Flip Distance Learning: Rethinking Direct Instruction

As both a college student during this COVID-19 pandemic and a soon-to-be student teacher, I have seen both sides of online instruction. While we are incredibly lucky to have technology as a means to keep us safe and connected while the coronavirus continues to run rampant throughout our country, online learning also presents an entirely new set of complex challenges that have forcibly shifted the paradigm of commonly accepted teaching practices. While the world is in such an unstable state, how can we as teachers create a safe space for our students to both learn and find comfort? How can we ease their anxiety if we are holding them to out-dated teaching methods that are incompatible with the mental process of learning online? The answer lies with completely rethinking the aims of instruction and focusing on interpersonal discussion rather than prefabricated lectures and readings.

Teaching and learning from home is an entirely different atmosphere, and it should be treated as such. With the somewhat forced utilization of technology during the COVID-19 pandemic also comes instructional opportunities to include a wide variety of multimedia tools to engage all types of learners. From online scavenger hunts and interactive texts to gamified learning and virtual reality, one might begin to wonder if the traditional classroom lecture is even relevant in an online classroom. While presenting information in a straightforward lecture still has its merits as a simple and direct means of instruction, synchronous lectures do not easily fit within an online format.  Students simply cannot sit and listen to a synchronous lecture online in the same way they did in classrooms. Distractions are higher and attention spans are shorter, making sitting at a screen for hours at a time unproductive and unhealthy for students. Additionally, synchronous lectures are often easily disrupted by technology errors and mishaps, which can be discouraging and counterproductive. As I have so often experienced in my online classes, so much time is wasted trying to make direct, teacher-based instruction work that we often cannot get through all the material. Rather than forcing this traditional technique into a new format, class procedures should take on a more “flipped” approach.

A flipped classroom approach means that the learning happens outside of class meetings, and the live interaction between the teachers and students is dedicated to clarifying questions or putting learned material to practice. Videos, readings, demonstrations, or visuals should be given to students before class to engage with at their own pace. This lets students initially learn on their own, while synchronous class meetings keep students accountable and allow them to interact with their peers. So rather than lecturing for an hour on Zoom, a teacher might create a pre-recorded video for the students to watch at their own leisure or assign some other task that teaches the material directly to the students. Creating asynchronous instructional assignments alleviates the issues of online learning in several ways. First, students will not burn out as quickly. Because they can complete these tasks at their own pace, they are free to pause and stretch and take some time away from the screen before returning to their work. In turn, this will alleviate stress and encourage authentic learning. Additionally, flipped classroom practices give students a sense of agency over their own learning, which is especially important in a time where one might feel that they have no control over anything. Similarly, in the event of technology errors, students have more time to communicate with the teacher and arrange for extended time to fix their technology rather than stressing about dropping out of a Zoom lecture.

In addition to the practical elements of implementing a flipped classroom approach online, students can also benefit socio-emotionally from dedicated class time for engagement with their peers. In an in-person setting, a student may walk in, sit down next to their friend, and talk and laugh with them before class starts. Throughout the class, they may work together, share their thoughts, and help each other learn. Not only does this help each student academically, but the feeling of solidarity is extremely important to motivate students in school and help their social skills develop properly. However, because peer interaction does not naturally occur in an online setting, social activities must be made an intentional priority during synchronous classes. In a flipped classroom, synchronous class sessions become more discussion-based rather than lecture-oriented. Having already been exposed to the material, students would have the opportunity to focus on engaging with their peers and helping each other understand the material. This creates a similar relationship between students and allows them to engage with each other rather than silently staring at their screens.

Therefore, in the age of online teaching, we must shift from what is comfortable for us as teachers to methods that benefit the learning and well-being of our students. A flipped classroom approach is just one way to prioritize student interaction and discussion while still maximizing content attainment online. COVID-19 has undoubtedly created a new and unstable world, and educators must step up and adjust for the sake of their students and the success of the educational system as a whole.

3 Replies to “Flip Distance Learning: Rethinking Direct Instruction”

  1. Hi Francesca!

    Flipped learning is a great adaptation to online learning! I agree with you that it reduces the students’ burnout from having to sit on Zoom or Google hangouts for multiple hours. I think this method of teaching could easily be implemented and used now!

  2. Hey Francesca,

    This is a great idea, and very well-argued! Burn-out is going to be one of the most challenging aspect of all of this. One major challenge I see with this is for those students who are on IEPs, or who may need more direct instruction to help them focus. I also see the flipped classroom model working really well for older students, and not as well for younger students who maybe need more direct monitoring.

    Maggie brought up project work as a good way of trying to avoid screen fatigue as well. Honestly, one of the cool things about all of this mess is that we get to try new things that maybe otherwise wouldn’t be discussed. I feel like sometimes methods can stagnate, and there may be some really interesting takeaways from teaching during COVID that last beyond when we finally get to be in person again. Great post!

  3. A very thoughtful and detailed post that accurately notes that everything is changing. As the comments also note – it’s about time.

    The lecture died for me years ago. Early in my career a high school student walked up to me after class and said something like, “Mr. Pappas, don’t get me wrong – I really like your class, you work really hard to put together these lectures for us. But you gotta understand this class is a small part of my life.” Wham!

    As the digital age unfolded I realize that transfer of information is relatively easy. Comprehension is another thing. So my first question became – how can I use class time to get students to engage with content, share and defend their thinking with their peers. Then I figured out ways to off-load content sharing to make that interactive class possible.

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