– by Errol St.Clair Smith –
Flipped Learning in higher ed may have been invented at Harvard, but it’s being perfected and scaled at MEF University in Istanbul. What happens when you move from flipping lessons and classrooms to flipping an entire university? There are only a handful of people who truly know the answer to that question. In this interview, we connect with one of them, Muhammed Sahin, the founding rector of MEF.
MEF was the first fully flipped university in the world. Briefly, what is the story behind how MEF was started?
Sahin: MEF Educational Institutions was founded in the 1970s by İbrahim Arıkan, an educator and businessman. In 1996, he founded MEF national and international K-12 schools in Istanbul and Izmir. In 2013, he founded MEF University. As both educator and entrepreneur, Arıkan was in a unique position to establish a university. He was aware the educational system was not well suited to the current needs of students and society and envisioned a totally new educational approach for MEF University. To find this approach, he brought me on board as founding rector. Having been rector of Istanbul Technical University from 2008 to 2012, I had a strong background in innovations in education. During our first meeting, Arıkan made it clear that if he was going to establish a university, it needed to be unique and take a different mentality to the educational needs of today’s students. I vividly remember Ibrahim emphatically declaring that if he could not make a change to higher education, he would call a halt to his aspirations for opening a university.
Thinking about new teaching methods, I remembered the American Council on Education meeting I had attended in March 2011 in Washington DC. One of the presenters, Clayton Christensen, a futurist from Harvard University, gave a talk about the pressing need to investigate how best to educate and prepare the instructors who would be teaching the Z generation. On remembering Christensen’s talk, it became ever clearer to me that MEF needed an educational approach that was specifically geared to the needs of Generation Y and Z students — the first generations to be born into an already digital world. While I was reading around the subject, I found emerging articles on Flipped Learning, and this approach started to look like the answer. I decided to investigate further.
As I investigated, I discovered the Flipped Learning approach had gradually developed from prototypes in the 1990s, such as Eric Mazur’s Peer Instruction model, and had been trialed on university courses from mathematics to geology, biology to computer science, all of which saw increased student successes. Also in the news was Greg Green’s success at Clintondale High School, where he introduced Flipped Learning, leading to failure rates dropping dramatically across all subject areas. This inspired Green to move the entire school over to the Flipped instruction model by 2011. Of course, by 2012, Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams’ book, The Flipped Classroom, coined the phrase while also making the concept of Flipped Learning accessible to all. Respected higher education publications such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard Magazine, the New York Times, and Stanford Daily were also starting to pick up on this trend. By this point, I was convinced that Flipped Learning was an effective approach, and I shared my findings with Arıkan.
He suggested I set up a focus group with professors from top universities in Istanbul, give a presentation sharing the vision MEF University wanted to establish, and present the Flipped Learning approach. He said, “Then sit back and listen.” In May 2013, I did just this. However, 80% of the professors rejected the idea of Flipped Classroom, as they believed, under this system, they would no longer have an important role in teaching and learning. Undeterred by this feedback, and convinced that Flipped Learning was the right approach for students, I told Arıkan we should listen to the voices of students. Only after that could we make a decision. Arıkan agreed. So we went ahead with a second focus group with students from the same universities the professors had come from. Once again, I presented, then stepped back and listened. This time the results were very different. Unlike the professors, 80-90% of the students were positive about the flipped classroom approach and expressed this was the best approach to educate their generation. After this, we were convinced that the flipped classroom approach would fit the teaching and learning vision we had for MEF, and we decided to establish MEF as a fully flipped university.
Starting the first flipped university was a large risk. What were you most anxious about at the beginning?
Sahin: You are right. It was a large risk. And we had many apprehensions about how the flipped approach would be accepted, as it was a completely new concept in Turkey. We arranged a press conference for November 20, 2013, at which time we planned to reveal our vision of MEF being established as a fully flipped university. However, two days prior, Arıkan called me. He seemed nervous. He said many of his advisors were telling him he was taking a big risk with the flipped classroom approach. They asked why he was aiming to be the first university in the world that would apply the flipped approach to every program. They thought this was a risk as the university was new, and there was no established track record for a university-wide flipped approach. They were also questioning why he chose me as the founding rector, labeling me a “maverick.” Despite this, Arıkan wanted to continue with the idea of the flipped classroom, but only if the term could be translated into Turkish. A few names were suggested, but none that were conclusive. That night, I couldn’t sleep. No matter how we had tried to translate flipped classroom to Turkish it lost its original meaning.
The next day, I visited Arıkan and shared my thoughts. I told Arıkan I felt the translation diluted the strength of the vision and that if we used the translated version, we would not be able to claim we were establishing a university with a difference – we were going to lose the vision – and as Arıkan himself had stated, there was no point opening a university that wasn’t offering a different vision. During this meeting, I convinced Arıkan not to change the name of the flipped classroom. However, after agreeing to keep the term, it was Arıkan’s turn for a sleepless night. He was concerned the educational correspondents would criticize the system. I assured Arıkan I did not expect the educational correspondents to criticize our proposed system, as both he and I were well known as successful educators. I convinced Arıkan that because of our combined knowledge and experience in education, people would believe in us as a powerful new addition to tertiary education. They would believe in our vision. On November 20th , the press conference took place. Fortunately, Arıkan’s concerns did not materialize and my predictions were correct. We announced that MEF would be established as a fully flipped university, and the correspondents were impressed. The day after the press conference, Arıkan called me at 9am and asked if I had seen the newspapers. When I looked, I found an overwhelmingly positive response. Our vision had been accepted and was being celebrated. The first step of achieving our dream was in place.
What hurdles did you have to surmount to fully flip a university?
Sahin: The first consideration was location. I recommended a small campus in the center of Istanbul, as students should be learning not only from the university education but also from the culture and commerce of the city. This is why we decided to locate in the Ayazağa-Maslak business district. Next was classroom design. I presented Flipped Learning to a number of architecture companies, eventually selecting a proposal from b-design, a Turkish-American company experienced with educational institutions. Their design saw five groups of tables with six chairs coming out from a central podium. There was a smart board on one wall, and “magic paint” on the remaining walls turning them into whiteboards.
A “smart” library was also designed for students to access digital materials 24/7, allowing them to control and personalize their learning. To support students and instructors, I established the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), hiring Dr. Caroline Fell Kurban as the inaugural director. I also hired an Instructional Technologies Coordinator (ITC), Brian Ramey, to advise and administrate on the technological issues related to Flipped Learning, opened an International Office directed by Anjarritta Rantanen, and established the English Language Preparatory Program headed by Dr. John McKeown. Finally, the technological infrastructure was put in place. Blackboard was chosen as the learning management system to host the online component. An in-house recording studio was built for instructors to professionally create videos for their courses. The studio was designed by 1000 Volt, a post-production company owned by Arıkan. And a post-production director and cameraman were also hired from the same company.
Where did you get the professors?
Sahin: Joining a start-up university takes a special kind of person. In the early stages of development, there is much uncertainty, lack of institutional history, and many unknowns. Individuals who wish to join a start-up need to have high levels of flexibility, the ability to work with a vision but not direct instruction, be willing to work with new ideas and technologies, be comfortable with uncertainty, have excellent team working and communication skills and, most of all, have a desire to create a legacy. These are the characteristics Arıkan and I were looking for when starting to recruit for the MEF team. The first stage was to hire the deans. The role of a dean in a new university is critical. It is from their leadership that the tone of a faculty is set. They must be in alignment with the university vision and dedicated to making that happen. If they bring with them a fossilized approach, this will lead to resistance, discontent, and act as an anchor against moving that faculty forward. Deans must lead by example, set a standard, and expect their team to live up to that standard. When inviting potential deans for interview, I asked each of them to prepare a vision of what their faculty would look like when following the flipped approach. I was looking for deans who were passionate about the need for change in education, understood the reasons why this change was required, and were willing to lead and develop others within their faculties to become leading Flipped Learning educators. I also clearly shared the MEF vision for the establishment of a flipped university and stressed that if they wanted to join the university they would need to fully accept that vision and not try to convince me to change that vision in the future. If they accepted the flipped approach, they could come and work with me; if not, then MEF University was not the place for them.
After these interviews, the dean candidates whose vision for the future of education matched that of MEF were hired and soon after that started to interview potential professors for their faculties who would help them to take this vision forward. To do this, we advertised in the November 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education and specified that the flipped classroom had been chosen as the pedagogical approach of the university in all programs and made it clear that it was a pre-condition that all prospective faculty commit to this method. Candidates were asked to prepare a teaching statement explaining how they would implement Flipped Learning in their particular field and courses, and all interviews for short-listed candidates started with a question concerning commitment to Flipped Learning. Two hundred prospective faculty applied for the 36 available positions, and of these, 80% were non-Turkish and over 90% had PhDs from out of the country. When the candidates were asked why they had decided to apply to a start-up university in a foreign country, the response without fail was: “because of the Flipped Learning approach.” By taking this approach, MEF was in a unique situation. All incoming faculty were dedicated to the idea of Flipped Learning and enthusiastic to make it a success; this ultimately lead to less resistance and fewer issues related to change management.
Where did you get your students, and what was their initial response?
Sahin: With our faculty, we were looking for risk-takers who were looking for a new and innovative teaching and learning experience, and we had the same aim with our students. Advertisements were placed nationally, and recruitment fairs took place all over the country. The flipped classroom approach took pride of place in these campaigns. We wanted students to choose us specifically because of the flipped approach. We wanted to attract students who were looking for something different. And this obviously worked. When MEF opened to students in September 2014, just nine months after the initial press release, in its first year of enrollment, MEF University enrollment fill ratio scored third among all 68 Turkish foundation (private) universities and second in Istanbul among 38 foundation universities. In addition, 73% of MEF students had scored in the top 10% of the centralized university examination in Turkey, making MEF the third in Turkey and second in Istanbul among all foundation universities for quality of students. For a university with no proven track record, in its first month of opening, MEF was full to capacity with the brightest students in Turkey.
How were the professors and students trained in Flipped Learning?
Sahin: To help support students, instructors, and the institution in the implementation and development of Flipped Learning, the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching was established. The role of the center is to uniquely position MEF University at the forefront of innovative learning and teaching using 21st-century tools and approaches at an international level, as well as to innovate and enhance the learning and teaching effectiveness of Flipped Learning within MEF, Turkey, and the world. To accomplish this mission, four specific target areas were identified: students, faculty, research, and outreach. For students, during orientation week, the CELT provides pedagogic information on Flipped Learning and advice on how to be effective at Flipped Learning. The center also provides a drop-in center, a mentorship program, an online support site, and workshops. For faculty, a Flipped Learning instructional design handbook was written, an online course developed, workshops run, and one-to-one flipped course planning meetings were held.
What are the practical differences in managing and growing a fully flipped university versus a traditional lecture-based university?
Sahin: To manage and grow a fully flipped university, you need to start with a strong institutional vision and develop the institutional culture and identity around that. Everyone, from the leader to the professors, from the students to the support staff, must share that vision and want to be a part of it. Once that culture is in place, everyone is working toward the same vision. I am a hands-off leader. I encourage people to use their initiative, to take risks, to be creative. I believe innovations can only take place in a flexible, fluid environment. Strict hierarchies and fossilized bureaucracies have no place in a flipped institution. The best environment for contemporary learning is more in line with the fluidity and flexibility of a start-up company.
In retrospect, what would you have done differently?
Sahin: Bringing MEF University to its current position has been a learning process. Every trial and error, every success and failure, has brought us to where we are today. In particular, due to Flipped Learning being such a new concept in Turkey and in the world, when we first started out, we found that technologies, publishers, and other stakeholders were not ready for what we were asking for. They simply did not have what we needed. We wanted digital platforms – not books, adaptive learning – not standard quizzes, learning management systems with the ability to track learning outcomes not just within, but also across courses. To overcome this, over the past four years, we have met regularly with publishers and technology companies, sharing our vision as it relates to our needs. Slowly, technology and companies are catching up, and a really comprehensive Flipped Learning experience is starting to emerge. So, in that respect, no, I don’t believe there is anything I would have done differently. Every step of the way has been important.
You were the first university to adopt the FLGI Flipped Learning International Training Standards. Why did you decide to embrace them?
Sahin: Over the past five years, Flipped Learning has gained in popularity globally. However, what is understood by Flipped Learning and how it has actually been implemented is broad and varied. While there are many excellent examples by dedicated practitioners, there are also cases where flipped has not been fully understood or implemented correctly. Unless global standards are agreed, Flipped Learning runs the risk of losing its reputation and effectiveness through mis-practice. The FLGI’s global standards for training will help to avoid this situation. By basing recommendations for training on the most current global research and best practices, while also keeping it culturally appropriate to the locale, Flipped Learning training remains relevant and effective to all. It is, for this reason, MEF embraced the FLGI flipped global standards for training.
You are clearly a visionary education leader. What do you see ahead for the future of Flipped Learning in higher education?
Sahin: There are two key developments that I see taking place in the future of Flipped Learning. The first is how we approach assessment. How you assess your students has a steering effect on what they value. If a course is flipped, but the assessment relies on a mid-term and final exam, the message sent to students is that the exams are more important than the learning journey. This needs to change. At MEF, we are getting rid of traditional assessment and replacing it with ongoing, formative, authentic assessment that also incorporates soft skills, social responsibility, and links to local industries and institutions. We want our students to be assessed in the ways they will actually be required to work when they enter the workforce. The second development regards introducing digital platforms with adaptive learning capabilities. Digital platforms can provide students with so much more than a traditional book. We are currently trialing McGraw Hill, Pearson and Cengage platforms across a number of courses. These platforms provide searchable content, professionally made videos and animations and, most importantly, adaptive learning capabilities whereby algorithms work out how much a student has understood and guides them to the next level. This provides differentiated, individual support at a granular level that is not possible in a classroom setting. These platforms are proving to dovetail with the technological, content, and differentiation needs within the Flipped Learning philosophy. I am currently writing a book titled Disrupting Assessment in Higher Education through Flipped Learning, in which we share our underlying philosophies, strategies, and experiences of bringing Flipped 3.0 to fruition.