Lessons Learned from Three Years Flipping Education

By Brian S. McGowan, Ph.D., FACEhp, Chief Learning Officer and Co-Founder, ArcheMedX Inc.

Early in 2013, in a planning session with the Alliance Annu­al Meeting planning committee, it was suggested that I chair a pre-conference workshop on the science of learning. After some discussion, it was also proposed that the workshop be designed as a flipped classroom experience. While there is a tremendous buzz today around “flipping the classroom,” back in 2013, it was far from a mainstream idea. Nonethe­less, the idea of developing a broad curriculum related to the science of learning and then delivering that content through an innovative design approach seemed like a beautiful mar­riage — an opportunity to learn about learning — and the wheels were set in motion.

For those who may still not be familiar with the model, flipped learning is anchored to the notion that faculty creates a blend­ed and sequential learning experience such that: 1) learners consume pre-work content prior to a live meeting; 2) as they’re working through the content, these learning experiences gen­erate data about the content, the experience and the learners; 3) the educator then incorporates this new understanding to recalibrate and adapt the live meeting experience; and 4) the critical face-to-face time of the live meeting is saved for deeper learning and application. In other words, you give learners pre-work upfront, you learn from them while they learn, you stay flexible and you adapt the live meeting experience so that it is as efficient of an educational experience as possible.

Since my initial planning efforts in 2013, I have now run four separate flipped learning experiences, and I can tell you — with full transparency — that the flipped learning model is anything but a silver bullet. That is not to say flipped learning doesn’t work, but in order to be successful, there are several critical elements that must be acknowl­edged and addressed.

As background, here are some details about each of the flipped learning models I have designed and lead (See Table 1):

What Have I Learned?
Step One:

Learners consume pre-work content prior to a live meeting.
: Don’t make assumptions that they will. In fact, you may very well become your worst enemy if you don’t operation­alize the flipped classroom the right way.
Ensuring that the learners are well-informed about the ex­pectations prior to attending the live meeting and motivat­ing the learners to actively engage in the pre-work is critical. The effort and resources involved in effectively designing a flipped learning experience are significantly greater than traditional one-off, episodic educational interventions. If learners are not driven (or empowered) to consume the pre-work, then that additional effort and resources are at risk. Worse yet, you run the risk of polarizing the learners. For example, in our first flipped learning model, poor commu­nication and outreach created a situation where 50 percent of the learners attending the live meeting had engaged with the pre-work and 50 percent had not. As a result, our faculty had to make design decisions as to how best to run the live meeting understanding this chasm in learners. In the end, we were forced to use much of the live meeting time trying to re-establish some semblance of homogeneity before mov­ing on to higher learning and application.


Step Two:
Pre-work efforts generate data about the content and the learners.
Reality: You must make sure that the pre-work actually generates learning data.
This is an equally critical lesson — simply assigning learners some articles to read or some videos to watch does not sup­port a truly blended or sequential experience if faculty have little to no ability to learn about the learners. By leveraging the Learning Actions Model and the ArcheViewer to power each of the four flipped learning experiences, we had taken the steps to ensure that we could fully understand whereare learners were, what they learned and how prepared they were for the next steps. Again, the additional efforts and resources that are required for flipped learning should not be invested if you are simply going to assume what and how learners engaged in the pre-work.

Step Three:
The educator incorporates this new understanding to recalibrate and adapt the live meeting experience.
: This creates yet another significant stress on the educator and faculty to be flexible — and it is not business as usual.
Anyone who has designed, chaired or facilitated a live meeting understands how stress and energies ramp up in the week and days leading up to the event. The flipped learning model adds significantly to this stress. The data that is gathered by learners engaging in the pre-work is only valuable if time is committed to explore these data — this means that the 72-96 hours before the live meeting is a critical time to recalibrate and adapt. For example, were it not for the exploration of the data generated by the pre-work in our first flipped learning experience, we would not have known about the chasm (only 50 percent engaged). In the subsequent flipped learning experiences, the data led us to reset the objectives of the live meeting, revisit what scenarios would be used in the applied parts of the live meeting, and even dramatically shift the responsibilities of certain faculty members on-site.

Step Four:
The critical face-to-face time of the live meeting is saved for deeper learning and application.
: One of the greatest challenges that an educator faces is that we can’t be there when lessons need to be put into action.
Most of the time, as we stand in front of learners, we might think of them as standing still — they come to a standalone live meeting experience with only a basic understanding of what the meeting is about, and it is more than likely that they may not have thought much about the topic before taking a seat. The first three steps of the flipped learning model shift this paradigm. By designing pre-work that effectively serves as discrete building blocks; by generating data about what and how learners learned and what they are ready to do next; and by exploring these data and refining the live learning experience to capitalize on this momentum, the flipped learning model allows you to get your learners walking or even running toward you (figuratively). You might picture this as a form of educational Judo; you can use their momentum to pull them so much further, and your impact can be that much greater!

In the end, while the flipped learning model is not a silver bullet in the form of educational design, it does offer a far greater upside. Hopefully, by learning from the lessons I have gained over the past few years, you will be in a much better position to achieve the impact you desire.

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