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Online is already flipped: Transforming the flipped classroom with online learning

The idea of flipping the classroom has gained a lot of popularity in the press & among proponents in recent years. In principle, the “flipped” classroom is no different to traditional homework tasks of assigning readings before the next class: The teacher gives learners an assignment, a reading, a video to watch, &/or exercises to complete in preparation for the next class, which will focus on further use of or extend from the homework materials. In ELT, it’s claimed to be an effective way to maximise the time that learners spend engaged in genuine communicative activities in their classes. It sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it?

However, every experienced teacher knows that some learners are less than prompt or consistent with completing & returning their homework than others. Many of our learners have busy, stressful, tiring lives, &/or have frequent deadlines at work or school/college/university & can easily forget or lose track of up-and-coming homework tasks. Language learning isn’t always at the centre of all learners’ daily lives. Then there’s the additional problem of how learners & their teachers know whether the homework was understood & completed well enough to enable them to participate adequately in the subsequent classroom activities. In the end, if too few learners have learned enough from their “flipped” activities, subsequent classes can become awkward, guilt-ridden, stilted affairs, which can detrimentally affect class morale.

This is especially problematic with online & blended courses, where much of the studying is asynchronous, i.e. done in the learners’ own time, & so we have to develop strategies to encourage & help learners to organise themselves & get the studying done. Here’s some ideas to get started:

  • This may be obvious to most but it still sometimes gets forgotten in online environments: Don’t introduce new topics, language items, etc. as homework/asynchronous tasks. Always ensure that the materials & tasks are familiar & do-able by the learners & that they won’t run into problems when their teacher isn’t immediately available to clarify & direct.
  • Timely feedback for learners’ studying can be either automated (adaptive “canned” feedback & grades* for controlled-response items) or from their teacher (freer-response items) & can let learners know how well they’ve understood & performed at their learning tasks.
  • Mobile learning, i.e. on learners’ smartphones & tablets, enables learners to practice small chunks of language at opportune moments, e.g. while sitting on the bus or train, in a waiting room, or while waiting for somebody or something, or generally when sitting around with nothing to do. Learners should be able to download resources & activities as far as possible, i.e. with an app, so that they can also do them when offline.
  • Implementing asynchronous communicative activities where learners prompt & respond to each other, e.g. discussions, chats, Q&As, & silly/entertaining ice-breaker ‘tag’ or ‘pass’ or ‘lie detector’ games to lighten the mood, if appropriate. But note that it’s important to cultivate a strong sense of social presence among a group of learners, i.e. that they can project themselves & their identities, get to know each other, & perceive each other as fellow classmates, for this to really work.
  • Quick & fun revision/strengthening exercises where learners can test their memory & knowledge of key language items & in the process strengthen their memory & fluency due to the testing effect (AKA spaced retrieval practice). This can also help reduce test anxiety.
  • Send timely reminders to do assigned homework & have learners actually do or submit something online before the synchronous class (face-to-face or online webinar), so that they don’t forget it until the last minute & then rush through it or run out of time. Much of this can be automated.
  • Keep a record of learners’ online activities & grades* that they can look up or be referred to in order to monitor their participation & progress. Course completion/progress charts that learners see when they log in & on their main course page should show how far into the course learners have got, what they’ve completed, & what they’ve missed. Most fully featured learning management systems (LMS’) can do this automatically. Unlike, traditional, wholly face-to-face classes, it’s relatively easy for learners to go back & recuperate anything they’ve missed so they can catch up with the rest of their classmates.

These strategies aren’t fool-proof & don’t work on every learner but it can certainly improve overall engagement & participation rates & make flipping your classes more feasible.

*In order to be more constructive, grades for learning activities shouldn’t count towards final course grades, i.e. they’re an indicator of mastery of the current item(s), & learners should be able to repeat learning tasks as often as they feel the need to &/or to maximise their performance. After all, the idea is for them to learn, not to constantly put them under pressure to perform. This, in turn, can help learners to develop their meta-cognitive skills & self-efficacy (learning how to learn & that they can learn with perseverance). In contrast, learners’ final course grades should be based on ‘official’ tests using fresh materials (to test transfer of learning) during & at the end of a course, as well as a participation grade for completing/contributing to all the learning tasks.