they get their knowledge tested and they pass on (or not) to the next grade.

Discipline, standardization, conformity — these are the values on which the traditional educational model was based. We have to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and admit that the guy who designed the educational system was a genius. He paved the way for a new type of institution, one that prepared the best workforce the world needed at the time. The name was Horace Mann and the time was the Industrial Revolution. As we all know, the Industrial Revolution was all about discipline, standardization and conformity. Genius. Pure genius.

The problem is, these values won’t cut it in the knowledge-based economy we’re now living. The workforce that will thrive in the future need to develop skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. The same educational system that was perfect for the Industrial Revolution falls short when it comes to preparing today’s students for the future.


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Many people are calling out this situation and what’s more encouraging is that people from within the system are doing the same.

Flipping tradition

Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams are among those educators who not only agree that the traditional educational system is no longer efficient, but they also decided to do something about it.

They flipped their classrooms.

Instead of going to class to listen to the teacher’s lecture and then home to do their homework, students in a flipped classroom listen, watch or read by themselves — before they go to school. When in class, they ask questions in order to clarify any difficult aspects of the lesson.

The attention is no longer on the teacher and his or her lecture, but on students and their understanding of the subject. As Bergmann himself points out, “No longer is content delivery the focus of the class, nor is the teacher’s main responsibility the dissemination of knowledge. Instead, teachers take on the role of a facilitator of learning. They can work with students in small groups and have more one-on-one interactions. The simple act of removing the direct instruction (lecture) from the whole group changes the dynamic of the room and allows the teacher more time to personalize and individualize the learning for each student. Each student gets his/her own education tailored to their individual needs. Instead of a one size fits all education, each student gets just what they need when they need it.”

The idea of flipped learning and the flipped classroom caught on in Bergmann and Sams’ high school and spread throughout their district, across the US and beyond. There’s a growing number of teachers going for the flipped instruction approach, as once they flip, they see positive results in terms of students’ engagement, peer collaboration and ultimately, academic outcomes.

The Flipped Learning Global Initiative and the FLIP Learning Network connect flipped classroom enthusiasts, offer resources and support for educators and point out to success stories of flipped classroom implementation.

Indeed, most of the above refer to teachers and students of middle school and high school. Higher Education is different.

Or is it?

Flipped learning and Higher Education students

If the flipped classroom approach yields so many positive results for high school students, I think it’s safe to assume it can do the same — or maybe even more — for their HE counterparts.

One key aspect to a successful flipped classroom is the willingness and the ability of students to put in their fair share of the work. That is, prepare for the lesson before going to class. Teenagers are not viewed as particularly the most responsible self-directed learners. Yet they still get great results in a flipped classroom environment.

College students, on the other hand, are from a different league. We’re talking about young adults who are still figuring out what to do with their lives, but have chosen a path to follow nonetheless. We’re also talking about people who already have a job and a career plan and need a college degree to achieve it.


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University students are the perfect candidates of self-directed learning and they would thrive in a flipped learning environment.

But many university classes still go with the traditional instructor-centered approach to education. That is, a professor delivers a lecture and may not have enough time to answer students’ many content-related questions. There are also seminars, laboratories and other forms of classes that are designed for students to apply knowledge from lectures, but the professor is usually not involved in these. Teaching assistants may do a great job at answering students’ questions, but they inevitably have to answer theoretical content related questions besides the practical-related ones.


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The flipped learning technique could solve this issue since students arrive already prepared to class. This allows more time for professors to answer questions and teaching assistants can focus more on the practical aspects.

Flipped learning — a different kind of standard

What if university professors would film, or record themselves during lectures and would allow students to access the recordings before the beginning of the course? Would this mean the end of lectures? I doubt it. I actually think professors would have to deliver even more lectures.

Supposing that university students are self-directed learners and have the inner motivation to absorb all the knowledge from a course, they will do their fair share of the job. They’ll come prepared with pertinent questions, which will trigger new targeted lectures. And even if students don’t have many questions, any university subject is multi-faceted. There are many ways in which professors can steer the discussions and plan activities for students in a flipped classroom.

When students get all their content-related questions answered during a theoretical course — every time — they’ll be better prepared for the practical ones, they’ll get better academic results, with obvious benefits for the faculty and the entire university system.

Conclusion

Higher education students are usually self-directed learners who would thrive in a flipped learning environment. Yet many university classes still go for the classical teacher-centered approach to education.

If we want today’s students to become successful citizens of tomorrow, we need to turn the traditional model of teaching on its head. The flipped classroom model puts the student in the driver’s seat. The model guides them to prepare before class, allowing plenty of time to ask smart questions and discuss thorny topics. This will help them develop and reinforce skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, face-to-face and digital collaboration — all of which are more than necessary for future success.

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