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The flipped classroom is flipping education on its head

By Evan Wade / February 14, 2014

The flipped classroom is flipping education on its head

The term “flipped classroom” may sound like a buzzword, and the basic concept behind it may call to mind the so-called “self-paced” classes many of us encountered during our college years, but the mLearning (mobile learning) trend has been gaining serious traction in respectable circles for quite some time. High school, college and even trade schools have made great use of the flipped philosophy, and as you may have guessed, mobile is leading the charge.

How does the flipped classroom work?

The premise is simple: students learn about topics through online videos and other more interactive activities, and teachers — once the focal point of any classroom — take a “guide on the side” role, answering questions and shaping content for their students. There’s some wiggle room in the definition of a flipped course. Some can look a lot like their traditional counterpart, while others take place almost entirely online, but mobile devices will play a huge part in making them the standard in the very near future.

A true flipped classroom, according to this handy infographic from the folks at Knewton, “inverts traditional teaching methods” by way of digital technology, allowing students to review class content at a time and place that works best for them. The emphasis here is definitely on “digital technology.” Without smartphones and tablets — and, to a lesser degree, desktops and laptops — not to mention the new technologies and types of media that sprung up to accommodate them over the years, flipped classrooms would look nothing like they do today.

However, the inversion doesn’t stop at how the content is delivered. In a flipped classroom, homework becomes coursework, effectively turning the physical classroom into a place where students demonstrate their knowledge under a professor’s watchful eye. Teachers can also use the time to address questions, discuss supplementary materials and perform other functions they don’t have time to do in traditional lecture format. For example, a class on M/W/F could use in-class time for “homework,” saving actual lecture/learning content for students to watch outside the classroom at their leisure.

Flipped classrooms often get confused with previously covered topics like Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), but there are some serious differences. Like MOOCs, a flipped classroom can largely remove the issues presented by real-world classrooms (scheduling, attendance, etc.). Unlike MOOCs, however, flipped classrooms offer a degree of interactivity most massive online courses lack. In a standard MOOC, a student might only speak to his or her professor via text or video-chat software, while a flipped course is designed to offer multiple opportunities for real-life interaction between teacher and pupil.

Mobile’s role in inverting education

It’s easy to see how mobile devices can further revolutionize the changes education is undergoing. Flipped classroom philosophy gives serious weight to the student’s learning environment — namely, allowing students to participate and learn where they feel most comfortable doing so. Mobile devices are designed for personal media consumption whenever and wherever the user decides to consume it. Combining the two allows teachers to create content that students can view anywhere, from their homes to public transit to the break room at their places of work. That, in turn, allows students to learn pretty much anything from chemistry to basket weaving without the problems presented by a standard attendance model.

Then there’s the software. Smartphone and tablet apps already come designed for the flipped classroom concept. Apple’s iBooks platform, which recently saw a release in 51 countries and accounts for 94% of the tablet education market, is a perfect example. iBook textbooks are often fully interactive, with video and other content built right into the page. If you’re old enough to remember the days of teachers pulling TVs into the classroom on little carts, you can undoubtedly see the value of having responsive, interactive content students can view anywhere — even when all the TVs have been checked out of the AV room.

Apps like Educreation take things a step further. The software lets educators create true multimedia lectures (video clips, voice recordings, pictures, etc.) on a really cool digital whiteboard that comes with the app. Everything is then packaged into a single short lecture piece any student with a mobile device or computer can view. The app also embraces social media, with built-in Twitter and Facebook connectivity. A truly “connected” teacher could create a Facebook group for each of their classes, then upload content directly related to each course through the app itself.

Other apps have similar functions and purposes, and more will undoubtedly come as the flipped classroom concept takes hold across educational institutions. Smart devices have proven invaluable to countless fields because of their flexibility. According to Edutopia, built-in technologies like touchscreens and wireless video streaming make smartphones and tablets a natural fit in learning environments.

Setting a good example

The above-linked infographic gives an enticing view of what flipped classrooms can do for education. By having students watch short lecture videos at their leisure and devoting class time to “labs or interactive activities,” a high school near Detroit saw nearly 500 fewer disciplinary incidents in a school year. Even more exciting, the school saw serious drop-offs in failure rates. Previously, 50% of freshmen failed English and 44% failed math. After “the flip,” those rates dropped to 19% and 13%. Another infographic from Sophia, reports similarly exciting numbers. According to its study, 85% of polled educators saw improved grades after implementing a flipped classroom philosophy.

The flipped classroom is full of promise

While the idea is still in its infancy, it’s clear proponents of a flipped classroom environment are on to something. The digital age is all about customization. Applying the consumer-first mentality to an educational setting lets teachers reach their students in ways we couldn’t have imagined even 10 years ago.

What will classrooms look like in another decade? It’s hard to say, of course, but you can bet smart technology (whatever it looks like) will be at the forefront, and the mobile software powering it will come customized to meet student and educator needs. Of all the industries being changed by mobile technology, the education sector could have the largest benefit to society. Here’s hoping school systems around the world embrace it.

For more information on technology and education, view our presentation on the Classroom of the Future and follow us on Twitter for updates.