Flipped classroom movement gains steam

An increasing number of professors, tired of giving the same lectures year after year, have decided to abandon the traditional classroom model in favor of a new, “flipped classroom” approach.

(NATALIE CHENG/The Stanford Daily)

Rather than presenting the core curriculum in lecture, professors of flipped classes record short videos of themselves, often embedded with diagnostic quizzes, which allow students to learn the basic material outside of class time. Professors are then free to fill class time with a variety of activities, ranging from collaborative group work to guest speakers from industry.

Computer Science Department Chair Jennifer Widom, whose Introduction to Databases course was one of the original three flipped classes in the fall of 2011, said the change provided her a welcome opportunity to change her teaching style.

“I had been teaching the class, I don’t know, 15 times or something, and I thought it would be fun to try something different,” she said. “I was convinced that standing in front of the class and giving the same lectures for the 16th time wasn’t that interesting to me, and so I wanted to try something new.”

Though only three flipped classes were offered when Widom helped pioneer the new model, its popularity has since grown exponentially. According to Jane Manning, the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning’s manager of online course production and platforms, the Office received 40 applications for grants to support flipped classes, 17 of which were funded in part or in full.

Manning said that as interest has increased, she has seen a parallel rise in enthusiasm among the faculty.

“Because of this new phenomenon there’s been a resurgence in excitement about teaching,” she said. “There’s something different we can do with it, and people are excited about that…and that seems pretty cool.”

The new system is not just meant to benefit professors. According to Widom, students’ experiences have improved with the flipped model as well.

“[The flipped class] is definitely a preferable way to teach it, and everybody agrees,” she said. “Last year I had 140 students…and I think I had two students who expressed that they would have preferred the old way.”

But according to associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering Philip Levis, who started teaching Introduction to Computer Networking as a flipped class this fall, not every large lecture would be better served by switching to the new system.

“For this particular class, and for my particular style, I feel like the flipped classroom is a better model,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s always a better model. There are some people who are really engaging and fantastic lecturers…folks like [computer science professor] Mehran Sahami. It would be really terrible if he were not giving his lectures.”

Sahami teaches the popular introductory computer science class CS106A.

Though most flipped classes are only in their first year, many professors have had their lectures filmed and posted online for years by the Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD), which allows non-Stanford students to access and learn from Stanford lecturers.

The unintended side effect of SCPD posting classes online, however, is that once a lecture goes online, attendance from Stanford students drops drastically.

“It is very common, if your lecture is recorded by SCPD, to have your class attendance to go down to 20 or 30 percent,” Widom said. “Pretty much everybody experiences that whose lectures are recorded.”

Levis agreed, and said that the low attendance in SCPD classes was “one of the things that prompted people to start exploring” flipped classrooms, which require attendance in class for discussion and questions.

“If 80 percent are watching the videos [instead of attending lecture], maybe we can make better videos than somebody talking in front of a class for 75 minutes,” he said. “That’s what sort of prompted this whole shift.”

The videos that flipped classroom students are required to watch are typically much shorter than a lecture – ranging from about three to 25 minutes – since the professor doesn’t have to stop for questions and knows that students can rewind and review the material.

Engineering professor Bruce Clemons said that these videos allow students of different knowledge and ability to access the same material.

“[Students] can look at [the videos] while watching reruns of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ if they know this stuff already, or watch them and rewind them many times over,” he said at the Oct. 25 meeting of the Faculty Senate.

But Jose Pons Vega ’14, a student in Levis’ computer networking course, said that there are drawbacks to learning the material through videos.

“It’s very convenient that you can go back and look at what you just saw and look at the material again, but also it’s troublesome because [videos] don’t have any feedback,” he said. “Sometimes they may go over a certain portion of the material that’s pretty difficult, and [the video] may spend a couple seconds on it. It’s hard to tell them to elaborate more when you’re not there…raising your hand and asking questions.”

The flipped classes are not designed only for Stanford students. Videos for flipped classes are sometimes made to be massive open online courses posted to platforms Coursera or Class2Go, allowing students worldwide to take the class. Widom’s databases course, for example, was hugely popular on Coursera: More than 25,000 students submitted work for the class and 6,000 did enough to receive “statements of accomplishment.”

Students and teachers agree that the flipped classroom environment has changed classroom dynamics for the better.

Levis, who has been able to use class time to host weekly guest lecturers thanks to time freed up by flipping his class, has brought in experts like Amin Vahdat, the man responsible for building Google’s network infrastructure, and Vint Cerf, referred to as the “grandfather of the Internet.”

“[Having speakers] is very interesting, because the material gets directly applied to a real world problem, which is something everybody enjoys,” Vega said. “Nobody likes doing work that’s just school work.”

According to Clemons, the flipped classroom has allowed him not just to improve the quality of his class, but also to connect more personally with his students.

“I think I’m getting to know the students better than if I stand up there and lecture and say, ‘Are there any questions?…Anybody, anybody? Bueller?’” he said.

About Danny Gifford