Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

"Flipped Classrooms" versus "Blended Courses" versus "Hybrid Courses"

Many faculty and staff take“flipping the classroom” to mean that they should make recordings of  lectures, assign them as homework, and use the vacated lecture time to more interactive work in the classroom.  

Will that work? What if students aren't investing enough time in homework now? Will it help or hurt to add video lectures to that load?  And if students continue to come to class unprepared, won't the instructor feel compelled to drop the interactive work in class and lecture instead? The more things change, the more they may stay the same.

Improving learning outcomes requires more than swapping the same activities into different contexts.

And using the term "classroom" as a synonym for "course" tends to divert attention from what goes on outside the classroom. That's not good. Think of typical classroom lectures as exercise videos. How strong do people become from watching exercise videos? Their new strength comes from the practice they do after watching the video: the homework.

"Flipped classroom" has displaced an earlier, more suggestive term: "hybrid courses."  By hybrid, I mean a course whose design gets its educational power by making the most of what's possible in and out of classrooms. Drawing on those two sources, hybrids can be different and more effective than either of those sources.

[It's true that many hybrids also adjust the amount of time students spend in and out of classrooms as part of their design. But in my view a well-implemented hybrid gets the most value from its way of multiplying what can be done in and outside classrooms.]
For this blog post, let's just focus on interpersonal interaction in hybrid courses.  Many research-based practices for effective education rely on heavy doses of interpersonal interaction, far more interaction than in most lecture-based courses.  When designing a hybrid course, what kinds of interpersonal interaction are best done online? face-to-face?,

Interaction better done face-to-face

  • The virtually instantaneous judgment needed for some kinds of coaching (think of using prepared learning assistants to help facilitate student discussion and collaboration in the classroom);
  • The quick back-and-forth that can resolve some misunderstandings (think of using clickers to support peer instruction);
  • The sharing of emotional responses that can help further motivate students and introduce them to different ways of perceiving and valuing. ("The equation of simple harmonic motion" is an earlier blog post on that potential.)
  • (add your own suggestions)

Interaction better done online:

  • More thoughtfully paced interaction that’s important for novices just learning to think and communicate in the terms of the field they’re studying (see Smith citation below);
  • More options for students to study and discuss different things, according to their interests  (ditto about Smith)
  • Greater ease of communication, especially for students who’d rather not interrupt, students (and instructors) whose native language is not English
  • More visual forms of peer-to-peer communication (e.g., students using video clips to help explain a point)
  • (add your own suggestions)
For online discussion to work well, instructors had better coach the students in how to make constructive contributions. Then instructors ought to use simple rubrics to give students simple feedback (and fractional points toward their grades) – this week have you shown evidence understanding the contributions of others? Are your contributions helping to move the discussion and the work forward? When I taught an online course a couple years ago, I was staggered by how the intelligence of student contributions improved when I took those two steps.

Here's an research report from Karen Smith  on the importance of asynchronous discussion to learning a new language. The language is Spanish. However, if you think about it, deep learning of any content involves entering a new community and mastering at least the rudiments of a new language. The study of literature, of social work, and of mathematics all have their own ways of thinking and communicating.   The sample size in Smith's study is small (different sections of one class at one university) but the findings ring true to me.

  • Smith, Karen L. (1990)  Collaborative and Interactive Writing for Increasing Communication Skills, Hispania, LXXIII:1, pp. 77-87.

To sum up: let's take a fresh look at how the best use of out-of-classroom work can enrich learning done within classrooms, and vice versa. And let's call the results "hybrid courses."

PS. No, I haven't forgotten "blended courses." For me, the word "blended" suggests that faculty mix some face-to-face with some online, shake the result, and serve. Yug.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Barrier assumptions

While working on my book on academic transformation, I've been looking back over a 40-year career engaged with innovation.  The news isn't all bad.  Islands of improvement have multiplied and some have grown to be quite large, even though great swaths of academic practice remain unchanged.

For the book, I've been noting assumptions that hold many of us back, especially when these assumptions reinforce barrier practices. Here are a few of the most important of these barrier assumptions:

1. Relying mainly on experts explaining things to students (for example, lectures, demonstrations, textbooks) works well enough.  Learning can't be improved by altering teaching. Students learn more or less because of their talents and problems.  Attempts to increase grades are almost always illusory and result in watering down the curriculum.
  • Counter-assumption: the vast weight of evidence supports the finding that  relying primarily on explaining things is not very effective, not an equal playing field for students, and not a very good use of anyone's time.  Changes in teaching can result in improvements in learning.
2. Faculty jobs are about working alone, especially where teaching is concerned. Reward systems reinforce working alone, with each instructor working alone to teach a course or section, having his or her own advisees, etc.
  •  Counter-assumption: Learning that results in lasting changes in student capabilities, perspectives and direction emerges from a constellation of experiences in many courses and experiences. In order to intentionally improve those graduation, faculty need to invest significant time and effort in working together, as a regular part of their responsibilities as teachers.
 3.  Any inquiry into how time, money and facilities are used by students, faculty and programs is a disguised and illegitimate ploy by the administration to restrict academic freedom and to fire people.
  • Counter-assumption: To improve learning requires rethinking the organization of academic work in smaller or larger ways (rather than adding new practices and expenses alongside the status quo).  This rethinking involves how people spend time and how the institution allocates resources.  Assuming that the starting point is that people can keep spending time and money as they have guarantees that the status quo remains the norm. (See myth #1)
4. Innovations are a completely new beginning (and a leap into the dark), especially technology-based innovations.  For example, research on libraries has no bearing on using the Web as a library.  Research done on the instructional software of the 1980s can't possibly suggest any useful insights in dealing with this year's adaptive tutoring systems. 
  • Counter-assumption: the most important determinants of student learning are what students do. Technologies - whether they are textbooks, computer software, classrooms, or learning management systems - exist to make it easier for students (and instructors) to do certain things.  Lecturing, textbooks, and streaming videos from the Khan Academy all offer students explanations of content. Therefore their potential and their limitations are likely to be similar.

In your experience, what barrier myths hinder our efforts to keep improving access, quality and affordability? 

Friday, April 15, 2016

What is "academic transformation?" (no, really...)

I need your help.

Like some others, I define "academic transformation" as making  gains in selected facets of access, quality and affordability in higher education.
  • Access: How many people can learn? what kinds of people can learn?
  • Quality: What are the outcomes? how effective are the practices aimed at fostering that learning?
  • Affordability: Is a particular type of stakeholder willing and able to invest a particular resource over the long term?  Stakeholders include students, faculty, units such as academic departments and teaching centers, institutions, and benefactors.  Relevant resources include time, money, and facilities.
These three goals have been called an "iron triangle" because of the widespread perception that to make progress in one or two of these goals, one must make sacrifices in another.  For example, if budgets remain constant (affordability), people may assume that all efforts to extend access pose a threat to quality and all efforts to improve quality must be limited to a subset of students, unfairly penalizing other current or potential students.

In practice that triangle can be stretched.  For example, the shift from hand-copied manuscripts to printed books in higher learning enabled gains in certain aspects of all three goals.  More recently the growth of the Internet offers a wider range of more affordable resources to a larger number of learners.  Flipped courses offer potential gains in all three spheres.

A lot of people are talking about this kind of threefold transformation.  I am beginning to study:
  • Who's trying to do it? 
  • How? 
  • How's it going?  
  • Are there lessons to be learned from their experiences about how to conceptualize and implement academic transformation?  
I'm looking for real-world cases of attempted academic transformation.  Can you suggest any efforts that I should study?
  • Perhaps people at an institution are trying to transform a crucial teaching/learning activity such as coaching,  assessment of higher order learning, or capstone courses. 
  • You might know of an effort to energize students, get them to take personal responsibility for assessing their own learning, or to become more resilient so that they can get more value from their academic programs;
  • Perhaps a college or degree program has taken on a form that makes it more effective in all three areas than many of its competitors.  
  • You might recall a particular course with an unusual design that happens to have strengths in all three of these areas. 
  • The work that occurs to you might focus mostly one of the three goals but potentially have benefits in the other two as well.  For example efforts to make education more affordable might potentially have implications for both access and quality.
  • Maybe you know of an effort to make gains on a scale beyond that of single institutions - a new policy, or consortium, or mediating institution helping sustain relationships between distant learners and distant institutions.
  • You might be aware of an effort to help programs judge how well they're doing in one, two or all three of these goal areas.
Whatever the particulars, I'm looking for cases where people are:
  • Making a serious effort to be strong in some aspects of each of these three goal area;
  • Paying attention to what's actually happening in each area, so that the goal doesn't devolve into a marketing tagline ("We're a quality program!!!!"
Notice I'm not insisting on success.  We can learn at least as much from efforts that flopped or withered.  You don't need to have any connection to the instance you're suggesting.  Just point me in the right direction and I'll take it from there.

Please email your suggestions to ehrmannsteve at