Brian White is a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Wooclap had the pleasure of interviewing him regarding his experience with Blended Learning, and flipped classrooms in particular.
The flipped classroom, one of Blended Learning’s best known concepts, is an instructional strategy that reverses the traditional learning process. While theoretical content is delivered out of the classroom, through online platforms for example, practical applications, which were previously part of homework, are dealt with during classes.
As many educators are now changing the way they teach, Wooclap was interested in the reason why Prof. White chose to do so.
Brian White, PhD Associate Professor of Biology — Science Education
How do you use flipped classrooms, and why did you distance yourself from the traditional way of teaching?
I have used MOOCs and the concept of flipped classrooms with a large biology class since 2013. I have now implemented flipped classrooms for courses like Introduction to Biology because these contain roughly 600 students, making them quite large.
I changed the way I teach for a couple of reasons, the first of which is the lack of questions students used to ask in class. I would ask them if they had any questions at the end of every class, but they rarely had any. I realised that was mainly because my students had no idea what kind of questions to ask or what they were expected to know at the time.
The second incentive came while I was trying to solve my first problem. I started asking my students more questions regarding the new material, and by doing so, I received more questions in return and participation in my classes improved. This allowed me to know when I could move onto the next chapter. I progressively increased the number of questions in class, and this soon became a vital part of any course.
Since my time to both teach new material and share additional information was limited, however, I decided to teach the theoretical foundation of classes using MOOCs, so that I could further increase class participation. Sharing basic information online gave me the time to ask and answer questions in the classroom, as well as address students’ issues on an individual level.
What are the challenges teachers are facing today?
The issues we are faced with today are not new, I believe. As a teacher, you want your students to be able to use what they have learned. In high school, for example, classes are based on memorisation, and that knowledge is to be used to solve problems in practice. Ironically, students solving problems creates problems for their teachers, because correcting all of these assignments requires an enormous amount of time. At MIT, my classes involved weekly problems in addition to homework, which my professors had to review while also preparing our daily classes. Of course, they had assistants to help them with such work, but not every university has those resources at its disposal.
The question I pondered, “How can students apply what they have learned, while optimising our time and resources?”, led me to the flipped classroom.
I used to discuss theoretical content during my lectures, and my assistant would handle the labs, which were content-based practice sessions, mostly dealing with practical cases and problem-solving. I decided to move the content of my lectures online and focus on the labs during my time with my students, so that they could practice alongside an expert, rather than an assistant. I considered that to be a better use of their time and mine, because it enables them to view videos of the material at home and ask questions regarding practical exercises in class.
Do your colleagues also use Flipped classroom?
That is an interesting question, because, strangely, flipped classrooms are rare and blended learning seems a bit odd to many of my colleagues. There are exceptions of course. Literature classes, for example, have always used flipped classrooms, because students have to read the books at home and make all the practical exercises in class. So, this movement is not necessarily a revolution, but for some reason, it is not something my colleagues are interested in. One of them tried it at some point, but she ended up going back to a traditional approach.
Have you had discussions with colleagues about the need to innovate the way classes are taught?
My colleagues are dissatisfied with the old teaching methods and the amount of interaction they have with their students, but even though they show interest in leaving those outdated methods behind, they are afraid to do so. The switch to blended learning puts them off.
Why? Several reasons were given:
- Placing their courses’ entire content online is an extensive task,
- Creating videos of their lectures is no simple task either, and they are not comfortable with changing their work habits,
- It requires education on their part as well, learning how to work with Blackboard etc.,
- They are afraid of this “revolution”,
- Is it really worth it ?
Does this new teaching method offer positive feedback from your students?
Students love it, though I haven’t really analysed the data enough to measure the improvement. The year I implemented flipped classrooms, I gave students the same exams as the year preceding it and obtained similar results, but I have a strong feeling that those who succeeded were even more engaged than before.
At first, I thought a video was a poor substitute for my classroom lectures, but I was wrong. Online videos allow students to learn at their own pace; they can pause and replay it, meaning they are not pressured by the pace at which certain classmates learn. Thanks to their homework, they have access to instantaneous feedback, which is a great measure of their progress, and which constitutes a real benefit they truly enjoy.