The Humanities and the Flipped Classroom

Alan and I had a fascinating discussion with Tom Luxom, from Dartmouth’s Center for Advanced Learning, today.  We talked about the passion for analytics or assessment and how you couldn’t perform meaningful assessment until teachers had first identified the desired learning outcomes and then designed assignments that sought to achieve those outcomes. Only at that point are you ready to start to interpret the myriad data recorded in the LMS or other system.

We pondered the role of MOOCs on residential campuses and agreed that, ideally, the buzz surrounding MOOCs, and the attendant rethinking of pedagogy by the few faculty teaching MOOC classes, could be leveraged to interest non-MOOCers in re-imagining their own learning activities.  Tom has a lovely phrase “communities of conversation” that I am going to appropriate (with attribution!).  What if MOOCs could contribute meaningfully to the on-campus dialogue on teaching and learning?

And he shared a story about a Biology professor who had visited Dartmouth recently who had asked the question: what do you do as a biologist?  You don’t read textbooks or listen to lectures.  You design experiments, try them out, and assess their failures and successes.  Now, imagine doing that in the biology classroom.

That story in turn made me think about a conversation we’ve been having at Emory about class capture and flipping the classroom.  This academic year we’ve been demoing Echo 360 podium capture in a 180-seat lecture hall used mainly by social science classes.  This term there are largely introductory courses in anthropology, political science, economics, and human health.  The podium capture records the in-room computer and audio from the instructor.  Different faculty are making different uses of the system — some release their lectures right away, some just right before tests, and others not at all.  There is definitely tension in the system — one faculty complained that when he released the lectures immediately after class, attendance dropped dramatically.  But he found that students weren’t willing to give up the recorded lectures; in the words of one, “the class went nuts when Dr. K said he might not put the captures up for review until next week.”  The new received wisdom (and it may be wise) would say this is a prime opportunity for flipping the classroom, recording the lectures off cycle and then using face to face time for interaction.

Getting back to the Biology question, it occurred to me that that’s exactly what happens in the humanities classroom — or at least in the English literature classrooms in which I grew up.  There were no textbooks, only “real” books, novels and poetry and plays.  And, at least in the non-survey courses, the close readings and discussions we had in the classroom actually did mimic what English professors do.  Bringing this realization to the “flipped” conversation, I realized that there’s no need to flip (many) of the humanities classes because they already are.


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