As an employee of the Division of Information Technology, it feels a little disloyal to say it, but I often wonder if our emphasis on online instruction might result in a degradation in students’ ability to have in-person, meaningful conversations. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I encourage you to read Sherry Turkle Says There’s a Wrong Way to Flip a Classroom.
My students don’t want to come to office hours anymore. They would prefer to send me an email and have me send them an email back because they have a fantasy that they can send me a perfect email. They can present themselves as perfect and ask me their exact question, and that I will send them their exact perfect answer back. This does a few things. I think it reveals the way in which we try to turn conversations into transactions in digital culture — which is one of the larger themes of my work in “Reclaiming Conversation.” Whether it’s in education or in business or in love, we’re too often trying to turn conversations into connections or into transactions.
I’m probably showing my age now, but I have very fond memories of talking to my professors during Office Hours when I was an undergraduate. Admittedly, I went to a small liberal arts college, but I distinctly remember having to discuss my proposed term paper topics, for example. And in the proposing, my professor would ask questions, which would turn into a discussion. It was immediate feedback on my understanding, and helped me develop my communication skills to talk about complex issues confidently.
In the perfectly flipped classroom, I would have done my online activities prior to meeting with my professor or coming to class (in my day, of course, those “online activities” consisted of completing the assigned readings!) What we often see happening today, however, is that students do the online activities, and then come to a classroom where the online information is repeated, or reenforced, often in lecture or review format. What is missing is the interaction — the conversation.
In Turkle’s words:
In the ideal [situation], the flipped classroom brings conversation into the classroom because the students are learning. In a flipped classroom the idea is the students are learning the technical material at home and then the classroom time is designed to be about discussion of the material and questions about the material. But you have to be very careful because in so many of the flipped classrooms that I visited, when the presentation of the material is something that’s taken place at home, teachers sometimes use the in-class time almost as a sort of homework, recitation session and it becomes very dead. It becomes a kind of time to go over the facts and make sure everybody’s done the homework.
So instead, the perfect flipped class brings together the very best of both worlds: students engaged in online learning outside of the classroom, and then experiencing the conversation and interaction of the in-person classroom that will help them not only to learn the content, but also develop the communication skills they will need in life. But is that what’s going on on our campus? I’ve sat in on a number of classes where students do lots of online activities, and then come to the classroom to sit for 55 minutes and listen to a lecture — with maybe a clicker question or two thrown in for “engagement.” My question: with whom exactly is the student “engaging”? I’ve suggested dozens of times that instructors have students talk to a neighbor about those clicker questions — have a conversation — as a way to make this a more meaningful activity. This is generally met with “I don’t have the time for that.”
Let’s encourage faculty to make time for conversation in this digital age. It’s the missing link of the flipped classroom.