I am someone who is getting sick of technological advancements, especially because it seems to me that many new innovations are presented as if they are completely superior to older models. I remember watching an Apple commercial and getting angry: It started by showing the utility and ubiquity of a pencil, only to have a disembodied hand pick up an iPad Air hidden behind it.
There is an easy way to judge whether or not an innovation on an older model should be accepted. Every innovation adds certain qualities while it diminishes other dimensions of what it is trying to change. In order to decide which advancements to accept and reject, we have to pay attention to what is lost and what is gained.
My instinct to distrust new technologies led to my initial disapproval of the University’s plans to expand digital education at Brown. The implementation of the flipped classroom model — in which a professor films lectures for students to watch before class and students spend class time working on assignments — is one of the major components of this initiative. This new model of learning, which Provost Vicki Colvin told The Herald would be geared specifically toward introductory science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses, is part of President Christina Paxson’s P’19 plan to propel the University into the digital era.
The flipped classroom seems like a major innovation on the classic model of the large lecture class. And, despite my initial reluctance, I now believe that this will be a great improvement on the older classroom style.
Let’s look at Facebook Messenger, a technological innovation that damaged the older model it tried to improve. Messenger eliminates important tools of communication, such as hand gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Though these qualities are lost in letter-writing and email, Facebook Messenger does not seek to replace those two methods; it wishes to be an innovation on face-to-face interactions. This is clear from its use of timestamps, which adds a sense of urgency to respond to the messages that is not unlike the pressure to respond immediately when bumping into someone on the street.
Therefore, I am left trying to make sure that my tone is appropriately conveyed through my word choice, that the emoticons come somewhat close to what my face would actually look like, and that what I am trying to say comes across. And though my concerns over writing a Facebook message are no different from what I would worry about when writing an email, at least with email there is a reasonable expectation for people to take a few days to get back to each other. By removing what is vital to in-person communication, Facebook Messenger fails to improve on what it seeks to replace.
Now let’s turn back to the flipped classroom and apply the same test to it. Are the features that are lost from the classic lecture model when the flipped classroom is adopted essential to the older experience? Are the added qualities more valuable than what is lost?
The flipped classroom loses the intimacy and power of a live lecture by having students watch videos online. In a live lecture, professors have more control over students’ attention; they can gauge the energy in the room and adjust their delivery accordingly. Therefore, students might find it a bit harder to pay attention to a video than to a live person. Also, students would not be able to ask questions directly during the lecture, having to instead write their questions down and bring them to class after watching the video. These losses, however, are not detrimental to the classroom experience.
Though the videos might not be as engaging as live lectures, students are used to watching videos on their laptops all the time and should still be able to pay attention. Additionally, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I feel a bit nervous about asking questions during class and therefore don’t mind waiting until times outside of lecture to talk to my professors. I remember one of my high school teachers saying that when teachers teach, it is almost as though they were putting on a performance. Therefore, even if my lecturer is warm, inviting, and welcomes questions, I often find myself not wanting to interrupt the presentation that the lecturer puts on.
The video lectures and the inability to ask questions during lecture are troubles that can be overcome. These concerns also do not outweigh what the flipped classroom provides: ample opportunities for face-to-face communication between students and their professors. By moving the lecture — in which the professor has to be somewhat removed from the students in order to present all of the necessary information — online, the flipped classroom makes the professor more available to interact with individual students.
This interaction can be more specific, more impactful and more helpful to every student than any general lecture for the whole class would be. Furthermore, the flipped classroom increases instructors’ availability. It allows students to work on assignments while the professor and teaching assistants are present in the same room, ready to help them. This means that students will be able to grasp the course material more easily and do better on their assignments, for the professor and TAs can immediately fill in any gaps in understanding. I’m sure we would all much rather keep up with the pace of the course than fall behind; I remember my late-night study sessions for classes I fell behind in last semester as nothing but miserable.
It’s a myth that technological innovations always make older methods and systems better. We have to test every change by measuring what is gained against what is lost. Fortunately, the flipped classroom clearly passes this test, for it ultimately seeks to increase direct, in-person communication between professors and their students, which is the most effective, impactful and beneficial kind of contact. When Provost Colvin gets input from faculty members in March about the benefits and drawbacks of a flipped classroom, I hope that professors at least try to use this new model and see if it works for them.
Ameer Malik ’18 believes email is a valuable technological innovation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.