Flipping the classroom

The success of an innovative class that makes use of the online educational technology, Coursera, is strengthening support for the increased use of technology in classes across the board. We will discuss the reasons for its success and its implications for the future of online education in normal Duke classes.

Biology professor Mohamed Noor taught his course, Genetics and Evolution, to approximately 30,000 students worldwide last semester through Coursera. This semester, he has started teaching the same material to a class of 450 Duke students as he has done in previous semesters, but with one important difference. His Duke class now utilizes online learning, too. Before coming to class, students are required to watch a pre-recorded lecture on Coursera, complete a quiz and make a note online of concepts that need further clarification. This way, Noor can tailor any teaching towards student needs before the class morphs into an advanced discussion session.

Noor reports that this semester’s class has obtained exceptionally high mid-term grades in comparison to previous semesters. This gives support to increased use of technology in other classes. It should be noted that what has been quipped the flipped-classroom approach is not as radical as it might seem. Subjects like English and history have always required students to learn the material before going to class for deeper analysis and discussion in a way that has not been possible for more conceptual subjects previously.

Professors always ought to be looking for the most efficient way to spend precious class time. It is hardly surprising that Noor’s class has achieved such success because its methodology supports the natural learning process. Attending a lecture given to a large class is an almost completely passive process, and it is difficult to suggest why watching lectures from the comfort of one’s dorm room might have significant differences. The deeper elucidation of difficult concepts and the application of ideas to problems are much more reliant on interactions with teacher’s assistants and professors. It makes sense that the more active learning is prioritized for inside the classroom.

The flipped-classroom model does bring about challenges for professors. If lectures are always online and no new material is taught in class, students may decide going to class is unnecessary. This attitude is dangerous—not because of such a decision in itself—but because of what it implies about the perceived value of class time which is theoretically enhanced. A quick fix would be to move the online quiz to the start of class. However, it would still be unsatisfactory if students were only attending class for this purely extrinsic reason. Noor also notes the risk of an increased workload due to video lectures. Professors who are considering mimicking Noor’s strategy must ensure they are not simply cramming all essential learning into students’ work schedules outside the classroom.

The Editorial Board has previously been positive about websites such as Coursera but has purported that there are benefits of a traditional, face-to-face education that an online education cannot match. We reaffirm this stance but as the line between the learning styles is blurred in cases like this, professors must preserve class as an invaluable and principal part of a student’s educational experience.