April 24, 2013

Cornell Professors Try Out ‘Flipped Classrooms’

Print More

As higher education increasingly uses technology to aid teaching and learning, Cornell has recently embraced a technology-facilitated educational model that allows more class time to be spent on engaging learning activities, such as interactive polls, in place of a typical lecture.

Known as “flipped classroom” or “inverted teaching,” the method entails providing course content, usually given to students during lecture, before they enter the physical classroom, according to Robert Vanderlan ’88, instructional specialist for Cornell’s Center for Teaching Excellence.

“Then, when students are in class, [professors] have created a lot of time that can be used for more active learning,” Vanderlan said.

Vanderlan said that although technology is not essential when inverting a classroom, faculty can invert a classroom more easily by utilizing technology.

“You used to have to go to a college classroom or library to get exposed to the content of college classrooms. With technology, you don’t necessarily have to do that anymore,” he said. “There is a ton of content on the Internet … Technology makes the delivery of content to students before they get to class a lot easier.”

According to Clare van den Blink, director of academic technologies for IT@Cornell, the University is currently introducing and integrating new technologies into the classroom by piloting new tools to facilitate flipped classroom learning.

“The idea is to take the idea of iClicker [remote-controlled] polling and expand it a lot more by having students bring in laptops or portable devices and using that as a basis for group work by looking things up on the internet as a resource,” van den Blink said. “Then, technology can take a larger role where you are having group collaboration sessions, sharing documents [or] answering deep questions and problems.”

Prof. George Hudler, plant pathology and plant-microbe biology, said when he flips his own courses, he tries to engage students instead of just lecturing at them.

“The technology [of flipping the classroom] is what I can do at my desk with my computer. … I have to kind of outline the material that I want the students to prepare when coming to class. For me, that is the extent of the technology right now,” Hudler said. “I have to admit that my own efforts to flip the classroom are in their infancy, and in a year or two from now, I can have a much different [approach].”

According to Vanderlan, some professors have argued that faculty should provide content to students beforehand in order to teach face-to-face in the classroom –– relying on technology solely outside of the classroom. However, other professors have taken an entirely different approach by bringing technology to the forefront of the classroom.

“[Professors] can use Skype to bring people outside of the physical course into the classroom,” Vanderlan said.

For example, the four professors of COMM 1840: “Six Pretty Good Books” have leveraged Skype to allow students to meet with the authors of the books.

Vanderlan also said University faculty have pointed out inconsistencies in classroom technology throughout campus.

“Different classrooms in different buildings have different technologies, so it can be difficult for professors to plan ahead when they do not know what technology they are going to be dealing with,” he said.

However, if professors are interested in experimenting with flipping their courses, the current state of Cornell’s classroom technology accommodations should not deter or play a role when professors consider adopting a flipped classroom model, according to Vanderlan.

Hudler echoed Vanderlan, saying that, overall, University faculty are not particularly satisfied with the state of technology that is available in classrooms. Faculty feel they need improvements in technology to enable a more rapid exchange of information from teacher to student.

Still, Hudler said, “I don’t think the situation [of not having up-to-date, uniform technology in classrooms] … is as dire as people seem to suggest.”

“I know I have been to other college campuses, where I have seen faculty walking across the campus carrying a projection screen for crying out loud. So I think, for me, what we have available now [at Cornell] is pretty good, but there is certainly room for improvement,” he added.

Moving forward, the limitations of the physical classroom may pose challenges to professors wanting to flip larger lectures, according to the Vanderlan.

“Traditional classrooms, with bolted down, stadium-style seats make group problem solving or group activities difficult to orchestrate,” he said. “Some universities are building new classroom spaces  –– with multiple oval tables, lots of whiteboards and electronic displays –– to address this problem.  Adapting your flipped class to the space available is an important part of making it work.”

According to Hudler, ultimately, integration of technology is just one element that contributes to an effective classroom learning experience.

“Academic success still falls into the lap of the instructor and the student,” he said. “I don’t care how fancy the technology gets; at the end of the day, there still has to be that personal conveyance about the excitement of discovery, which I am not so sure that technology is going to solve in a complete way.”

Original Author: Jonathan Swartz