Finding the right flip

It’s been over a year since I posted reflections on my first attempt at lecture flipping. On joining the introductory biochemistry course as lecturer two years ago, I inherited slides that were packed full with detail, to the extent that 50 minutes of lecture time would be filled to the brim with telling students about biochemical “stuff”. Thing is, I love lecturing, almost all of that “stuff” is important, and I didn’t feel that any of it should be dumbed down or trimmed. But delivering a set of traditional lectures just didn’t seem a good use of time when the same content could be found in any number of places online. The idea of lecture flipping made intuitive sense- let the students work through the basic concepts in their own time, then use the lecture time slot for more interesting and useful stuff than reciting textbook knowledge. So off I went to prepare videos, homework and pub quizzes, and tried to find ways of making the “showtime” in the big lecture theatre more interactive and fun. I posted last year how that ‘flip 1.0’ worked for everyone.

In my experience, anything new that I try tends to be middling on the first attempt, worse on the second (see boring stats at the end of the post, comparing last year’s survey with this year), and much better after that. An enormous amount of attention goes into the first attempt, and that compensates for the lack of prior experience. Things may not work out perfectly, but more likely out of misjudgement than poor preparation. The second time round, there is a false sense of security concerning the technicalities, but at the same time the experience base is not yet big enough to compensate for technical glitches. This past semester I had another go at lecture flipping, trying to be much more sophisticated. And that’s where I went wrong…

I decided to wrap up a sequence of short videos and exercises into a single Nearpod “homework” that students could work through at their own pace. In essence, I had turned the material into a mini-MOOC, inspired by the structure of EdX courses I liked. Below is one example for one of the more complicated topics (enzyme kinetics and enzyme classification) that I felt would benefit from self-paced study:

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Putting videos onto YouTube was a clear improvement- I’m not sure any other platform would be as widely accessible. There’s also the added perk of YouTube analytics, which I still haven’t quite got my head round:

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So, it seems that for this example, the single biggest spike in viewer numbers was on the day of the lecture itself (as opposed to a day or two before, to prepare for the lecture) when around 120 students watched the video. There’s another small spike on the day before the exam. About a third of those who clicked on the video stopped it after less than half a minute, but the rest stayed for at least 4-5 minutes. Small peaks in “audience retention” show where students have re-played short segments; typically listening again to important definitions. I can see that practically all of the first spike of viewer numbers came from the Nearpod exercise (“unknown embedded player”), but the handful who watched on the day before the exam found the video via a number of ways- surprisingly very few via the channel “biochemistry rocks”. Finally, it’s fun to see that in addition to the obvious views from the UK and a healthy number form other English speaking countries, I had four viewers each tune in from Iraq and Russia. I’m aware that there’s nothing remarkable about that considering the global reach of YouTube, but it’s amusing nevertheless. With the ability to generate all those data, it’s no wonder that the MOOC folks are still marvelling at their click analytics and are taking their time getting to the important bits– understanding how to make online learning work.

An encouraging result from the analytics was the fact that a great majority of students on the course (over 400 out of 540) watched a set of videos on “simpler” topics in the first week of the semester (the very first lecture was held on January 26th):

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So why do I consider this a mixed success? After all, the average exam score went up from 48% to 58%, which is great. Comments from students were quite mixed. Some of the positive ones were very encouraging:

I found the idea very useful for more complicated lectures because the videos are made by the lecturer so you essentially get the same thing you would in a lecture but condensed, which [gives you] the chance to see for yourself what you don’t understand right away. Then the actual contact time is spent on specific bits of the material that actually cause problems and need explaining, rather than wasting time on simpler concepts that most of the students might already know. Those that don’t get a video can rewatch [it] as many times as they like [and have] questions to learn on their own time. I think it’s quite an efficient way of learning and very original, good job 🙂

There was some very justified criticism too:

In my opinion, the key to this method’s success is the lecturer’s confidence in it. At times during the lectures that followed the flip sessions, I sensed that the lecturer was getting frustrated and confused with the equipment and the students which led to more disorder. If the lecturers keep calm and show full confidence in what they are doing, this would hopefully reflect on the student’s behavior.

Bam! Direct hit. In the first session with a live interactive Nearpod “pub quiz”, the WiFi on my iPad cut out and I wasn’t able to show the student view. When I switched to projecting the teacher’s view (the desktop from which I was controlling the quiz), I overlooked that it indicated the correct answer, so the whole thing turned into a joke. Although our e-learning guru was at hand and kindly offered to plug in his mobile for the student view, a couple of fairly chaotic minutes had passed by the time we were back up and running. There are easy ways to avoid this, for example with separate browser windows showing teacher and student views. This is what I meant with “false sense of security concerning the technicalities”- I felt I was confident with using Nearpod because I had been successful previously, but got a bit rusty with the details.

Looking back at my reflection on last year’s flipping, the issue of managing expectations remains. Like last year, some students argued that being talked through the content for 50 minutes is their preferred way of learning (“Didn’t like the way that we had to teach ourselves everything”). One clearly justified comment is that the material for the flipped format lectures looked different (“Flipped sessions makes it more difficult to provide a structure to my notes for revision and has been detrimental to my learning rather than helpful”). If students are used to learning “everything that’s on the slides”, having more material, even if it’s examples and exercises, must be frustrating and look like lots of additional work (“so complicated compared to the other modules where there are booklets with the lecture slides which are the most useful thing”). It seems that I need to provide much more explicit guidance on learning objectives, and perhaps even guidance on how to get there.

Last year I felt that replacing some of the multiple choice questions with “draw it” exercises would give me better insight into students’ understanding and possibly misconceptions. To a degree this is true; the variations were extremely interesting to see. The left half of the pic below shows one “Draw it” question in a homework exercise; the right half my feedback on “typical errors”. This was generic feedback to the course, not the individual student.

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Preparing a detailed feedback document for these homework exercises, using actually submitted drawings, identifying the various types of mistakes and annotating each of them with helpful comments, was extremely time-consuming. I talked through some of these misunderstandings and answered many of the submitted free-text questions in the first half of some of the flipped lectures; the complete, detailed annotated feedback document was available on our VLE. And here I learned what I really should have known all along:

Timely, personalised feedback matters

Now, this is of course not a new insight; the importance of feedback is highlighted in every “Best practice in higher education” list. But there were ramifications for lecture flipping I hadn’t

anticipated: For me to talk through the “FAQs” that arrived via Nearpod, and giving general feedback on quiz responses does not seem to be as useful as I thought:

[What would improve the structure, organisation etc:]  Less time spent in the lectures answering questions from other people – very few seem useful

The issue of timeliness came up with the self-paced Nearpod homework exercises. Because Nearpod allows students to freely move around a presentation in homework mode, it is pointless to show the answers to quizzes after the questions- students could easily cheat by skipping ahead and then back. (I know I would be tempted to do that…) Without a way to make feedback conditional on actually submitting a response, there was no feedback until the lecture. Several students felt that this made the whole homework less worthwhile.

[I did not attempt the exercises that followed the video…]  Because there was not any direct feed-back so I felt it was a loss of time writing an answer that would not have been checked.

Flexibility matters

Without giving it much thought, I had parcelled up the work that I hoped students would do before the lecture into quite large chunks. At least for the more complex Nearpod homework on enzyme kinetics, it is safe to assume that a string of two or three 5-10 min videos and then a couple of not-so-trivial exercises would take well over an hour to complete for a novice. I’m not sure how flexible Nearpod is in terms of coping with logging off and on. The YouTube channel is of course easy to access directly for re-viewing, but the quizzes are straight-jacketed into Nearpod.

 I think that there is slightly too much to do for the flipped lectures i.e. too many questions and it can be frustrating trying to answer them after only having watched a short video on it. 

like I see 20+ slides, knowing this might take over an hour, I know I’ll need a good cuppa coffee to get through this.

[I did not attempt the exercises that followed the video because…] Sometimes seriously not enough time on my hands between writing up lecture notes, the many many online exams, essay prep, volunteering maintaining a job 

 It could be argued that students underestimate the time it takes to work through and genuinely understand the material; an hour or two per lecture might feel like a lot during the semester, but if revision time before the exam is included, that’s probably a conservative estimate. Still, with everyone’s time being more fragmented, having more flexibility in how, when and for how long to access the material and work with it is likely to be popular and beneficial for learning. Both the platform in this case (Nearpod) and the organisation of the material into “mini-MOOCs” reduced flexibility. The latter could be chunked into smaller units, but that would mean that students have to use several different PINs for each lecture, and many already disliked the few we used this year.

Challenge number one for the next year is how to structure content and materials in the clearest possible way while offering the greatest possible flexibility. It should still require active engagement instead of memorisation. And of course everything should be based on exciting, real-world material. Well, that should be easy… As for the videos, I am minded to produce even shorter, single-issue videos. Telling students about the bigger picture, conveying some enthusiasm and explaining why it all matters is something that works well in the lecture format. Explaining several dozen nitty-gritty concepts is not- some combination of short videos and plenty of practice material should work better for that, held together by a clear explanation of learning objectives. There’s some memorisation we can’t do without (eg amino acid structures); a couple of bespoke sets of Quizlet flash cards might do the trick and can be run on any mobile device. For the rest, I’ll have to decide on some form of worksheets and/or self-tests with automatic feedback on our VLE.

Challenge number two remains the question how best to use the lecture slot. Last year I wrote “It is probably going to be a combination of brief summary, case study, worked example and homework discussion.” Doing all of that would be cramming too much into one session, and I know now that the homework discussion is not all that useful. But the part I haven’t spent enough time on is that of case studies and worked examples. As part of his final year project, a student worked with me to produce an interactive revision resource for enzymology based on a case study. Student users in the first year biochem course were very positive about the scenario and found it much more motivating than isolated abstract questions. This is clearly the way to go, but it’s also far more laborious than producing conventional resources. As for worked examples- a colleague in the business school is very successful with video recordings of “pen & paper” statistical calculations. Students are asked to watch these in preparation of small-group exercise-based tutorials. Some of the more mathematical aspects in my course (pH calculations, enzyme kinetics) would clearly benefit from “how to” videos, but not many concepts in the course lend themselves to this kind of treatment.

So many ideas, so many things to consider- not least how much time I can reasonably invest in producing ever more colourful, exciting, engaging resources. It’s an interesting journey. I’ll report back next year! Though in the meantime, I will hopefully have some reflections on my first attempt at designing an online-only course unit for our Year 2 students.

Below: student responses to a survey on their “flipping experience”. N=92 for 2014, n=63 for 2015.

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