A “flipped classroom” is an approach to eLearning that might appeal to designers and developers who are moving in-person learning online.

While the flipped classroom can follow a number of implementations, some more and some less feasible for eLearning, the concept is consistent: Rather than the first exposure to new information occurring during an in-class lecture, learners are exposed to new concepts or facts while preparing for class. In class, they spend their time on analysis, problem-solving, and applying information or using new skills. What it often looks like is that passive learning elements, generally lectures and readings, are assigned as homework; projects and activities that might previously have been assigned as homework are completed in class, with the teacher as a guide.

Instructors might implement a flipped classroom in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Putting lectures on video and assigning them, along with readings, as homework; having learners complete worksheets, answer questions, or take quizzes in class
  • Putting lectures on video, as above, but using class time for group projects
  • Assigning a variety of videos, readings, and podcasts as homework and using class time to discuss the material
  • Assigning videos and readings, but, rather than holding synchronized group sessions, using discussion boards and conducting one-on-one chats between instructors and individual learners

How does the flipped classroom apply to eLearning?

A flipped model is often used in conjunction with a virtual classroom, creating a blended instruction format.

Much discussion of flipped classrooms focuses on videos. Lectures that are turned into videos, that is. This is a place to start, but is by no means the only—or best—option. Consider an eLearning developer who is converting a two-day seminar into eLearning. The first questions are:

  • How much of that seminar is lecture, reading, or other transfer of information? That information can become asynchronous eLearning assignments.
  • How much is interactive: discussion, question and answer, quizzes, activities? If the eLearning will have live virtual classroom meetings or other synchronous events, that’s the time to engage the learners in these activities.

A rationale for flipping the classroom is that the instructor can be most valuable to learners as a coach, helping them solve problems and apply information. Lectures can easily be delivered online. Better yet, lectures can disappear completely, replaced with short videos and relevant readings or podcasts.

Advantages of delivering non-interactive information online include:

  • The material is available to learners anytime, on their schedule. This is helpful for busy employees; it also enables people to keep up even if they miss a synchronous session.
  • Learners can reflect on information as they learn it. In a lecture, the instructor says it once. On video, learners can pause, rewind, and view a segment or entire video multiple times.
  • The instructor can spend more time interacting with individual learners or small groups during synchronous meetings, rather than talking to the group as a whole. This makes it easier to solve problems and aid anyone who’s struggling with a concept or exercise.
  • While turning the instructor’s lectures or slide decks into videos is an option, instructors can also incorporate other experts’ material: TED talks, lectures or instructional videos created by well-known experts, even materials created by learners.
  • The push toward shorter and more engaging eLearning could mean that the flipped classroom has fewer and shorter segments of information transfer—and more active learning by students.

The bottom line, for many flipped classroom proponents, is getting learners to take responsibility for their own learning—and putting synchronous time to good use, with learners engaged in “deeper” learning and instructors monitoring their progress via increased one-on-one contact.

To flip or not to flip?

Not all learning works in a flipped mode. A course that has little lecture or information transfer might not change much if the instructor tries to flip it. A course where the “lectures” tend to be discussions with lots of information packed into them might not be a good candidate for flipping, either—especially if it’s possible to build eLearning that retains the interaction level of the lively in-class discussions. On the other hand, when the eLearning entails more skills training than information transfer—learning a procedure, for example—a clear, thorough instructional video can replace class time spent covering the steps. Class time is then freed up for learners to practice performing the procedure, with the instructor’s oversight and assistance as needed.

In addition to carefully evaluating the materials before deciding whether a flipped approach will work, developers should consider the learners’ resources. In some educational frameworks, flipped classrooms are not feasible since not all learners have access to the technology they need to complete the asynchronous portions; this is less likely to be a factor in a corporate environment. In corporate eLearning, the developer’s decision might boil down to deciding whether synchronous sessions are possible, then dividing the materials into synchronous or asynchronous elements. (See “Buzzword Decoder: Virtual Classroom” for more discussion of synchronous and asynchronous eLearning.)

Perhaps the best result of a discussion on whether to flip a classroom is an examination of the materials and approach used—with a goal of creating eLearning that is more focused on the learners and their needs. Writing and delivering a lecture is easy; creating eLearning activities that teach and engage is not. But flipping the classroom might be the push that turns dull learning, heavy with slide decks, into faster-paced and interactive learning.