Flip Flop: The Realities of Blended Teaching

It was the most fun I’ve ever had in a classroom. With a colleague, I created an experimental course using technology and experiential learning techniques, at the forefront of a new field. The class sessions were dynamic, with the students frequently generating insights that surprised and delighted me. I felt great about the experience.

Then I got the course evaluations.

The scores were some of the lowest I’d received. Even worse, there wasn’t anything negative in the comments to explain them. It was a huge wet blanket.

Undeterred, I pushed forward with pedagogical experimentation. I’m convinced that in order to best serve our students, teaching methods in higher education need to adapt to our fast-changing connected digital world. So I flipped my course. Students watched video lecture segments from my Massive Open Online Course at home for the basic content delivery, opening up classroom time for interactive exercises, group work, and application of concepts. I tried gamified grading, personalized learning, and a variety of formats or technologies to teach and integrate concepts. I poured my heart into the course for four years.

The evaluations never improved. Students kept signing up for the course in droves. They seemed engaged in the classroom. They performed reasonably well on the assignments. The ones I met for lunch or in office hours told me the course was a breath of fresh air. Nonetheless, there was a yawning gap between what I thought I was seeing and hearing, on the one hand, and what the students expressed when it mattered.

My confidence was shaken. I kept trying new ways to fix the course. The feedback was muddled, contradictory, or simply non-existent. Unlike a typical class, where workload spikes with a “new prep” and then drops off, mine stayed high every semester. It wore me down. Worst of all, I found myself increasingly uncertain whether the students were learning, or how I’d even answer that question. I finally had to close down the course.

I’ve now spoken with enough professors who’ve tried flipped and blended learning to know that my experience isn’t unique. The drop in course evaluations appears to be the norm rather than the exception. Failures are widespread. They just aren’t widely discussed.

If I had a few dollars for every article denouncing “tradition-bound” faculty who cling to the old-fashioned lecture format, I could probably quit my job as a professor. There’s “disruption” coming to higher education, it seems, with the proliferation of online learning, economic pressures facing universities, and a changing environment for our graduates. Faculty are usually cast as the villains in this story. Or at least, the speed bumps for the steamroller of technological change.

I wanted to be part of the solution, rather than the problem. I’m a business-school professor with a research focus on the internet. As someone who studies emerging technologies, I’ve long been interested in how the forces changing business will transform education. I feel a strong responsibility to give my students the best possible learning experiences. So I jumped in early to create what became one of the most popular and highest-rated MOOCs. A big motivation was the opportunity to leverage the open online course to enhance my on-campus teaching. That experience has been terribly frustrating.

I recognize that I’m incredibly fortunate. I have the job security, resources, limited teaching load, and talented students that go along with tenure at an Ivy League school. My university was a leader in exploring the possibilities of MOOCs, so they’ve been quite supportive of my experimentation. Most faculty face challenges that I don’t. No one forced me to go down this path, but I feel an obligation in my privilege. If professors like me don’t explore new ways to teach through technology, how can we expect anyone else to?

In my experience, the hard challenge isn’t convincing more professors to embrace online learning. As with any other population considering new technologies or approaches, there are tails of early adopters on one end, and those resistant to change on the other. Most are in the middle, willing to move when everyone else does and the path is well-defined.

Therein lies the problem. Until the first wave of innovators succeeds, and does so in measurable ways that the majority finds credible, the online revolution won’t significantly change existing institutions.

If you’re good at explaining things to an audience, you’ll be a good at lecturing and good at MOOC instruction. And if you’re not, you can learn; it’s largely a set of performance skills. To be great requires more, of course, but we’re not talking about that. Every effective conference presentation isn’t a TED Talk with millions of views. I put my MOOC together without any camera operators, production staff, or designers: Just me, Powerpoint, and a webcam. Turns out that while production values are quite important in a movie theatre, what matters more in online teaching is authenticity. A modicum of evidence that the professor cares, and isn’t just reading a script, goes a long way.

Expectations are different in the classroom. Good “tradition-bound” teaching is an art form, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In the classroom, we don’t get to teach just the students who want to be there, when they want to be there, with full knowledge of why they want to be there. And the Millennials staring back at us are as resistant to unfamiliar experiences as every other generation. New forms of pedagogy destabilize expectations. That’s ultimately a good thing, but it’s uncomfortable in the moment. I suspect that’s a big part of the poor course evaluations I received. My students got to where they are by mastering the traditional system. They yearn to climb out of the box. Yet they feel uneasy on unfamiliar terrain.

The kind of teaching I aspire to is interactive and interconnective, which means it’s emergent and unpredictable. Once students become co-creators, and learning replaces allocation of grades as the ultimate objective, the degree of difficulty ratchets up. And it’s difficult to find guideposts. The volume of software tools, information sources, and research findings in learning science and psychology that one might incorporate is overwhelming. Just the practicalities of keeping straight all the deadlines and crossovers between videos, online discussions, written materials, and class sessions taxed my abilities. Students expect an integrated experience. When you flip the class, you’re constantly mapping a living course imperfectly against static videos. It’s certainly possible to orchestrate several dozen real 21st-century students into a symphony of learning. But it’s damn hard.

It’s also extremely context-dependent. What I realized in a faculty seminar for flipped learning instructors is that the method works more naturally in technical classes. There, you’re literally doing the homework (problem sets with deterministic answers) in the classroom, and the former classroom activity (one-way lectures built around slides or writing on the board) via asynchronous video at home. My “traditional” classes look completely different, on both ends. As a result, my flip was a tangled twist, always on the verge of a belly flop.

One thing I came to realize is the importance of assessment, both of students and faculty. Professors today create mechanisms to output a certain grade distribution, in a manner students accept as fair. What if we actually want to measure learning… or even enhance it? There are fields with standard concept inventories and other generally-accepted criteria for effective courses. (One of them is physics, where Eric Mazur developed his influential Peer Instruction method.) For everyone else, the learning objectives we put on our syllabi are arbitrary targets. Books on teaching advocate “backward design” to distill course content from goals, but how do we bootstrap the goals? And how do we ensure the goals are appropriately rigorous and measurable?

The same uncertainty applies to assessment of teaching. I’ve had many conversations with great teachers and experts on teaching. I’ve never heard a satisfactory definition of success that I can apply.

Strangely, my teaching that most people think was the most challenging, the MOOC, was actually the easiest. A MOOC is a nearly can’t-fail proposition for an instructor. It requires effort, but virtually all at the front end, with compounding returns over time. You take pride in doing something innovative and important; students tell you how wonderful it is (the others drop out or never sign up); and there’s a plethora of big numbers — registrations, videos watched, successful test completions — to feel great about.

In the classroom, it’s harder to maintain the fiction. Most faculty build personal narratives, which are entirely subjective: Unless you think you’re doing well, you’re not. And student evaluations are, shall we say, highly imperfect. Research shows they’re biased in all sorts of perverse ways. (Women are systematically disadvantaged, for example.) And at best they measure student satisfaction rather than learning. The ones in use at most universities confound the problems by ignoring basic principles of survey design. Yet evaluations — frequently reduced to a single number — are often the sole measure of teaching quality in higher education. The alternatives cost more, especially in faculty time. Universities need to become learning organizations themselves when it comes to pedagogy, but that requires investment.

I went down this path voluntarily, facing no serious risks beyond unhappiness. I know my students will be fine. Despite the evaluations, I believe in my heart that I’ve taught them things they’ll find useful in their lives. And ultimately, despite my frustration, I can’t see going backward. If we as faculty have our eyes open, we know that our content is a commodity at best, not just on fancy MOOCs but on Wikipedia and CourseHero. If our students are getting anything for their tuition, it must be above and beyond what they can find online for free. We can’t just pretend nothing has changed.

If we’re serious about adapting higher education to 21st century realities and potentialities, we need to recognize that instruction is just one part of teaching, and teaching is just one part of learning. Good instructors still need help to be good teachers. That doesn’t just mean software. It means teams with complementary skills. And it means institutions structured to motivate those teams toward success. That’s not to say there won’t be lone geniuses, just that physics and pop music wouldn’t get very far waiting for the next Albert Einstein or Prince. If every student deserves a great education, every professor deserves a great support structure for teaching. That exists in some places, but not nearly enough. If universities invest in MOOCs without investing in teaching, or worse, do so as a substitute for investment in teaching, they are making a grave mistake.

Until I started teaching online, I’d never heard of instructional designers. Turns out there’s a whole community of practitioners who are knowledgeable about both technology and pedagogy, and trained in working with faculty to create high-quality learning experiences. Yet they predominantly focus on online education. Classroom teachers could use them even more.

When I develop a MOOC, I’m now expected to work not only with instructional designers, but with production staff, technical experts, and a student support team. When I teach a class, I’m expected to do everything on my own. That’s not true everywhere, of course, even within my school. And teaching as a team sport can have downsides: There are benefits in giving faculty freedom teach in ways that work for them. (As I said earlier, I’m glad I created my MOOC on my own.) It’s a question of norms and defaults. There is still too much focus on how instructors should embrace technology and flip the classroom, and not enough on changing the learning enterprise in higher education.

MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito is spot on when he says, “Education is something that is done to you. Learning is something you do for yourself.” The point I want to make is that teaching can go in either category. If teaching puts the learner in a passive position, it’s bad pedagogy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s delivered in a lecture hall, on a smartphone, or through VR goggles. Keanu Reeves in The Matrix downloading whatever skills he needs, without actually learning them, flows from the same vision as the tweed-clad “sage on the stage” pouring knowledge into students’ heads. Real learning requires agency, on both sides.

The potential of technology in education is the same as in every other field: to make connections, and to radically change scale dynamics. There’s really no difference between using Facebook and writing a letter, or between Google and a trip to the library… except that one is infinitely bigger and faster and cheaper and more flexible. That’s why it’s so easy to dismiss a car as just a speedier horse. The important insight is what happens when differences of degree become differences of kind. We’re going through such a shift in higher education today.

Change is hard. Sometimes it’s impossible. The physicist Max Planck wryly observed that, “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.” I’d like to think the new educational truths I’m talking about fall in a different category, but the reality is that I’m not sure. Much of the tension we’re experiencing today is actually about economic and political forces pressing on higher education, rather than learning. Yet I continue to believe there is a need and an opportunity to innovate, which we ignore at our peril. If that’s so, we ought to start focusing harder on the implementation.

I’m writing this essay partly because we need more failure narratives about teaching. There’s only so much you can learn from reading about how someone succeeded brilliantly. In fact, it’s often remarked that a major strength of America’s Silicon Valley culture is the embrace of failure, which encourages risk-taking and growth through experience. We professors don’t want to fail in ways that harm our students, but I’m not sure complacency and risk aversion do them any favors.

I’m still too close to know whether the last four years were a dead end or a useful learning experience on the road to something better. Some mediocre course evaluations aren’t necessarily even a failure, if they weren’t reflective of the quality of learning. I know myself well enough to recognize this won’t be my last foray into online learning. And for better or worse, one iron truth of being a professor is the following: There’s always a next semester.

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