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Blended Learning

Flipping the Traditional Lecture Hall

Columbia University is experimenting with the flipped classroom model in large lecture courses.

There's no question that the flipped classroom model has become all the rage at colleges and universities across the country. In fact, in the most recent Horizon Report, the New Media Consortium (NMC) called the flipped classroom one of the most important emerging trends in educational technology for higher education, noting, "The model is becoming increasingly popular in higher education institutions because of how it rearranges face-to-face instruction for professors and students, creating a more efficient and enriching use of class time."

Yet with all the flipped classroom's potential for active, collaborative learning and increased interaction between professors and students, there's still one bastion of higher education that has resisted the trend: the large lecture course.

Flipping the Lecture Hall

With the large lecture format, said NMC Senior Communications Director Samantha Becker, "it's really hard to personalize the material so that a student can feel like they have ownership over their own learning process." And, she added, "It's hard to speak up. There's always the fear of being ostracized by other students or feeling like asking stupid questions."

Maurice Matiz, executive director of Columbia University's (NY) Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, agreed: "Sitting in one of these 180-student classrooms is a very passive situation," he said. "We've found that students aren't really learning very much."

Matiz and his colleagues are out to change that — by finding ways to adopt the flipped classroom model to traditional large lecture courses.

The Big Flip

They started last year with Associate Professsor Brent Stockwell's biochemistry class of 180 students. Stockwell was discouraged by the number of students who were not completing the required reading assignments before coming to class and, thus, were unprepared to get the most out of his lectures.

So, in the fall 2013 semester, he began creating weekly slide presentations using PowerPoint and the screen-recording application ScreenFlow. He would upload the videos to YouTube, then embed them into the syllabus section of the online learning management system and invite students to watch. Stockwell also placed a link to a short quiz underneath the video player on the syllabus page. Since the quiz results counted toward students' grades, he was assured that most students would watch the video and come to the following day's class prepared.

"[The quiz] is something we learned to do with our MOOCs, and then applied to what we do on campus," said Matiz, who helped Stockwell organize the flipped class.

The flipped format allowed Stockwell to delve deeper and in new directions with the live content he presented in class. He also incorporated a polling service called Socrative that students could access on their mobile devices. Students could respond to questions anonymously in real time, giving him a sense of whether they understood the concepts presented to them, allowing him to revisit a difficult topic or move on to other material.

Then he divided the class of 180 into groups of five and, for part of each class, he would give them problems to work on together, such as how a specific fatty acid should be labeled or how to predict the mechanism of an action of a drug based on the results of an experiment.

The group work led to livelier discussions and forced students to synthesize and apply information from the textbook, videos and classroom discussion.

"What I particularly appreciated about Professor Stockwell is the way he wove all the different components together," NMC's Becker said. "He countered the size of the class by grouping people together and allowing for anonymous polling through the response feature."

Deciding to try an even larger class, Matiz moved on to Professor Rachel Gordon's Body, Health and Disease class of 250 in Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons. Gordon also used short video lectures students could view before class, reserving class time for discussions of case studies with an audience response system. She would poll students after covering a concept and, if less than 50 percent of students chose correct answers, she would ask them to break into small groups to discuss their choices.

Typically, she said, the peer discussions would lead to increases in accuracy when students were polled a second time.

"On many levels it was more satisfying than lecturing, where you don't really know if the students are 'getting it,'" Gordon said. "I hope that more teachers will take the plunge. It's worth it."


One challenge that Matiz and Stockwell encountered with applying the flipped classroom model to large courses: the physical limitations of spaces that are not inherently designed for small group work.

"This is an old university," Matiz said, "over 250 years old. A lot of the classrooms are traditional classrooms. Many of them even still have desks that are bolted to the floor."

Nevertheless, Stockwell made it work. "If you're willing to deal with those issues, you can still do it," Matiz said.

Fortunately for Gordon, the Columbia medical school has a relatively new campus and entire sets of classrooms that were built with collaboration in mind.

Stockwell also noted that the biggest challenge he had in the first year was running out of difficult, thought-provoking problems and case studies to give his students when they broke up into small groups. To resolve that challenge in this, his second year of using the flipped classroom model with the biochemistry course, he has called on other biochemistry professors in the New York area to build a repository of problem sets that can be shared.

Despite the difficulties, Matiz said, the command of material by students during and at the end of the course was so obvious to Stockwell and Gordon that he is convinced of the benefits of the flipped classroom in college and university courses.

"There are so many advantages," Matiz said. "The course really becomes just for the student."

NMC's Becker agreed, adding, "The flipped classroom is less of a technology and more of a digital strategy that's enabled by technology. It's really a pedagogical movement that's incorporating a lot of 21st-century learning techniques."

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