Flipping an online class

Is it possible to “flip” an online class?

As most people define the inverted class, no. If the inverted class involves students watching video (micro)lectures at home and then doing active work in the classroom side-by-side, then no, you cannot flip an online course. For one, providing students with video material is standard for an online class, not flipped. More importantly, there is no physical classroom in which most students are present simultaneously, along with the instructor.

Of course, as Bryn Hughes and I have argued, the inverted class is bigger than the “basic flip” — video at home, “homework” in class. But I’m not actually interested in reproducing the techniques of inverted pedagogy in an online course. What I’m asking is whether or not we can tap into the specific advantages of inverted pedagogy in an online course.

One advantage of inverted pedagogy is that course content takes a back seat to student activity. As I write in the introduction to Open Music Theory,

In our classes, student activity takes pride of place, and it often precedes engagement with the textbook. The information contained in this text is secondary to that activity, and thus this text is meant to play only a supporting role in our classes.

Course content and instructor activity has a tendency to grab the focus of a lecture class, but this risk is even greater in an online course, where students engage the course (content) in physical isolation from each other. Can an online course background the content and turn more of the focus onto student activity?

Another advantage of inverted pedagogy is that much of the learning that happens is emergent. In a flipped course, the most interesting work takes place during class time. Because of that, it is easy to resist the temptation to grade that work. Many instructors grade homework because they think it is necessary to get many of their students to do it. I disagree. But when we’re all in the room together, there’s absolutely no problem ensuring that pretty much everyone engages the activity. Not assessing means that the task can be more open-ended, and no rigid rubric is needed. (Again, I disagree that a rigid rubric would ever be needed, but in this context, the possibility of one doesn’t even come up.) When the task is ungraded, students are more likely to recognize the intrinsic value of the task, and when the task is open-ended (and lacking the pressure of a grade at the end), a lot of different kinds of learning happen freely. Instead of following a checklist or self-oppressing their learning by submitting to an assessment rubric, students freely take different approaches to a shared goal, compare methods and results with each other, argue with each other, argue with me…all of which can lead to some quite wonderful epiphanies.

I’m not saying that I don’t have specific goals in mind with these tasks. Sometimes I have rather specific learning objectives in mind, such as students developing the ability to calculate the prime form of a pitch-class set in a piece of atonal music. In such a case, student epiphanies may be incidental to the task, or different students may have different epiphanies as they each try out different methods and compare results with each other, finding the method(s) that are most reliable for them. In other cases, I have more general learning objectives in mind. For example, sometimes I have students attempt to analyze a musical passage they are only partly prepared for. The “learning objective” is to discover which of the skills or concepts they already understand are applicable to this new context, and to grow in their ability to ask specific, appropriate questions about what they don’t know. Different student strengths and weaknesses will lead to different answers to the first “objective,” and the questions they formulate in the second will guide them to the course “content” in order to find at least the beginnings of answers to these questions. In both of these cases, by presenting students with a piece of music or a goal that is no more specific than it needs to be, rather than a checklist or a rubric, there is a lot of room for messy, emergent, different-for-each-student learning to take place.

Is this messy, emergent, differentiated learning possible in an online course?

Yes, but…

As I’m putting together my first fully online course, I’m running into some assumptions about how in-person pedagogy transfers into an online learning environment. (Note: these are broad assumptions I’m engaging here, not those of any individual. In fact, I’m really digging the conversations that I’m having with the instructional designer who is helping me with my course.) One problematic assumption is that because the unscripted, emergent learning in an in-person course mostly takes place during class discussion, then the same unplanned epiphanies will likely take place in the discussion forum of an online course. Designing for emergent learning, then, means requiring student participation in the forum. And requiring participation means grading it, which means providing a “clear” rubric, yada yada…which ends up stifling the very emergence that is sought. (Again, I disagree with the logic of just about all of the assumptions in this chain, but this is a standard progression of thought.)

But what if the discussion forum isn’t the place where emergent learning is most likely to happen?

Perhaps more to the point, what if providing students with a checklist for forum activity isn’t the best way to demonstrate its intrinsic value and encourage messy, emergent learning?

With these questions in mind, I’ve come to the following positions (I’m not going to call them conclusions before the course starts!):

  • Checklists are best at telling people when they are done. Therefore, I’m not going to provide a checklist to students for the most open and flexible piece of technology in our course, the discussion forum.
  • Discussion forum participation is a means, not an end. I want to direct students to meaningful goals, and then guide them through ways that the discussion forum (and other tools) might help them reach those goals.
  • Building skills of collaboration is a meaningful goal, but that involves much more than discussion forum participation.
  • Sitting with one’s own thoughts, listening to the thoughts of others, and collaborating in private are all valid study practices.
  • Discussion forum participation is not the new “seat time.”
  • I need to think more broadly about which aspects of my course will be designed for emergence, rather than assume that the discussion forum is wholly analogous to in-person class discussion, or assume that whole-class discussion is the primary locus of emergent learning.

That last point, and Mary Stewart’s excellent article linked from within it, has been my main focus lately. How can I design other tasks for messy, emergent, different-for-every-student learning? And then how can I help students use things like the discussion forum, Twitter, video chat, etc. to support that learning?

I have a few things in mind, which I will likely blog about in more detail later. But here they are in short form:

Students will be allowed to collaborate on reading quizzes and “concept maps”. Most quiz questions will be raw information retrieval, to “prime” students’ minds (this is a class in cognitive science, after all) with concepts that will be foundational for the activities to follow. But a few quiz questions, and all of their concept-map prompts, will be things not answered by the textbook, things that require a higher level of thinking, some basic synthesis or application. That’s where students will be encouraged to use the forum or Twitter to work together to come to joint solutions. And if they don’t use the forum and are having difficulty on the first couple of quizzes, rather than downgrading them more for not using the forum, I’ll send them an email and see what’s going on.

Students will use the forum to vote on which of each other’s concept videos will be posted to the class Vimeo channel. This will 1) require them to use the forum at the beginning of each week (ensuring they get the hang of using it early on), 2) give them some (limited) agency over course materials, and 3) get them engaging each other, focusing on each other’s strengths. I’m hopeful that this will help build a healthy community in the course, and lay the foundation for good collaborations in subsequent activities.

Students will build a fair amount of the course content as they go. Some of this will be “review” material, which will make it relatively easy for students to take part in its creation. But some of the material created will allow these students — many of which have taken more courses in psychology than I have! — to draw connections I didn’t anticipate, and to teach each other (and in many cases, to teach me) things that I did not plan. (Though this is a course in music cognition, it is an upper-level course in the psychology dept.) I’m hopeful that this will allow the students who do this teaching to be the targets of their colleagues’ (and my) questions, with the discussion forum being the logical place for that.

In general, my thoughts are this: the discussion forum is not the new “seat time”; assessments are the new seat time. That is, in an in-person course, we can assume most students will be present for most meetings, and we can design for student activity to be the focus and for messy, emergent learning to take place then. But in an online course, the main thing that we can assume students will do is the assessments, not the discussion forum. So rather than make the discussion forum an assessment and hope that emergent learning will happen there organically, I’m starting to think that we should design assessments to foster emergent learning as a natural product of those activities. This makes for better assessment activities, and the forum then becomes a supportive technology.

Class won’t start for a couple more weeks, though. So I am eager to hear from those with experience in wholly online courses about how you have encouraged (or accidentally observed!) emergent learning. What do you think?