Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Example of a flipped course

Mike Moore, Prof. of Economics and International Affairs at George Washington University, has problems with asthma. So this past semester he taught two courses to GW students (mostly) from Santa Fe, New Mexico.  He did it by prerecording his lectures, posting them on YouTube, conducting live online office hours using Blackboard Collaborate, and visiting GW monthly for 90 minute face-to-face sessions with his students.

Mike didn't jump from traditional teaching to this strategy in one huge leap.

Some years ago, he taped some lectures on background material so that students could study and review them as often as they liked.  A few years after that, he tried GW LectureCapture - a system for automatically recording all class sessions and making recordings available only to students in that class. He'd worried that students wouldn't come to class if recordings were available but (as with every other faculty member I've found who's used a system like this), his worries were unfounded.  Attendance was unaffected.

Recently, he realized it would be better for him to spend some time in New Mexico and got permission from Mike Brown, his Dean, to teach a hybrid course - a mix of online and face-to-face instruction.

Early on he decided to use YouTube so that anyone could see his lectures.  He then took a look at examples of classes on YouTube. Some had pretty poor audio or picture quality; he knew he wanted to do better.

To create the lectures with HD quality, he pointed the camera of an iPad at a whiteboard.  He was no longer limited to the normal time constraints of a campus class. So he created about 75 small lectures, averaging 15 minutes in length. Some was material that would normally have been given in class but he also added additional material.  This was the big investment.  "I hope I can do this again because creating those videos took maybe 400 hours of work," he commented: if he teaches the course again, he can reuse some or all of those videos. He likes this approach to creating chunks of video because he can edit them if he likes. That removes the pressure to do each one perfectly the first time.

Even though the material is abstruse, the videos are popular. His videos had already been viewed over 65,000 times and over 60% of those views were requested from outside the United States.

Mike also created some interactive homework online, using Blackboard: multiple choice questions that provide hints to students if their initial answer is incorrect. There are also four online quizzes each semester: multiple choice and only a small fraction of the class grade.

For his live online office with Blackboard Collaborate, Mike uses a tablet so that he can draw. Those sessions are recorded so students can take part live and/or review them later.

Monthly Mike comes to GW for live, 90-minute sessions with students, a mix of lecture and discussion  The midterm and final are administered during these sessions as well. After the midterm he polled students and about 2/3 responded. "They love it, the structure, the delivery.  The most telling set of comments is that they loved being able to listen to the lecture whenever they want, pause, replay to get the details."  One student could take the course despite the fact that he had to spend a month in Malawi during the semester.  I interviewed Mike before the final was administered but he was already pleased with the quality of the students' work. I've heard since that his end-of-course student feedback scores were among the best he's ever received.  

I take particular note on that last point.  Student feedback is not proof of superior learning. But, if the learning itself could be assessed, it would not be surprising to find that this design could be both more accessible to both faculty and students (they don't need to all be in the same place, and there's less need to coordinate schedules) and also produce superior learning outcomes.  There's a long history in education of using technology in ways that can produce gains in quality and access simultaneously, going back to printed books as a way of both increasing an author's audience and enable readers to study the author's words more closely than would be possible in an auditorium.

if you'd like to learn more, Mike's email is 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

An Incremental Approach to Improving Learning Outcomes (Better than "Flipping")

Arguably the most important facing higher education is that, for a variety of reasons, the ways students aren't mastering higher order skills (ability to use knowledge to analyze, create, innovate, act wisely and ethically, etc.) nearly as much as needed nor as much as they once did.  Arum and Roksa's Academically Adrift is one persuasive source of empirical evidence on that point.  Just one of many important reasons for declining student achievement: full-time students are investing only about half the time in academic work than they did thirty years ago.

Against this backdrop comes a rush of discussion and confusion about 'flipping courses,' a notion that is sometimes justified as a strategy for improving higher order learning.  I think the term 'flipping' is being used to point to some good changes but, as a label, it's more misleading than helpful.

For example, a recipe for improving learning needs to include more than one way to assure that students learn from their assignments, including doing the kind of work, and enough work, to reorganize their minds.

I recently gave a featured address at the International Conference on College Teaching and Learning on this set of questions, entitled "Bit by Bit: An Incremental Approach to Improving Learning."

Briefly, many elements are needed for a successful, sustainable approach to teaching what is actually college-level learning, including:

  1. Reconsidering the course (and academic program) in light of what graduates need to be able to do with the content they've learned, in later courses and after graduation ("backward design");
  2. Stealing the students' beer time - assignments and other academic work that are so engaging that students will choose to spend more time studying (this is necessary but not sufficient for students to study more);
  3. Leveraging face-to-face opportunities for what can be done best face-to-face;
  4. At least four kinds of feedback (what Schön and Argyris called 'learning loops'), including:
    • Feedback that keeps students going (farther and deeper), helping them see progress, helping them get unstuck;
    • Feedback from that student work going to faculty, to help plan the next class session;
    • Feedback to faculty that helps them tweak the design of the course;
    • Feedback to faculty that helps all this work seem more rewarding, encouraging those faculty to keep on improving their courses.
I called the talk 'Bit by Bit' because these kinds of improvements don't all need to be done simultaneously or only in this order.  In fact there are even smaller chunks of improvement that can be tried (and supported by the institution), one at a time.

The long term goal, however, is cumulative, major changes in how we teach, how students invest in their own learning, and what our graduates are able to do.

I've recorded a version of the address on YouTube, in two installments. The whole talk is about 50 minutes long: