Reclaiming the Classroom: Flipped Learning at Simmons

Every day at Simmons, students and faculty are working together to shape the future of learning. That might sound like a bold statement, but it’s absolutely true. New methods for sharing information are being developed, tested, and refined every time many of you enter the classroom.

This fall, we’ll be kicking off a pilot test of a new content capture platform called Tegrity. Content capture is a catchall term for using technology to record and share information among faculty and students. You can find out more about the pilot in this article from the April edition of TechNews. Today, we’re going to focus on ways in which our faculty are already generating and sharing content and using technology to reclaim class time for more than just lecturing.

For many years, college faculty have sought out ways to improve upon the traditional model for disseminating information. A 1993 article by Alison King put forth a theory behind the shift that is now taking place. She envisioned a metamorphosis of faculty from being a “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side,” meaning someone who is there to provide expertise as needed during problem solving and high-level discussions rather than someone who speaks to a mostly passive audience.

Recently, the technology to truly make this possible has become widely available. With the advent of high-speed internet and affordable recording equipment, along with the proliferation of websites where we can share video, the idea of “flipped learning” came into being. Flipped learning refers to recording lectures and providing that content to students so they can view it when it’s most convenient, thereby saving time in the physical classroom for group work and one-to-one tutoring.

In June, an article in the New York Times provided a great overview of flipped learning and gave some examples of how faculty are using content capture to share their lectures and how they’re using in-class time with students. Here at Simmons, we have quite a few faculty members who are taking a similar approach in their courses. One of them is Professor Richard Gurney, Chemistry & Physics Department Chair. We spoke with Professor Gurney to find out more about how he’s flipping his classroom and what that means to his students.

In the 2011-2012 academic year, Professor Gurney took a new approach to teaching both CHEM 114 and CHEM 225 (Organic Chemistry I & II, respectively) and has seen overwhelmingly positive results.

“We enable students to explore our courses and laboratories in such a way to feed their passions so that they can test out the careers and work they would be engaged in before they graduate,” he said. This approach in the laboratories relies heavily on mentoring students individually and working with them to explore options. Professor Gurney sought to translate this method of instruction to the lecture portion of classes and, potentially, eliminate the need for a traditional lecture that would take up most or all of the allotted class time.

In Fall 2011, he began transitioning his CHEM 225 lectures by having students spend in-class time solving problems and embedding homework directly into lecture notes. Student evaluations at the end of the semester indicated that these steps had made a rigorous and demanding course more manageable. This positive feedback helped Professor Gurney take the next step.

In Spring 2012, Professor Gurney completely flipped the lectures in CHEM 114. All lectures were recorded and posted online and students were responsible for viewing the lectures and working through basic problems before coming to class. In-class time was used for higher level problem solving in small groups. He found that using his time with students to work through problems and answer questions rather than lecturing to be “overwhelmingly successful.” He also noted that student feedback revealed that students preferred the online lectures by a margin of more than 3 to 1.

Professor Gurney is not alone among his colleagues and he indicated that other members of his department had preceded him in putting some of these methods to use in their courses. We spoke to Professor Michael Berger, who has been blending flipped teaching methods into his courses for several years. Using screen capture software, Professor Berger has recorded lectures, homework problem sets, and even additional lecture material that didn’t fit into the time allotted for a standard class period. With assistance from production specialist Jamie Traynor, Professor Berger also set up document cameras to record problem sets as he worked through them so students could replay step-by-step solutions in preparation for classes and exams. When we spoke to Professor Berger, he stressed the importance of reaching different types of learners and using technology that suits the students and their needs rather than simply employing it because it is available or trendy.

Professor Berger talked about the qualitative gains that technology and non-traditional lecture formats can provide. The success of these techniques cannot always be measured by test scores but is often reflected in student engagement and participation. Recording lectures and problem sets allowed Professor Berger to, “slow down in the delivery of content and engage students more,” he said. Additionally, he found that students used class time as a launching pad for discussions and presentations that would have been out of the question in a more traditional format.

Other Chemistry & Physics department faculty, including Professor Michael Jordan and Professor Nancy Lee, are also on board with flipping the classroom. Professor Jordan started providing video lectures last year for his PHYS 112 (Fundamentals of Physics) course and intends to continue moving more lecture content online so he can spend in-class time working with students on the most difficult material. He thinks that “the best possible learning experience is when the teacher and a small number of students sit down together in the same room” and that the availability of content capture technology can help professors better manage schedules and get back to the most basic and important tenets of learning.

These are just a few examples of how Simmons professors are changing the way we think about how students learn and how to make the most of their time in class. We know that there are other professors out there engaged in flipping the classroom and we are working to provide additional tools and support for these efforts.

Throughout the Fall 2012 semester, faculty members will be testing a content capture system called Tegrity. With their feedback, we hope to decide if this platform is appropriate and to then make it available to all faculty starting in Spring 2013. As always, we will continue to provide updates on what promises to be an exciting development for our students and faculty.