The Promise and Perils of the Flipped HE Classroom: The Online Lecture

Last year, I ran a module entitled “American Crises: From the Revolution to 1968“. It had a standard teaching configuration of a weekly lecture, a weekly small-group seminar, a 2000-word essay and a 2-hour exam. I provided my students with a slightly above-average level of structure for their seminar preparation, including a detailed required reading list and blogging activities. The latter was optional, intended to provide additional feed-forward on their writing and analysis, but most students engaged with it for the first half of the semester—that is, up until the essay was due. At the end of the term, I felt that my students had done well, but that twelve lectures was simply insufficient for two hundred years of history. What I needed was more time.

This year, I decided to give myself that time by flipping the classroom. I would record my twelve ‘Grand Narrative’ lectures, place them online for students to watch at the start of the week, and then use the ‘lecture slot’ to deliver a more in-depth workshop, based on primary and historiographical material. In this way, my students would receive the basic outline of US history they needed, but contact time would be devoted to higher-level interactions.

Over the course of the module, I learned quite a bit about running a flipped HE classroom, which I would like to share over the coming weeks. The first, and perhaps most important, challenge to overcome was how to prepare and deliver the ‘Grand Narrative’.

Integrating the Flip into a Module

Rather than simply placing my existing lectures online and extending the seminar discussion, I wanted to make it clear to my students that the online lectures were fulfilling a separate, complementary aspect to the module, to be used alongside, and as preparation for, our primary-source workshops and secondary-source seminars. In the first lecture and seminar, I explained that these should be watched early in the week, before undertaking any other reading, as they would provide context and background to the more specialist journal articles and primary materials. Moreover, inside the module guidebook, I inserted a flowchart, showing how the online-lecture fed into the required readings, which would in turn feed into face-to-face meetings, and later into their assessments. All this was to ensure that the students continued to attend the face-to-face meetings and did not view the online lectures as an attempt to transform the module into a distance-learning environment.

Recording the Lecture

I had several options when it came to recording my lectures. I could book a lecture hall with video-capture technology, but this seemed ambitious for what was essentially a trial run. I could also simply upload the live audio recordings I had done the previous year, alongside the relevant slides. This, however, was unappealing as these recordings contained numerous pauses, student coughing and sneezing, abstract references to visuals or items being passed around, and unintelligible audio from film clips— all of which were easily discounted by students reviewing a lecture they had attended, but would be irritating to anyone approaching the material for the first time. In the end, I decided I would make fresh recordings of the lectures, in my home office, using a microphone and Screencast-o-Matic. This would capture my (hopefully) clear recitation of the material in time with the relevant presentation slide. I could also, where necessary, use the cursor to “point” to key parts of a map or image.

In order to record a lecture-length screen-cast, I needed to purchase a full license, but at 15 USD, this was not a particular burden. Much more difficult to bear was the seemingly endless opportunities I gave myself to perfect the lecture. Although I retained the same fifty-minute lecture slides I had used in previous years, my home recordings began to stretch significantly; at least one approached an hour and forty-five minutes. Moreover, because I was recording without the pressure of an immediate audience, I continually self-edited, re-recording any section that seemed rushed or unclear. In the end, each “hour” lecture took approximately four hours to record. Not to write, just to record. Finally, because I had decided to trial the flipped lecture a mere one month before term began, I did not have time to record all twelve lectures in advance. While they were available to students at the start of the appropriate week, several students complained (gently) that they would have appreciated the later lectures in advance in order to assist them with their essay writing. From my own perspective, this process essentially monopolised a day out of each week during the term—an often frustrating state of affairs.

Hosting the Lecture

When it came to hosting the lectures, I had two options. I could host them on the university servers through the Blackboard system, or I could upload them to a video hosting service such as YouTube. The former had the advantage of privacy. It would only be accessible to students on my module, and I could offer them in a way that would prevent downloads and distribution. Although my lectures do not contain any particularly controversial views, certainly nothing I would not be ready to stand behind in the court of public opinion, there were a number of slides that contained images of dubious copyright status. These maps and images had been inherited at some point in my education or work experience, and their precise origins were unknown to me. While showing an image of unknown copyright status in a face-to-face lecture might be ‘naughty’, it may also reasonably fall under ‘fair use’ provisions. To publish these in an open forum was much more problematic. However, because these were extremely large files, and I was recording and uploading them from my home computer, the upload time became prohibitive. Indeed, the operation often timed out without completing. Moreover, the Blackboard system is not necessarily conducive to viewing on mobile devices or (as I found out) by students with medium or low speed internet connections at home.

In the end, I opted for submission to YouTube. The procedure was very straightforward; there is an option within Screencast-o-Matic, at the end of the recording process, to upload to your YouTube account. I uploaded the lectures to a specially made account, and set the privacy settings to unlisted. This meant that they would not appear under my account, should anyone find it, nor in the YouTube search index. They would only be accessible via a specific link, which was easily embedded into my Blackboard site. YouTube has already been optimized for mobile and low-speed viewing and the interface was well understood by my students. As for copyright issues, I did in fact receive an automatic take-down notice for one of my videos (for using another YouTube video clip that had, unknown to me, been itself guilty of copyright infringement), which I complied with immediately. Once the video clip was removed, it was re-uploaded without difficulty. Nonetheless, I intend to recheck all my slides in future years, and I would strongly suggest you run your material past your university’s copyright officers to ensure they are fully compliant with ever-shifting legislation before uploading them. Indeed, I am strongly considering moving my videos to the Blackboard system, uploading them from my office PC, as a further safeguard.

Yet, if I do this, there will be some features I will miss. Besides the easy of upload and access, a particularly helpful YouTube feature was the statistics interface. From my control panel, I could see precisely how many individuals had viewed the videos, their (city-level) geographical location, and indeed which seconds within the video had actually been viewed. I learned several important facts from this information. First, no one outside Northeast England ever watched the lectures; the link had not been shared or otherwise discovered. Second, taken as an average across the entire cohort, each video was watched twice by each student; this could also be interpreted as twenty times by ten really diligent students, but this seems unlikely. Third, despite the exam being primarily based on material from the 20th century (the final six lectures), students reviewed all twelve lectures during the revision period, and at almost the same level as during the term itself. Finally, having just completed marking the exams, the level of recall by student of key themes, details, and indeed audio-visual material was greatly improved on previous years.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the semester, I compiled student feedback, examined viewing statistics and student marks, and came to a number of conclusions about the online lecture series. First and foremost is that an online lecture series is not something that should be done alone.

By ‘alone’ I do not mean an individually taught module. Rather, I mean within the wider context of a department or degree programme. The novelty of the online lectures had, despite my best efforts, encouraged a number of students to stop attending the face-to-face lectures. As my seminars and lectures were back-to-back, this resulted in a drop in seminar attendance as well. Although I knew that the online lectures were only part of the material my students would need to successfully complete the assessments, these students determined that since the podcasts, the traditional, narrative portion of the module, were available at their leisure, they could treat the module as a distance-learning course.

My second concern springs from the opposite response. For those students who did diligently watch the online lectures, attend the face-to-face lectures, undertake the reading, and attend the seminars, the module was simply too much work in comparison with the stated requirements of their other modules. Comments on feedback forms made it clear that my module was by far the most intensive they had undertaken that year. On the one hand, this is quite a compliment—I like to challenge my students. On the other, I found it somewhat worrying. From my perspective, I had designed the module in a way that made explicit all the work (reading, revising and seminar preparation) that was expected in all our undergraduate modules. In theory, my students should have been doing the same level of work in all their modules—I had simply written it out for them. If all or at least a number of modules were structured in a similar way, this would not have been a issue. As a single module in a sea of implicit, but no less rigorous expectations, it stood out as ‘unreasonable’, something that I certainly did not intend it to be.

In the end, I am somewhat conflicted about my experiment with online lectures. Yes, many students complained, or at least whinged, at the level of work two lectures required of them, especially with some online lectures running over 90 minutes in length. Yes, the attendance rate of my face-to-face lecture dropped off slightly more quickly than in previous years. But, the long-term attendance rate for my seminars was also the highest it has ever been. Rather than full attendance dropping to seventy percent in week six, and forty percent by week eight, and a quarter by the final week, as usually occurs, it was only the last week of classes (just days before Christmas) that my seminars fell below two-thirds. Second, the level of engagement with the historiography blogging project— to be discussed in my next post—rose significantly. Finally, the level of detail provided by students in their exam scripts, from the online lectures, the workshops and the seminar discussions, was incredibly high. They learned, and they remembered.

So, will I continue to stretch my contact hours with online material? Yes. Are there still a few wrinkles to iron out? Absolutely. Should you try it to? Why not!

**Image courtesy of jisc_infonet

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