Some educators think the classroom of the future will look like Mission Control — surrounded by so many screens and buttons and flashing lights that only an astrophysicist could manage it. Others believe that the asynchronous part of a flipped-model course will consist of filmstrips from the ’60s delivered online.
In fact, there’s some reason to believe that the next generation of classrooms will house less technology than many do today, while enabling learning that is far more compelling.
A flipped classroom uses technology to let students work through ideas outside of the classroom; when the class comes together synchronously (whether online or in a classroom), it’s to discuss those ideas and work through problems together. A room full of electronics does little to facilitate deep, social learning; the next generation of flipped classrooms might look a lot like the d.school at Stanford, a deconstructed space that morphs into different sizes as needed, with lots of moveable surfaces for segmenting classes and sketching.
Even if it’s a dividable space, the new classroom won’t be used for lectures very often. Lectures generally employ a broadcast model that’s easily replaced with asynchronous content; in fact, MIT and others are considering abandoning their lecture halls altogether (save one, perhaps, for special events and visiting dignitaries). The only technology a room will need is Wi-Fi. Even the need for outlets is receding; I’m writing this on a laptop with a 12-hour battery life.
Flipped model learning requires a different kind of education technology: online tools that allow teachers to easily create and assemble high-quality content. These tools can and should raise the bar for everyone by activating a robust marketplace for content that will have the following characteristics:
The textbook and the lecture will merge. Textbooks are the original asynchronous content source, and lectures are the other. In ways described below, they are rapidly merging into one stream.
Content will be modular. Textbook companies have long sold complete solutions, and teachers have long picked their own paths through those books. There’s no reason to believe that one provider will create the perfect curriculum, and no reason to believe any teacher will be convinced that his or her students are so generic that they will be best served by a McCurriculum.
As more content becomes available and more educators develop expertise at curating it, the overall quality of lessons will rise. Importantly, there is no “best” lesson in this model; there are any number of excellent lessons that are right, perhaps with some tweaking, for different kinds of students.
Modules will be created by many parties, and many of those will charge for it. The rise of open educational resources (OER) has many convinced that asynch content will be underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and free to schools. In fact, there will be lots of providers — OER, MOOCs, textbook companies, and teachers themselves — a model best observed at Teachers Pay Teachers, an online marketplace of 4 million users and almost $100 million in annual transactions in a collegial, collaborative atmosphere. As the marketplace evolves, providers with a smaller number of high quality modules will prevail over those with a large pool of mediocre ones.
Modules will be interactive, collaborative, and adaptive. So what is high-quality, anyway? It is not just a video with high production values. Good materials are interactive and collaborative — for example, for a course in leadership, my team at UNC-Chapel Hill created an assignment in which each student gives a performance review to a classmate via Skype, submits it, and then participates in critiques of everyone else’s review. When the class comes back together, the professor can highlight any part of the work to launch discussion.
As for adaptivity, students deserve lessons that are most likely to inspire and engage them, and allow them to backtrack over content or skills they’re struggling with, or push on to deeper learning in areas of interest. When asynchronous materials are adaptive, teachers can curate materials for every English language learner, every student with a learning disability, every student with unique interests — i.e. all of them.
The teacher will curate: A strong instructional designer can pull the right modules together in the right sequence, including frequent assessment and paths for remediation and enrichment. But the leading content management systems are moving toward a crowd-based solution for curation, allowing teachers to share their sequences and improve upon others’ work.
We’re in the foothills of a model that frees up class time for discussion, questions, and student collaboration, and allows each student to work at her own pace. The most important technology for a flipped model classroom will be tools that connect educators with top-tier curricula. Technology that makes this process simpler and more flexible should take the place of whiteboards and walls in our next generation of schools.
John Katzman is founder and CEO of Noodle, a website providing advice on education. Previously, he founded and ran The Princeton Review and 2U, which partners with colleges to offer online degree programs.