Widgets Magazine


Rethinking the Stanford classroom

It’s 7:30 a.m. A loud screeching sound pierces your eardrums. You get up, slam your alarm clock into submission and decide to back to sleep “for five more minutes” before getting ready for your 9 a.m. class.

Now it’s magically 9:05 and you race out of bed, you furiously pedal through a blur of palm trees and red roofs. You arrive at class and slither through a mass of bodies to the one empty seat – invariably in the middle of a long row. Meanwhile, the professor is in the midst of a wonderful performance on center stage, albeit one at warp speed. You manage to scribble a few notes here and there, but you leave without any real idea of what’s going on. Then – when that problem set or paper rolls out – you find yourself scrambling to grapple with the material because those lectures don’t really provide a way to engage with the subject on a personal level.

But wait. There is an answer to this vicious educational cycle, you say? Something so utterly revolutionary and profound that it makes the poor little printing press look like an overrated method of spilling ink: the flipped classroom.

In all seriousness, the flipped classroom model does address many of the complaints over the structure of university learning that I mentioned above; students watch lectures online at a time and place of their convenience (which I would venture to guess is not 9 a.m. at a lecture hall) under the auspices of the holy pause button. With the ability to go back and re-watch sections, no lecture is too fast. Class time is then spent working through problems or discussing ideas in small groups to clarify doubts and reinforce the insights that are necessary to tackle the class assignments.

In fact, this model sounds absolutely perfect. It is undoubtedly the ideal cure to all of our learning maladies, the technological messiah that has finally descended from the heaven to save students’ grades. The flipped classroom has arrived to change education forever, and we are the fortunate – perhaps even unworthy – beneficiaries.

But, in the immortal words of Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend.”

The flipped classroom model certainly presents some tremendously useful elements, but is it really an educational panacea? Should we feel obligated to use this technology just because it exists?

I think these are vital questions to answer for the future of higher education and especially at Stanford, where cutting-edge technology and a receptiveness to experimentation nicely go hand-in-hand. Ultimately, I think flipped classrooms make a lot of sense in very specific contexts, but they remain very much a work in progress. We should really strive to create a balance between the beneficial features of a traditional lecture and technology when it too can be beneficial. At this point – at a time when the very standard of education delivery is in flux, challenged if not overwhelmed by MOOCs and services like Khan Academy – we should be willing to mix and match ideas instead of blindly clinging to one side in the debate.

The most immediate arguments against flipped classrooms tend to make a distinction between learning and an overall educational experience, suggesting that traditional lectures provide a valuable opportunity to engage with a professor and share ideas.

While some argue that the “class time” component of the flipped classroom – in which students work in small groups or engage in other interactive activities – captures this personal aspect of a college education, the evidence from actual Stanford courses suggests courses are not implementing this feature effectively. CS 147: Introduction to Human Computer Interaction has experimented with flipped classrooms in past years to mixed reviews and doubts over how the course was implemented. MS&E 111: Introduction to Optimization received course ratings on Axess well below the department average. In particular, students were dissatisfied with the course’s lack of personal attention.

And that – I think – sums up the main shortcoming of today’s flipped classrooms: how they are put into practice. While the basic idea of watching lecture videos at home and experiencing more personalized learning in class makes sense, it rarely seems to translate into a seamless system in reality. I think that stems from an overzealousness to rush into a flipped classroom model. Stanford Medical School, for example, has fully embraced the idea of delivering information through lecture videos, but the transition can be difficult at the start. For starters, creating lecture videos (if none exist already) can be a taxing process for faculty members. Furthermore, it can be difficult to design a beneficial in-class experience on the first try.

In the end, I think flipped classrooms will become more of the norm, because the benefit of watching lecture videos on a flexible schedule will be too much to pass up. For now, though, I think we should tread slowly and avoid operating under the mentality that instructors should use technology just because it exists. For now, perhaps courses can try adding lecture videos in advance and experimenting with a more interactive classroom.

While many critics have noted that this mixing and matching of the two learning models creates many of the problems we see today, I think that if we take it slow enough, the change will be unnoticeable. Flipped classrooms show a tremendous amount of promise because they have the ability to turn a large lecture into something resembling a small, interactive seminar, but the key is in the implementation.

Until then, though, I see absolutely no harm in going to bed a little earlier for that 9 a.m. class and trying to get the most out of that lecture. After all, it’s worked for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Vihan Lakshman wants you to listen to him recite his column to you in person. Convince him that there are better uses of his time at vihan “at” stanford.edu.

About Vihan Lakshman

Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at' stanford.edu