Cover Story: Words Matter

Cover Story June 19 / June 16, 2018

-by Errol St.Clair Smith-

An interview with Caroline Kurban, co-chair of the Academy of Active Learning Arts and Sciences’ Global Standards Project.

Errol: You are working on many Flipped Learning projects around the world and you’ve concluded that having common terminology matters. Tell us why?

Caroline: Can you imagine what a world would look like without common terminology? Imagine the mechanic asking for the “adjustable spanner with large jaws which has its adjusting screw located in the jaw that is fixed” instead of a monkey wrench. Or a doctor calling for the “apparatus used to control heart fibrillation by application of an electric current to the chest wall or heart” instead of the defibrillator. Common terminology arises in specialist fields so that everyone involved can quickly and comprehensively understand what is going on and act on that information. Common terminology is a shortcut to shared understanding and, thus, shared effective practice.

Errol: Can you give us some very practical examples of what kinds of problems result from NOT having a common terminology?

Caroline: I would like to draw on the story of the Tower of Babel to answer this question. According to the story, in the generations that followed the great flood, humanity regrouped and, united through a single language, planned to build a tower tall enough to reach the heavens so that they would never again be at the mercy of external forces. God, unhappy with their decision, confounded their plan by giving them all different languages. They could no longer communicate, they scattered around the world, and their vision stalled. And I believe this analogy also fits what is happening with Flipped Learning.

Since the early 2000s, Flipped Learning has expanded at an exponential rate. It is now a globally recognized pedagogical approach. While it is clear that all practitioners have a shared vision for improving their students’ learning, this rapid growth has led to various understandings of Flipped Learning and practices moving in different directions in silos around the world.

For example, many research papers purport to be evaluating Flipped against traditional learning. However, a quick look at their methodologies reveals, at best, a naive understanding of Flipped Learning. Flipped Learning is more than just making videos available before class. It is more than just using clickers in class. It involves rethinking and redesigning curriculum, assessment, and instruction in unison, through the Flipped philosophy. Without this, effective learning will not be achieved. Yet, so much research Flips instruction but retains the legacy of traditional curriculum and assessment. This is not Flipped Learning, and should not be labeled as such.

Another challenge comes from the buzzword effect. The popularity of the term Flipped Learning has spawned many companies who are co-opting the term as a marketing tool. Well-intentioned organizations, non-profits, and training consultants are also using the term Flipped Learning to define any number of instructional strategies that involve video instruction. In many cases, what they describe is far from Flipped Learning.

Therefore, it is clear that when we say “Flipped Learning”, we may be using the same words, however, we are often speaking a different language.  Thus, a shared language is needed.

This is where the Global Terminology Project comes in. Within this project, we aim to create clear definitions for the keywords that cause the most confusion, clarify their meaning, and share the standards to create a global understanding. Through this, we aim to remove any confusion.

In order to create these standards, we reached out to delegates around the world who were specifically chosen for their expertise in Flipped Learning. Each delegate submitted a list of key terms they believed needed to be clearly defined within the realm of Flipped Learning. These key terms are then defined in consultation with the six Global Standards Project Co-chairs from MEF, Harvard, Stanford, La Rioja, and National Taiwan University, and the FLGI.

We are just about at the stage where the proposed terms will be released back to the Flipped Learning delegates for their comments and feedback. Once this is completed, the global terminology terms will be released to the public via the Academy of Active Learning Arts and Sciences (AALAS), and can be drawn upon for global understanding.

Errol: You are one of the co-chairs of the Global Standards Project and you lead the Terminology project. What are some of the keywords that need a common definition?

Caroline: Over 500 terms were submitted to the Global Standards Terminology Project from the international delegates. And this proved useful, as clear overlap and patterns of terms emerged from the data.

As we were sifting through the terms, the challenge was to identify which were essential to understanding Flipped Learning and which were ancillary to understanding. To identify the terms that are key to understanding, we reflected on the misconceptions that we had seen arising in research papers and promotional materials purporting to be Flipped and focused on which words were being used spuriously. These terms then emerged into three distinct categories, as shown in the table below.

It is now our aim to clarify exactly what we mean by these within the field of Flipped Learning.

What are some of the challenges you are seeing in creating a globally understood Flipped Learning Language?

Simon Mainwaring – Social Media Specialist – says:

“With the never-ending stream of new social technologies, apps, and platforms rolling out every day, it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of social media. Yet for there to be effective change, especially within large, top-down, hierarchical institutions, a company must have an over-arching understanding of the new role it has to play.”

I believe this sentiment is also true when developing a globally understood terminology for Flipped Learning. We are currently seeing a never-ending stream of articles, presentations, videos and research papers rolling out each day in silos around the world. And when trying to analyze what Flipped Learning means in each of these, we certainly got lost in the minutiae. Was this paper really about Flipped Learning? Does this company really understand the concept of Flipped Learning? Is this adding to or corrupting the concept of Flipped Learning? Simply being aware of these inconsistencies was not enough. Instead, we realized that in order to maintain the core of the principles of Flipped Learning, we needed an over-arching understanding of the new role we had to play. And this is what led to the foundation of AALAS.

AALAS was founded as a non-profit with the clear aim of supporting global best practices. To this end, 100 delegates were chosen from 49 countries to come together to form the AALAS Council of Peers. Together they would have a key role in developing a framework for Flipped Learning Global Standards. The Council of Peers includes delegates from over 25% of the globe, each working on standards in their locale, while also staying connected to the globally agreed principles of Flipped Learning. By taking this path, we are overcoming many of the challenges of creating a globally understood Flipped Learning language.

Errol: This issue of FL is all about collaboration.  Paint us a picture of how are you collaborating with others across the world on the Terminology project and Flipped Learning overall. 

Collaboration is definitely the key to developing the quality of Flipped Learning globally. And this collaboration is currently taking place face-to-face as well as virtually.

As the profile of Flipped Learning and MEF University have increased in unison, we are often approached by institutions and companies looking for support. This interest increased exponentially after the publication of our book The Flipped Approach to Higher Education: Designing Universities for Today’s Knowledge Economies and Societies, published in 2016.

To give an insight into how we are collaborating globally, I would like to share a chronology of how this collaboration has developed over the past four years.

In 2014, MEF University was established as the first and only fully flipped institution of higher education in the world.

By 2015, MEF University Rector, Muhammed Sahin, and I were invited to present how MEF University had opened as the world’s first, fully flipped university at the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference in Liverpool, UK. There was so much interest from the CEO of Blackboard, participants, and other institutions, that it was at that time we decided to write a book to share our experiences. We went on to publish our book in November 2016.

In the summer of 2016, I contacted Jon Bergmann regarding the book, and he offered to write the foreword. I also contacted the Flipped Learning Academy at the MAST Institute of the University of Northern Colorado who were about to hold their inaugural Flipped Learning Conference. Interested in what MEF was doing, they invited me to be the keynote banquet speaker. This put me in contact with many other innovators of Flipped Learning in higher education from all around the world.

It was during my time in Colorado that Jon invited me to do an online interview for his radio show. After this, Jon asked me to become the inaugural research fellow at the Flipped Learning Global Initiative – and this is when global collaboration really started to take off. Over the next year, Jon, Errol St. Clair Smith – CEO, the other research fellows and I held regular meetings via WebEx to discuss where Flipped Learning was going and how we could pull this together into a strategic plan.

In December 2016, I presented on Flipped Learning at the OEB conference in Berlin, during which time I introduced MEF University’s book. In the audience, that day was Iullia Shnai, a PhD candidate focusing on Flipped Learning, and working on a proposal for an Erasmus+funded project proposal together with Professor Leonid Cherchurin, Head of Technical Science at Lappeenranta University in Finland. Their project, CEPHEI (, aimed to build a community of digital learners in university and industry by developing a cooperative e-Learning platform for industrial innovation. They had been looking for a partner university to support the development of flipped learning within this project. They contacted me at MEF. And one year later, we kicked off the project with one million Euros funding from Erasmus to develop the project. Our consortium consists of nine universities from six different countries including Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Turkey, Russia and China.

Communicating with people from so many countries can be a challenge. However, through a mixture of face-to-face and online meetings, the project is coming together. Face-to-face, we have so far met in Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden (with China, Turkey and Russia visits are planned for later this year).

When working virtually, we meet once a month online using WebEx, and at other times communicate asynchronously through Rocket Chat. In our Netherlands meeting, we were also able to link up with Jon and Errol via WebEx to run a presentation, question and answer session across ten time zones. Technology has certainly made global collaboration easier!

The rising profile of MEF University and Flipped Learning also caught the attention of the World Bank. In 2017, we were contacted by Dr. Malay Dave, Director of JIS Engineering Colleges in India. He had put in a proposal to the World Bank and the All India Council for Education (AICE) to get funding to Flip all 25 JIS colleges. The World Bank was aware of MEF’s book on Flipped Learning, and recommended that Malay contact us to set up a Memorandum of Understanding to provide support in Flipping the JIS colleges. In January 2018, MEF and JIS signed the memorandum to put this into place. We have been hosting delegates from JIS ever since as they visit our campus and discuss strategies for how they can develop their own Flipped Learning provision.

In February of this year, the FLGI launched the Global Standards Project with the aim of developing a common framework, terminology, and defined best practices to ensure that veteran and new practitioners are grounded in the most current worldwide research and global best practices for Flipped Learning. To kick off the process, 100 delegates from 49 countries were invited to make suggestions on which terms were most important to be fully understood in order for Flipped Learning to be effective. To do this, delegates input their ideas into Mentimeter, a polling tool wherein one is able to set up questions after which the target audience can give their input using a mobile phone or any other internet-connected device. Within a month, 500 terms had been suggested, and the process was underway.

Giving presentations at conferences also plays a big part in networking, setting up connections, and increasing global collaboration. This year in March, I attended the American Council on Education (ACE) conference for leaders of higher education in Washington D.C.. One of the key connections I made there was with Mathew Summers of Thoughtexchange. Mathew gave a demonstration of how Thoughtexchange software and services allow organizations to gather and rank ideas on a global scale to enable decision-making and change. I immediately saw how this could be used to bring full collaboration and agreement to the Global Standards Project. Thoughtexchange and the FLGI eventually signed an agreement. We are using Thoughtexchange in the final process of gathering feedback and opinions as we finalize the common terminology and project and best practices.

Other conferences that proved to be immensely fruitful were the International Business Pedagogy Workshop in Leeds, UK, in April, and the Future EdTech Conference in London, June 2018, where Muhammed Sahin was invited as a keynote speaker to talk about MEF University’s Flipped Learning model.

As well as visiting conferences, I have the privilege of visiting many incredible universities. This year I have visited Lappeenranta University of Technology – Finland, Royal Institute of Technology – Sweden, University of Twente – Netherlands, and University College London – UK. All of which amazed me at the innovative and contemporary approaches they are taking to education.

I was also privileged to be invited to participate in the Flipped Learning Higher Education Certification program. Once again, technology-enabled collaboration across continents. Through WebEx and Facebook Messaging, Jon, Errol and I were able to communicate synchronously as we planned the sessions. Then Zoom allowed for real-time recording of interviews for the higher education course. Just ten years ago, none of this would be possible.

And finally, on the Global Standards Project, I am fortunate to be working with the other co-chairs on this global project. Between us, we represent Harvard, Stanford, MEF, La Rioja, and the National Taiwan University. Thus, we have outreach in the Americas, Europe and Asia

Errol: Final question: We’ve found that much of the work that is done in flipped learning occurs in silos. The silo of a classroom, a school or even a country.   Why are you so committed to working beyond the silo of your local institution?

Caroline: Educators go into education because they are passionate about what they do. They are passionate about their learners. And they believe in the importance of education for the development of people, societies, and global citizenship. These drives mean that educators are not protectionist. They are constantly sharing, discussing, experimenting and developing. However, the role of an educator is often a solitary one. Once in our classrooms, we work alone. This, added to time constraints, means that, even with the best will, it can be challenging to collaborate and share with others. And this is what leads to silos of practice. This is what leads to so many individuals reinventing the wheel, even when the research is already out there and best practices are out there.

As Peter Senge – founder of the Society for Organizational Learning – sagely says:

“A shared vision is not an idea… it is rather, a force in people’s hearts… at its simplest level, a shared vision is the answer to the question ‘What do we want to create?’” 

As we can see, the force is already in the hearts of educators. And we all want to create effective learning for our students. The vision is there. But the community needs to move beyond the level of classrooms, institutions and nations. And this is what MEF, the FLGI, and AALAS are striving to do. It is for this reason that I am committed to global collaboration and the sharing of best practices.


Errol St.Clair Smith
I am the Director of Global Development at the Flipped Learning Global Initiative. I joined the education community in 2005, working closely with national education organizations on community outreach and professional development. Over the last decade, I’ve led the development of community platforms for The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE); the Association of Curriculum Developers (ASCD); the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Associations for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the National Association of School Nurses (NASN), the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the National Parent Teachers Association (NPTA), and the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO). I'm honored to have received four Emmy nominations and an Emmy Award for public affairs programming. In 2017 I co-authored Flipped Learning 3.0 with Jon Bergmann. The book was updated based on the AALAS Global Elements of Effective Flipped Learning in 2019.

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