The Flip and the Rise of Courseware

My new favorite edublogger (not counting my dear friends here on e-Literate, to whom I am partial) is Mike Caufield over at Hapgood. I don’t know how I missed him up until now, but I was very lucky to meet him at a recent Lumen Learning event. I learn something valuable from just about every post of his that I read.

Case in point: His post on the distributed flip based on a talk he gave at InstructureCon. (Sadly, I have missed most of the LMS conferences this year due to other business travel.) This is a nuanced and interesting piece that is worth reading in its entirety.

That said, there is one idea I’d like to highlight that is related to something that Phil and I have written about quite a bit. It all starts with the notion of the “cognitive cutoff” as the motivation for the flipped classroom. At it’s heart, it’s a simple idea. If you want your students to learn a sophisticated concept, they have to learn the simpler concepts that form the foundation first. One way to think about flipping is that the students are getting the foundation at home so that you can guide them through the sophisticated stuff in class. The line between the “at-home” stuff and the “in class” stuff is the cognitive cutoff. It’s the line between the stuff you think they can handle on their own and the stuff you think they’re really going to need your help with.

But here’s where Mike takes the idea someplace fascinating:

What I find interesting about the cognitive cutoff from an educational materials perspective is this. If your cognitive cutoff is low – somewhere just over remembering – your educational materials issue is pretty simple, and you might be able to deal with it by recording some mini-lectures and combining them with textbook readings. In this sort of scenario it’s completely possible that a faculty member could do this by themselves, though admittedly at an increased workload.

But what if you want to push that cognitive cutoff to where [Robert] Talbert is pushing it? And what if you want to develop a rich set of activities and materials that support the students in reaching that cutoff before class?

I’d propose that to do that in a really effective way requires more work than any one single faculty member can do, and that when you get into designing online components that test application, understanding, and analysis that you may also be pulling from skills that are not traditionally those of faculty (e.g. instructional design). You have to get beyond the cottage industry model of course design.

If the residential college, or its digital…er…analog of traditional faculty-led distance learning, is going to be able to continue to justify its existence in the face of alternative methods that will increasingly provide lower cost structures, it has to have a set of pedagogical approaches that can deliver very high learning impact on a reliable basis. Mike’s suggestion of keeping the cognitive cutoff high is one reasonable strategy for achieving that impact. But taking that strategy will entail faculty accepting a new relationship to their course designs. It means they have to rely increasingly on research done by cross-functional teams across many class cohorts for the course and curricular materials designs, and invest their personal sense of self-worth instead on what they accomplish in the classroom as an advanced coach. Unfortunately, some faculty seem to equate this sort of change with them becoming “glorified TAs”—an idea frequently expressed with an air of disdain.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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5 Responses to The Flip and the Rise of Courseware

  1. RedHoop says:

    Michael, great article, Always learn something new from you. It reminded me of a recent survey (don’t remember where I read it) that most students say they learn from TAs while in school. Again, thanks, Michelle

  2. Chris Lott says:

    Mike is one of the best education/tech/etc bloggers around. Glad to see you’ve found him.

    You wite:

    “At it’s heart, it’s a simple idea. If you want your students to learn a sophisticated concept, they have to learn the simpler concepts that form the foundation first.”

    They *have* to? Or is that just one way? One thing I’ve become convinced of over the last few years is the value of turning that assumption over, taking a “head-first” approach, and having students derive the foundation from the more sophisticated and challenging work and activities.

  3. mikecaulfield says:

    Michael — thanks for the kind comments. As a long-time reader of your blog I appreciate it.

    Chris — There’s this interesting question about Bloom’s and hierarchical goals. And I think what I’ve found in the research is that it depends both on the discipline and the level of proficiency of the students. It would be extremely ineffective for me to teach you physics by throwing you into an engineering task first — among other things, you’d be likely to develop some serious misconceptions that would hinder you later on. Here’s some summary of the research on that: http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/spring2012/Clark.pdf

    I think this applies best to STEM work, but also to many fields outside of STEM. If you are doing analysis of historical documents, for example, a quick lesson on principles of primary document analysis delivered *before* you work on that will be more effective than it delivered after. At the same time we fight with the motivation and relevance question, so sometimes we have to structure courses/classes so that the students engage early with problems that interest them. I think it’s a bit of a balance that we have to maintain.

    I think back to when I tried to learn guitar through lessons back as a kid. I got into week three and I was so bored with practicing perfect hand position and playing Three Blind Mice that I quit. I wanted to play the freaking Beatles, man!

    So I quit, and I taught myself to play the Beatles. And to this day, I’m a horrible guitar player. I hold the neck wrong, constantly get minor finger sprains from playing too long, shift fingers in all the wrong patterns, and hit the strings with a weird strum that breaks about a string a week (which is not normal).

    Had the teacher thrown me into A Day in the Life directly, and said we’ll work out the basics as you hit them, I might have developed all the same problems. It would have been bad teaching. On the other hand, if he’d given me SOMETHING better than Three Blind Mice, I might have powered through and got hand position down. I could be a rock star now!

    I’m not sure if this story really answers the question, except to say that a good teacher will try to maximize engagement and authenticity while keeping as close as possible to good sequencing, and these two aims often come into conflict.

  4. Nick DiNardo says:

    Fascinating conversation Mike C. and Michael F. Thanks for all you do to help us all become better.

    Nick

  5. It was a wonderful article. Seeing as you’ve put this one point under the spotlight, I note that it can be pushed one step further. Having a pool of high quality materials does not by itself get us away from cottage industry, as long as the user of those materials remains the lone ranger instructor. It just gives us a better resourced cottage industry. The final step is to acknowledge it takes a multidisciplinary team – at the coalface, not just in the supply chain – to create and sustain high-quality education.
    By the way, the “someplace fascinating” this takes us is squarely into the cubicles of any successful commercial provider of high quality education, where this has been understood for several decades.