The week of August 23, 2015

The ‘flipped classroom’ is professional suicide

By Jonathan Rees

Historian Rachel Hope Cleaves recently identified a recurring meme in the history of food advertising: pigs slaughtering themselves. She first tweeted an image of pig leaping into a meat grinder. Others followed with different examples of suicide, some not requiring machines. Over and again, our porcine friends happily sacrifice themselves for our gustatory delectation. The irony of these pictures, if you know anything about pigs, is that they are among the smartest animals in the animal kingdom, and therefore unlikely to carve themselves up to be served on a platter. Yet there they are, happily chopping away.

This may explain why that discussion makes me think of college professors.

While nobody has suggested carving the professoriat up for dinner (at least not that I’ve heard), there has been plenty of discussion in education technology circles about carving their jobs into pieces and distributing those pieces to separate people—Silicon Valley’s friendly sounding term for this is “unbundling.” I first saw that term used during the now-legendary MOOC frenzy of 2012. “Why should you lecture, when you can get some hotshot from Harvard to do your job for you?” the thinking went, implying that professors are akin to “content providers,” and learning a species of “content distribution.” After all, the argument went, isn’t a college seminar basically a podcast?

“Why should you lecture, when you can get some hotshot from Harvard to do your job for you?”

An offshoot of that particular fad was a new sub-fad called the “flipped classroom,” in which professors forgo class lectures; instead, students watch Internet videos of the same course lectures (or sometimes videos from an entirely different source) on their own time. Proponents claim it frees up class time for direct interaction between faculty and individual students. Instantly suspicious of flipping my classroom, I wondered how my students would find time to do their assigned reading if they were watching class videos in their dorm rooms three times a week? I also wondered what the rest of my class would be doing while I personally interacted with other students, one by one. I am yet to get satisfactory responses to either of these concerns.

These are merely my pedagogical problems with flipped classrooms. More pressingly, the practice is symptomatic of a larger problem in the dysfunctional relationship between higher education and the Internet—the tendency of faculty to offload their duties to the World Wide Web. In the name of efficiency, convenience, data collection, or perhaps simple laziness, professors are using the Internet in general and the flipped classroom technique in particular to “unbundle” themselves. While that might not be such a bad thing for those faculty who can control all the conditions of their employment, for those of us who can’t, this may constitute professional suicide.

This is where the symbiotic relationship between MOOCs and flipped classrooms becomes very important. Just the other day, Steve Mintz, who runs the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, suggested that MOOC providers, in order to rejuvenate their business models, could “disaggregate course content and make the assets available to any faculty member (or institution) to use.” Translated, that means that the faculty who use MOOC lectures would see their courses Napsterized, their classes turned into discrete bits of content, with that content flowing according to the whims of others. (Even faculty who simply tape themselves could end up having their work resold without compensation.) Teachers, like artists (see Taylor Swift), ought to be wary of letting others dictate how their work is distributed.

Mintz tries to avoid the obvious conclusion about where such distribution would inevitably lead. “Rather than threatening to displace faculty,” he writes, “a resource repository would give faculty valuable tools to make teaching more effective. Think of it as akin to what JSTOR did for journal content. In fact, if MOOC providers choose not to do this, others will.” (Is this last part a promise, or a threat?)

When you outsource content provision to the Internet, you put yourself in competition with it.

While this kind of activity gets little coverage in the higher ed press, the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier suspended his Coursera MOOC precisely because that company was shopping his lectures to universities for use during non-MOOC classes. While MOOCs were designed to replace faculty, flipping your own classroom is more like faculty trying to replace themselves. It’s a clever trick, but it assumes you have complete control of your own classroom. Most professors don’t.

But wait! No university is going to replace professors with tapes of themselves, are they? Don’t be so sure. As Leslie Madsen-Brooks of Boise State University concluded after her school began capturing classroom lectures and posting them to iTunes: “In an age where people seem to think that education is just a matter of ‘delivering content’ that translates into mad workplace skillz, I’m uneasy about providing the university with any multimedia content that could be aggregated into a enormous-enrollment course taught by a grossly underpaid and underinsured Ph.D.”

Just thinking about the copyright issues involved here makes my head hurt—and Madsen-Brooks’s uneasiness speaks to the precariousness felt by today’s higher education faculty. What happens when those with power decide to flip your classroom for you? What if they want all your “content” to be “disaggregated”?

“I’m uneasy about providing the university with any multimedia content that could be aggregated into a enormous-enrollment course taught by a grossly underpaid and underinsured Ph.D.”

This brings me back to those suicidal pigs. While it might have been easier for the meat-eaters of 19th-century America to believe their dinner ecstatically sacrificed itself on behalf of carnivores everywhere, what makes these depictions so funny today is our understanding that meatpacking was and continues to be a very nasty business. Believing the images of those jolly, happy, self-slaughtering animals requires willful ignorance—a refusal to see how the sausage is made. I’m not saying everybody ought to become a vegetarian, but I am saying that if you don’t yet recognize that industrial pig slaughter is an act of brute force, you have no business eating pork products.

I think this same general principle applies to flipping your classroom. I know some disciplines—particularly outside the humanities—could benefit from adopting this practice. In large lecture halls, even the small amount of faculty-student interaction that flipping the classroom might create would be an improvement over the passive learning that so often dominates there. After all, who am I to tell other professors how to run their classes?

But let the flipper beware. When you outsource content provision to the Internet, you put yourself in competition with it—and it is very hard to compete with the Internet. After all, if you aren’t the best lecturer in the world, why shouldn’t your boss replace you with whoever is? And if you aren’t the one providing the content, why did you spend all those years in graduate school anyway? Teaching, you say? Well, administrators can pay graduate students or adjuncts a lot less to do your job. Pretty soon, there might even be a computer program that can do it.

In short, once you’ve begun the great unbundling, it might be rather difficult to bundle yourself back together again—particularly in an environment where universities are pinching every penny until it yelps. And meanwhile, faculty everywhere are the targets of Silicon Valley education disruptors who are all out to make a buck at the expense of our prerogatives and even our very employment. Keeping that in mind, it might be smart for us not to make things any easier for them.

Jonathan Rees is a professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He blogs at More or Less Bunk about technology, the history of technology, and employment issues in higher education.