Flipped learning – or the flipped classroom – is one of the hot topics in education at the moment. It’s a core part of the ‘EdTech agenda’ and often espoused as one of the things that will fix a broken education system. So, what exactly is the flipped classroom and what could it mean for ELT? How well would the concept even work for language teaching?

What is flipped learning?

Flipped learning reverses the ‘standard’ model of teaching by delivering instruction to students at home through self-study materials and moving the ‘homework’ element to the classroom. The idea is that class time is therefore focussed on the elements of learning that benefit the most from the support and input of the teacher and fellow students. Straightforward knowledge transmission can be covered just as well (probably better, in fact) through online self-study, with students able to work at their own pace until they’ve got the basics covered. So, it’s basically a form of blended learning, but a bit more prescriptive in terms of what should best be done at home and what should best be done in class.

How is it done?

In the US education system (where the flipped classroom seems to be gaining most traction), this usually means making video lectures available online, with students then doing practice activities and problem solving tasks in class. Now, if that suggests that the standard ‘unflipped’ classroom means a teacher giving a lecture to a group of passive students, then clearly there’s a problem there that the flipped model might help to alleviate.

Why do it?

Well, it certainly sounds logical and attractive, doesn’t it? According the Techsmith, the key benefits are:

  • Students get more 1:1 time with their teacher
  • It builds stronger student/teacher relationships
  • It allows teachers to share information with other faculty, substitute teachers, students, parents, and the community easily (assuming they’re posting video lectures online)
  • It allows students to work more at their pace and catch up on missed lessons
  • It creates a collaborative learning environment in the classroom, since more time is spent engaging deeply with the concepts being learned, rather than sitting listening to the teacher

According to Knewton, student engagement with concepts taught in schools generally is poor, while 30% of internet users have used online educational videos, such as those provided by the Khan Academy – and these two facts suggest that the flipped classroom is a way of improving education. Knewton say that some of the benefits of the flipped model are:

  • Students get instant feedback on practice activities
  • If they get stuck with their ‘homework’ they have a teacher (and other students) on hand to get them through the brick wall
  • Students can build a list of questions as they watch the online video and bring them in to class for the teacher to go through with them

There is some evidence out there (including in the Knewton article) that moving to a flipped model can result in more engaged, better behaved students and improved learning outcomes. As the flipped model matures and continues to grow in popularity, I expect we’ll see more examples and get a better sense of how effective it is and how best to apply it.

Any disadvantages?

Well, it all sounds great, but there must some problems, surely? The obvious issue is that it relies 100% on all students being able to access the online content. And if that content is primarily video-based, then they’ll need reasonable bandwidth. The other obvious problem is the need to create all that self-study online content. Even if it’s simple video clips, that’s an extra stage in the process of setting up a course. There are blended learning options available from publishers which could be used in a flipped class course, but none of them were really designed specifically for it, so there will always be compromises, and deciding which elements to do in class and which your students should do at home isn’t necessarily all that straightforward. Then, there might be a risk of students feeling they’re not getting full value if the ‘main’ content is delivered online rather than by the teacher. And finally, how ready are the students to take responsibility for their own learning? If they don’t bother to do the online learning, then your lesson is stuffed. In the unflipped model, if the students don’t do their homework, you can still plough on through the syllabus (as if that was a good thing…).

Does ELT need flipping?

If you’re reading this, then I suspect you’ve never taught English by giving lectures to your students every lesson and then asking them to do sets of practice activities as homework. So, I don’t think flipped learning as it’s usually defined is really an inversion of the communicative model in English language teaching. But surely the basic principle is as valid for language learning as it is for anything else? If so, then it ought to be possible for it to improve language teaching and learning, even if it might be a more subtle change than it would be for a maths course in a US university, for example.

What to do at home

A series of short video clips isn’t going to cut it for providing the ‘input’ stage of the flipped model that students should be doing at home. Maybe it would work for maths, but for language learning it’s just way too passive. So you’d need video plus a variety of interactive activities for concept checking, and perhaps some receptive practice activities. It would also seem logical to spend this time on vocab learning, listening, reading – all of those could be done perfectly well online. And, according to the flipped model, if that’s the case then wouldn’t it be a bit of a waste to spend precious classroom time on any of this?

What to do in class

Well, the obvious answer to this for language learning is that classroom time should be focussed on everything that would benefit most from the fact that there’s a room full of students and a teacher. So that means communicative activities, pair and group work, and possibly dealing with particularly thorny language issues where input from a teacher can be more efficient than self-study. That might not be particularly different from what many ELT teachers already do.

Perhaps there’s a risk that it might be difficult to make it work with less experienced or motivated teachers, or those not used to the communicative approach. If you’re focussing classroom time on more communicative activities and dealing with difficult questions, that presumably puts greater demands on the teacher when planning and managing the lesson. But then, these are probably the teachers whose lessons would benefit most from the flipped model.

Where next?

Given the strength of the trend towards the flipped classroom in education generally, I would expect it to become more common in ELT, in partnership with the increasing popularity of blended learning. Really, flipped learning should be seen as an improved version of blended learning. If this is the trend, then we should expect to see off-the-shelf ELT products specifically designed to facilitate flipped classroom courses.

If you’ve tried the flipped model (or even an approximation of it) in ELT, then how’s it worked out? What worked well and what didn’t? Which elements were most suitable for students to do at home? Does the whole concept even make sense in an ELT context? It’ll be interesting to see how this evolves, and I’m sure we’ll be talking more about the subject, since this post is just a case of dipping our toes in the water.

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/roland/

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