Last spring I moved from being a consultant and part-time instructor to a full-time employee and part-time instructor and realized I really need to stay in the consulting and teaching arena. It’s what keeps me passionate, happy, actively connected and learning.  I made that change in August and feel great about it.

However, over a year ago I set up an automated job search using a meta-search job agent called Indeed. It delivers results to my email each evening. Sometimes I look at them, sometimes I don’t.  You might ask yourself why on earth I’d bother looking at these job postings when I’m not looking for a job.  Well, because I consider it part of my active learning experience about higher education. I like to see what other types of jobs other colleges, universities, and states are hiring for. This provides a good indication about how other academic organizations are solving problems.  Last night I saw a posting that turned a light on for me. 

Improving educational problems with emerging technologies

I teach online for a community college in California and I am thirsty to understand how to improve some of the big challenges the California community college system faces.  For one, how can we, as the largest system of higher education in the nation — comprised of 112 colleges serving more than 2.5 million students and more than 50,000 faculty (most of whom are part-time) — fully harness the potential that today’s emerging technologies offer?  With about 25% of the state’s headcount coming from online classes, the topic of teaching with technology is a provocative one and so are the topics of student success, retention, and access given the state’s financial challenges. 

These are all factors that played into Governor Brown’s recent support for MOOCs and the  controversial bill that would grant students credit at California’s public institutions of higher ed for completing MOOCs (something that I wrote about here last spring).  All in all, I have been pretty silent about MOOCs through the whirlwind popularity they have experienced in the recent years. Mostly because they have done little to excite me, as a community college educator (read the word educator as “teacher”).  I’ve observed little about a MOOC that can support the diverse needs of community college learners and they undercut the importance and value that student-teacher relationships play in the community college learning experience.

Mt. San Jacinto College, one of California’s community colleges and the college where I teach part-time, developed a MOOC titled Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade this year. It was funded by the Gates Foundation and it was designed to support the writing skills of students as they prepare for college level writing courses.  That’s a unique and fresh approach to MOOCs at the 2-year level, as it is clearly a self-directed journey through which a student travels on his or her own to success.

But yesterday, I read about Bill Gates’ message to more than 2,000 community college leaders at the Association of Community College Trustees’ meeting.  He spoke about the benefits that flipped MOOCs could bring to community college students, serving to improve learning and increase access (as there is the possibility of employing this approach to slightly decrease the time spent in class and open more “seat time” for more students).  Ah…now we’re getting somewhere.  Despite the intense disdain you’ll read in the comments of the Chronicle article about Gates’ idea, I think there’s merit to this approach.

In 2009, before the word “flipped” was ever used, I followed that nagging “itch” one gets when you know there’s something about your class that needs to be changed, that just is not right, that is not reflecting your authentic teaching self.  I think we all get that itch but some of us can ignore it more than others.  Mine keeps me up at night when it gets really bad.

Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation
It was painful to make the change; I fought it for well over a year.  It’s really difficult to put into words how much college professors — even those who relish risk taking, like myself — resist the notion of letting go of “the lecture.” And encouraging professors to let go of lecturing will be the issue at the the heart of the controversy of embracing the flipped classroom in higher ed.  It will be disguised as many other issues — but, really, if we look inside ourselves, this will be what’s driving the controversy.  I believe we need to address these concerns and talk about them, as ignoring them only makes them worse.  I was scared to death.  I have never felt more vulnerable in my classroom than when I announced to my students I would “not be lecturing…(gulp).”  But as Brene Brown has discovered in her insightful research, vulnerability is at the heart of innovation.  Seems to me we should all be following this itch, not pushing it away if we are truly committed to making changes in teaching and learning.

Despite my deep-rooted insecurities, I decided to give it a try. In the spring of 2009 I finally chose to eliminate all the lectures from my face-to-face History of Women in Art class and had my students listen to (or read them — they had a choice) before coming to class.  They also had to participate in pre-class formative assessments that I designed in VoiceThread.  There’s much more to this model and I’ve presented on it many times and have produced an entire online ePortfolio about it, and it’s detailed in the Introduction of my book, Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies

The flipped model is good teaching

For those of you unfamiliar with the flipped model, it’s fairly simple. It is based on the concept of making the time that students spend in class with their instructors more active and less passive. Active learning has been at the core of effective learning research for decades. This is key. The flipped classroom fundamentally embraces many of the tenets of good, effective teaching.  Classroom time is spent applying, analyzing, critiquing — moving up the pyramid of higher order thinking skills.  The lower order thinking skills are fostered outside of class by building a foundation of background knowledge through listening to the lectures and completing a brief online assessment prior to coming to class. The assessment is really key, as it serves to ensure students completed the lectures and also gives the instructor a picture of the class’s overall knowledge of key topics and concepts prior to the start of a class.  In the end, class time is spent digging into the topics that are not understood, while those that have been more fully mastered can be filtered out — this makes all the difference.  Why teach the same thing to everyone everytime?

Uses technology to support needs of diverse learners

The flipped classroom also puts technology to good use by having students view brief videos, curated around key topics, prior to coming to class.  The format of video is important, as it provides students with the ability to pause, rewind, and replay — features live lectures do not offer. These features are like built-in accommodations for students with learning disabilities like dyslexia, which are more common in student populations at public 2-year institutions. 

I would advocate for these videos to come along with a text transcript, as well.  When I provided my students with the option to view a visual enhanced podcast or read a transcript, my evaluation of the students’ learning at the end of the semester revealed that 40% chose to read the lecture, 15% listened to the lecture, 30% did both, and 15% toggled between reading and listening throughout the semester. What amazed me here is that 30% of the students chose to listen and read at the same time (view video of student data results overview here).  I noticed some of my students doing this before class and when I asked them why, they shared that it really helped them to remember the content when they could hear my voice and highlight the text or make notes in the margins simultaneously.

As I reflect back on it, the results of this experiment were dazzling.  Not only did I feel more engaged with my class and passionate about my teaching than I had in many years but my students reported significant gains in deep learning and the multiple methods of representing the content (reading or listening to lectures and students completed formative assessments about the lecture content prior to class in VoiceThreads that were visual and supported voice commenting) helped students to meet the learning objectives more effectively. You can listen to a 20-minute audio interview with me and three of my students here.

Moving from experimentation to focused pilots

But little traction has been made to systemically research the effects of flipped classrooms at the community college level in California and, admittedly, expecting community college faculty to develop their own online lectures would be rough.  Few community colleges I know of are equipped with the instructional design staff needed to support faculty through this time of endeavor.  And there are benefits to curating a collection of existing videos from different subject matter experts for students to view.

What does this discussion about my flipped classroom experiment back in 2009 have to do with looking for a job?

Well, yesterday in my Indeed job search results I saw a posting for a position at Maryland University College’s new Center for Innovation in Learning for an Online Learning Innovation Scientist. Key responsibilities include:

  • Take responsibility for conceptualizing, proposing, and directing innovation pilots and/or assisting in collaborative multi-unit pilots. 
  • For each pilot assist with a research and evaluation framework tied to adult learning and use scientific principles to support  (a) learning innovation, (b) technology tools to improve the efficiency or quality the learning experience; (c) evidence based non cognitive improvements for the comprehensive learning experience.
  • Document and disseminate the results of research and/or development projects through publication and presentation.  Publication includes peer-review journals, peer-review conference proceedings, patents, books and book chapters, and other print media. Presentation may be at international, national, or regional conferences, and internal audiences.
  • Create a culture of understanding learning science throughout the pilots and those collaborating units.

As I reflect on these two methods of improving education through the use of emerging technologies (the example shared from Maryland and MOOC bill in California), there’s a big difference between creating a center for learning innovations and staffing it with high quality researchers and educators who are dedicated and trained to examine and study the effects of emerging technologies on learning, while collaborating with regional/statewide constituents to collect, evaluate, share, and reflect on metrics than having politicians react to a national trend, create a bill at the state level, and expect institutions of higher education to follow suit.

Thanks for reading. What are your thoughts about flipped MOOCs for community college students?

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