Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Flipped Off Pedagogy

Everyone who works in education is trying to figure out what to do with the new capabilities afforded by IT. The most prominent example is the move toward MOOCs, the massively-open online courses made visible by the efforts of EdX, Coursera, and associated institutional partners. For those of us in the trenches, MOOCs represent the least imaginative application of information tech to the classical challenge of enlightening young minds. Think about it this way: you have any and all documented facts at your fingertips, and the ability to connect with experts anywhere in the world, and you use it to turn university lectures into a Netflix product? Michael Sandel is a talented lecturer, but I don't see philosophers binging on his Justice course the way we all do with Orange is the New Black.

So, if MOOCs aren't the big challenge, what is? As far as I can tell, educators (self included) have the most trouble coping with the "flipped classroom." A "flipped classroom" is one in which the teacher takes the backseat and acts as a facilitator or (maybe) a critic for student-centered activities. For the cynical, the concept caters to the Millennial affection for the spotlight, but even if that's a driving force, I have some sympathy for the model. After all, with the massive external memory of Wikipedia available, rote memorization is obsolete. The students can get the facts from the source, just like we (experts) do. We all use the same tools now, so there's no magic in it. I use Google Scholar because the interface for databases like the Philosopher's Index and JSTOR run as smoothly as a house drives.

We don't need to convey facts, but we do have something to convey, something about how to use available research tools, and something about how to put all of that information to work for you. As that's the case, the best thing we could do for our students is put them to work and help them along with the hard parts. Show them how to get started, how to get unstuck, how to evaluate sources, how to master a field. Show them how to do. Flipped classrooms are great environments for doing all of that, but they have to be used well. We have to have well-designed projects, something more sophisticated than the five-paragraph essay, please? While we're at it, something more entertaining than presentation slides would be nice, too.

The problem for many of us is that we have no idea how to do any of that well. We weren't trained that way, and we weren't trained to teach that way. I have tons of sympathy for the flipped classroom. I work to include more group projects and unconventional assignments into my classes in an attempt to convince my students that they can be keen analytic and critical thinkers about things they care about, not just things I care about. Nevertheless, my conditioned response to a teaching situation is to go old school. Give me a blackboard and a pile of chalk, and I could teach the world. If the topic is Buddhism, I wouldn't even need notes.

Last year, I started making presentation slides because I know my students expect them, but I don't do anything fancy with them. It's enough of a challenge to condense the lecture into slide-sized chunks. The exercise has shown me the value of creating and communicating some structure, a map of the topic to be covered, detailed signposts along the way, and a summary of what they should take away. At the same time, I don't see slide presentations as much in the way of innovation in the classroom. I'm not doing anything that couldn't have been done with Ektachrome slides in the 1950's, and it goes without saying that my free-form verbal improvisations represent a pedagogy older than Plato.

The bottom line is that as technology and culture (especially media culture) change, pedagogy has to change. Furthermore, the rate of change may outpace the normal generational turnover of teachers, so we have to change, too. I don't have answers, but I am willing to explore them with my colleagues and my students. I don't think we'll figure it out without some experimenting, so I hope my colleagues will join me in being courageous enough to try new things, and that our students will be tolerant of us when we fuck it up.