Podcast Lectures – hype, bane, or progress?

I never intended such a long delay in posting. My first semester using extensive elearning material is long completed, and it is time to reflect on the experience.

The subject was Discrete Mathematics for second year Computer Engineering students. I completely abandoned regular lectures, replacing them by videos published on a web page, supplemented by supervised exercise classes. These classes turned into interactive lectures, discussions, or individual tutoring, depending on the students’ needs of the day.

I have since learnt that this method is known as flipped classroom.

I have also learnt that the idea of flipped classroom is rather ambiguous. Newspapers are full of success stories about flipped classroom, elaborating on the technology and the use of video lectures. This promotion of flipped classroom is easily confused with the demand for flexible eduction, where students can consume their lecture at their leisure, whereever they can bring a smart phone.

Flipped classroom is, in my opinion, not about the technology, the videos, nor anything else happening outside the classroom. Flipped classroom is about what happens within the classroom. It is in fact, just a consequence of another educational buzz word, namely active learning, or even the much older slogan learning by doing. Learning rarely comes cheap, and new ideas and skills must be tried out by discussing with others, experimenting, or building something. Flipped classroom aims to spend as much as possible of the scarce contact hours on these activities.

Thus, every aspect of my module delivery has endeavoured to motivate, force, trick, and/or help the students to solve exercises, test their own understanding, and work on the subject. Below, I offer the techniques I employed as examples.

The method

The module design revolve around five components.

  1. Plenty of exercises for the students to work on individually. These are typical exercises of the format known from any mathematics textbook – no novelty about it.
  2. Class sessions, three 2h sessions per week.
  3. Fortnightly open-book class tests, graded as with pass or fail only.
  4. Video lectures, to replace traditional lectures, covering both presentation of new theory and sample exercise solutions.
  5. Closed-book, written exam (4h) at the end of term.

Thus, at the heart of it, we have plain old exercises, with the class sessions as the main forum to work on and debate the problems. The sessions were deliberately ad hoc, meeting the students where they are and answering their questions as they appeared. The sessions also provide an opportunity to monitor progress and receive feedback. The interactive form of the sessions led to a very open dialogue with the students, and their input was a great help to improve the learning materials.

The exact format of the class sessions varied depending on student needs and their level preparation. Sometimes the students would work individual, receiving help as required. More often, we would solve exercises on the blackboard. Only rarely did students volunteer to do the work on the blackboard, but very often it was possible to engage several of them in discussion, debating different approaches to problem solving. Sometimes there would be questions to be answered collectively.

Looking back, having added brief experience with a similar format on a different topic, the class sessions did not work as well as they should. The students were, generally, behind schedule, and it may appear that some end up staring at the problem for too long, without any progress. It is not certain that the ad hoc style is optimal. A more directed discussion on well-selected exercises might be able to secure a more steady progression.

The class tests were just a crude mechanism to force the students to keep up the pace with the regular exercises. They had to pass five out of six tests to be allowed to sit the exam, but the problems were all taken from the regular exercises. Being allowed to bring their notes as well as their books, it was meant only to obstruct those who did not attend regularly. Where someone failed, a second chance was given.

The video lectures were not motivated as an improvement over regular lectures. Rather, they would free up the contact hours to engage and interact with the students, allowing 6h/week where other modules may have only 2h. The philosophy is that since most of the lecture is one-way communications, there is no justification for wasting the scarce contact hours on them. Contact hours should be reserved for interaction.

Merely the statutory mechanism to justify credit awards, the written exam is of course the least important part of the module.

The benefits

Admittedly, I initially planned the supervised exercise sessions as a supplment to video lectures. It turns out in hind sight that it was the other way around, and the classroom sessions are the core. Subconsciously, I suppose, they were always the core, even in my initial conception of the semester. Post-rationalising the methodology, there are a multitude of benefits from the flipped classroom.

  1. More interaction during the contact hours give more feedback both from student to teacher and from teacher to student. Both student and teacher can be expected to improve their practice.
  2. Using contact hours for exercises raises their profile and priority.
  3. The focus is moved from presence to activity. Sleeping one’s way through the lectures is suddently a less natural approach to studying.
  4. Students can rewatch lectures which they found difficult, and have the lectures available to catch up after being absent.
  5. Students avoid a heavy cost of missing an important point early in a lecture preventing them from benefitting for the remaining 30-60 minutes. Video lectures can be rewound, and the interactive sessions actively encourage questions both in class and one-to-one.
  6. The video lectures are given in servings more suited to human attention span, usually 5-10 minutes.

I ended up with a class of students working a lot, throughout the semester; putting in much more effort than any other student cohort I have seen. They collaborated a lot, supporting eachother actively also outside the contact hours. I have never seen a similar student behaviour, neither as student nor as teacher.

Some have argued that the video lectures do not add anything beyond the textbook, and indeed, they are not a prerequisite for flipped classroom methods. The format of reading as homework and exercises at home has been known from primary schools decades ago. Maybe the only value added by video lectures is the excitement created by imaginary novelty.

The videos has a potentially useful feature compared to a standard textbook, in that each video serves as an illustration of a single key point of the syllabus. This makes it easy to navigate and the key points are high-lighted. The same effect could be created using text, in a non-book format, such as a set of hyper-referencing web pages.

Conclusion

Active learning remains an important educational method, and in the era of MOOC, it is going to be the a major selling point of campus based degree programs. The opportunity to meet the class in real life enables a greater range of potential activities, and it is much easier to inspire and engage people met face-to-face.

When the one-way lecturing can easily be moved into new media without loss, the scarce contact hours can much better be used for active learning and two-way discussion.

My onw class was small and easy to manage, starting with 16 students. Out of the 16 students one withdrew midway during the semester and one failed the exam. The 14 successful students made 1 E-s, 4 D-s, 7 C-s, and 2 B-s. Although these results are arguable mediocre, they were achieved on a degree programme used to terrible results, with very high failure rates, especially on maths modules. Maybe the teaching methods have not been optimal for the top-tier students who could have made A-s, but they seem to have raised a significant lower tier up to quite decent mid-level performance.

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