The Flipped Classroom Revisited: Reflections on a transformation from skepticism to advocacy

Published on November 2, 2021

Adam Chapnick

About seven years ago, I wrote an article about the “flipped classroom” for the Canadian Military Journal. At the time, the idea of transforming large university courses by pre-recording lectures for students to watch in advance and using the newly available class time for more interactive discussions was relatively new. As an instructor of professional military education with a serious interest in pedagogy, I was curious about whether “flipping my classroom” would be a helpful approach to promote learning among my students.

Since so much of the traditional history curriculum is delivered via lectures, and since I am trained as an historian, I hope that my experience resonates.

In the article, I concluded that “even if we do experiment with flipped classes, we cannot lose sight of the fact that real learning requires sustained hard work – by both instructors and students – and no teaching innovation will ever change that basic idea.”[1] To me, then, the benefits of the flipped classroom seemed to come more from the behavioural changes inspired by the flipping process than they did from the actual flipping.

It appeared to me that any instructors who revised their lectures for recording purposes had to think deeply about the learning outcomes they were trying to achieve and thus created more effective lectures. They would also be inclined to consult with learning technology specialists, whose expertise further enhanced the lecture experience. So the flipping was a trigger for better best practices, but not the cause of them.

Similarly, students who watched pre-recorded lectures came to class well-prepared to contribute to a meaningful discussion. But the same could be said about students who complete assigned readings in advance. So again, it seemed to me that it was student effort that caused the positive outcome, not the flip per se.

Finally, class discussions among these energized lecturers and engaged students seemed to be more dynamic. Once more, however, I saw correlation more than causation. Take any professor who has had an epiphany about their teaching, add students who have been exposed to content they consider “interesting,” and one should find an improved learning experience. How that content is initially delivered shouldn’t matter.

As someone who has been supplementing their academic income as a public speaker for the last twenty years, I saw no reason to flip my own classes. My students were engaged, their feedback and coursework indicated that they were learning, and I quite enjoyed the spontaneity and dynamism of the live lecture experience. I saw the flipped classroom as a tool to support instructors who found lecturing difficult, or who simply needed a change.

I suspect that more recent research that confirms the potential for flipped classrooms to improve student outcomes would not have changed my mind.[2] If it ain’t broken, I would have said, don’t fix it.

Then the pandemic hit.

Two years later, I have become one of the staunchest advocates of flipped classrooms that you will ever find. Indeed, given the choice, even though I stand by much of my earlier analysis, I don’t think that I will ever offer a traditional lecture course again.

It turns out, at least to me, that the real value of flipping has much less to do with the overall learning experience as measured in traditional terms. Rather, it has everything to do with accessibility.

In 2019, while the Canadian Armed Forces was grappling with an ongoing cultural and identity crisis, I was struggling to reconcile my position as a faculty member at an officially bilingual institution (admittedly hired into an English-only position) with my inability to teach in French.

The old adage – students who arrived at the College were expected to be bilingual; as a result, so long as the course content was delivered in either of the official languages, no one had any business complaining – no longer resonated.

It had become clear to me that the francophone officers had to work harder in my classes to achieve similar learning outcomes.

When the Canadian Forces College transformed its curriculum to enable online delivery, I was left in charge of a team-taught, two-credit course that had to be delivered to a professional audience dispersed across Canada. When the College declared that all synchronous learning had to take place during a daily five-hour window to accommodate Canada’s many time zones, my military co-designer and I concluded that the best way to maximize the synchronous learning time was to pre-record all of the lectures and use the synchronous blocks for live question and answer periods (with the lecturers) as well as live seminar discussions. Our learning management platform enabled students to post questions to the lecturer in advance, but we also offered the opportunity to ask them spontaneously. As an added bonus, drawing on the College’s bilingual mandate, we were able to have the pre-recorded lectures translated.

The combination of pre-recording and translation was transformational. (For readers who work in a more unilingual environment, I expect that captioning lectures has a similar effect.) Some of the francophones (and some of the international exchange officers who spoke French) watched the lectures in French. Others watched in English, but took advantage of the opportunity to stop and start the recording, and to return to ideas that were not clear the first time. The opportunity to post questions in advance allowed some of the most thoughtful students (anglophone and francophone) to think through their ideas and take the time to ensure that their question was phrased appropriately. The extra time was particularly helpful if they were thinking in French, or in another language (one quarter of our typical cohort is made up of non-Canadian officers).

In theoretical terms, flipping the classroom enabled me to reduce the cognitive load my English-language teaching imposed on a significant number of my students. Doing so afforded them additional bandwidth to do the deep thinking necessary to learn.

So while I still do enjoy lecturing to a live audience, since teaching should not be about me, I will be flipping my classes whenever I can. If you haven’t tried it yet, I hope you will, too.

2 November author
Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. Follow him on Twitter @achapnick
.

[1] Adam Chapnick, “The Flipped Classroom and Professional Military Education: A Preliminary Assessment of the Possibilities,” Canadian Military Journal 14, 4 (2014), 72.
[2] Carrie A. Bredow, Patricia V. Roehling, Alexandra J. Knorp, Andrea M. Sweet, “To Flip or Not to Flip? A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Flipped Learning in Higher Education,” Review of Educational Research (online first), 1-41, https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543211019122.

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