Under the Hood: Flipped Learning at a Completely Online University

Higher Ed June 19 / Higher Ed March 20 / June 20, 2019

 – Jerry Overmyer –

The updated definition of Flipped Learning (Academy of Active Learning Arts and Sciences) is “a framework that enables educators to reach every student. The flipped approach inverts the traditional classroom model by introducing course concepts before class, allowing educators to use class time to guide each student through active, practical, innovative applications of the course principles.”

This definition mentions “classroom” and “class time.” Does this mean that the concept of Flipped Learning and online are incompatible? By modifying the classroom and class time concepts, we will see how some aspects are flipped and how active learning can be incorporated in a completely online university.


About WGU

Western Governors University (WGU) is a fully accredited online competency-based university with an enrollment of over 100,000 full-time students. WGU is the only online institution to offer competency-based bachelor’s and master’s degrees at this scale. Competency-based learning measures learning regardless of the time needed. At a traditional university, students can only advance in their coursework at the end of the term or semester. In a competency-based program, students can progress through courses as soon as they can prove that they have mastered the material. WGU students are mostly “nontraditional.” They mostly work full time, and the average student age is in the mid to upper 30s.

WGU’s competency-based academic approach uses two types of assessments: objective assessments and performance assessments. Objective assessments are multiple-choice tests that students take in a proctored, at-home environment using webcam technology and third-party online proctoring services. Performance assessments may include essays, research papers and projects. Real-world capstone projects, student teaching or clinical field experiences complete the student programs.

The Faculty

In the description of their faculty, WGU explicitly de-emphasizes lecture:

“At WGU, you have an entire team of faculty members whose #1 job description is empowering you toward success. Unlike other universities, with their ‘sage on the stage’ approach to faculty, a WGU faculty member is more like a ‘guide on the side’—a leading expert in his or her field, either on hand to provide you personalized instruction and support in your courses and your program exactly when you need it or working diligently behind the scenes to create programs and assessments designed to help you maximize your career potential,” according to WGU.

The WGU model uses a disaggregated faculty model, which means that faculty are separated into lanes based on their expertise:

Curriculum Faculty – are experts in curriculum development based on academic and industry standards. They work with third-party vendors to create course materials.

Program Mentors – provide guidance throughout a student’s time at WGU. They provide information on all procedures and help students establish a broad study plan. They help to sustain motivation and progress toward graduation. It is common for students to form strong social and emotional bonds and relationships with their program mentors, and they often meet face to face at graduation.

Course Instructors – are subject matter experts who work with students to succeed in their courses. They provide instruction both proactively and reactively based on a student’s need in a particular course.

Assessment Faculty – create objective and performance assessments that are valid and reliable and align with the competencies of each course.

Evaluators – review student’s performance assessments to determine if competency has been demonstrated. They strive to provide clear and comprehensive feedback free of bias.

This division of labor has the advantage that faculty can remain student-focused and do not need to duplicate many tasks. Also, the faculty from each area work closely with each other to improve materials and enhance the student experience. In many traditional universities, professors work in isolation. In a traditional university, these isolation “silos” can make it difficult for faculty to communicate with other faculty and share innovative instructional strategies. Unfortunately, this disaggregated faculty model sometimes leads to “silos” between the faculty types. For example, course instructors and curriculum faculty rarely communicate. Therefore, there are still barriers to faculty communication, which can make it difficult to implement innovative instruction.


WGU General Education Mathematics Courses

As a WGU Course Instructor in mathematics, I can share my knowledge of these courses. For each course, there is a main online textbook. In addition to offering content knowledge like a traditional textbook, all of these e-books offer formative assessments in the form of checkpoints or quizzes. These are multiple-choice or short answer and provide student feedback. A student’s progress in these formative assessments is usually the first items checked when working one-on-one with a student.

All of the courses offer live webinars and cohorts. These are optional for students. They are done live over the internet using software such as Zoom or Adobe Connect. It is at the instructor’s discretion how much interaction with students is involved. Many of the sessions encourage the student to do pre-work so that the live sessions can delve into deeper understanding and application of the concepts.

In addition, there are course-instructor created videos. In mathematics, videos are exceedingly beneficial because reading a mathematics textbook can be very difficult. The videos allow students to see the concepts, examples and applications laid out step-by-step with audio and video. Some students view the videos before engaging with the online text, and some students use the videos for review after the online text.

One unique aspect of the general education mathematics courses is our Math Helpline. The helpline is offered seven days a week, including evenings and weekdays. So as soon as students are stuck, they can call in and get instant help from a course instructor (course instructors use screen share and have tablets or document cameras).


WGU General Education Composition Courses

I interviewed my colleague, Lisa Wellinghoff, a course instructor for composition courses at WGU. For the composition course, students submit essays as performance assessments. Features of these courses use active learning and tenets of Flipped Learning. First, although the department offers standard live webinars for concepts such as APA formatting and using the WGU library, there are also active webinars. For these, students bring their essays, complete or in process, to share with the class. They then work collaboratively to comment on and improve the essays. The other unique feature of the composition courses is a video feedback appointment. In these, students schedule a time and submit their drafts to a course instructor. Within two hours, a course instructor will annotate the draft with comments and advice. They will then record this feedback explaining the annotations and send it to the students as a personalized video.


Fully Online, Not Fully Flipped

As mentioned earlier, because WGU is entirely online, there is no “group space.”  Students can work through courses with little to no faculty contact. Although they will meet with their program mentors, they will proceed through the courses in a traditional method of filling their brains with information and then regurgitating that information on an assessment. Likewise, students rarely work together. This is a feature of WGU that is appealing to many students. They are nontraditional students who want to apply and enhance their career knowledge. They mostly work full time and have families, so the social aspects of a traditional university experience are often not as important.

I cannot speak for all courses, but some of the active and flipped aspects of the general education courses are lacking. For example, many of the online textbooks offer applets that allow for mathematical exploration: the online manipulatives and interactive graphing. Unfortunately, at the current time, it seems that most of these activities are an afterthought. These are not assessed, and there is currently no easy way to view if these are effective or if students have completed these activities.

We have been trying to make the live webinars more active, but there is resistance among students to participate in mathematics. We recently tried a college algebra event where students would work collaboratively in small groups, and only contact the course instructor as needed. After a few weeks, this pilot program was ended because students were not willing to work collaboratively online.


Where WGU Uses Flipped Learning

At its core, Flipped Learning means shifting the focus from the instructors to the students. Instead of debating “in-class” versus “individual space,” the focus should be on what students are doing to construct knowledge and engage in higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy as stated in Honeycutt & Glova’s (2014) article titled Can You Flip an Online Class?

Competency-based education at its core has many tenets of Flipped Learning. Outreach from student mentors and course instructors means that we are reaching every student. Students are never required to attend lectures they do not need. They can combine all or some of the resources of the course to take a course of action that best meets their needs. For example, the mathematics courses are flipped when students work through the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy on their own and then attend webinars or meet with their course instructors to use higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy such as applying and analyzing. When a student calls the math helpline for assistance, we do not just show them but apply Socratic methods of asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking.

In the composition courses, they are having more success with flipped live webinars. By having students work on their essays in advance and bring their work to class to work on collaboratively with the course instructor, they are truly creating an active learning environment.


Future of Flipped Learning at WGU

One barrier holding back more active learning at WGU is technology and student comfort with technology. For example, our software interfaces for online groups are still evolving. The concept of being live on camera and having easy tools for live sessions are still being developed. I met last year with Ryohei Ikejiri at the University of Tokyo. We discussed what we are calling Active Webinars. By active, we mean live online spaces where the instructor is the guide on the side as opposed to the sage on the stage. Teachers worldwide understand this as the major theory of Flipped Learning in a classroom setting. We both agreed that we are not quite there technologically to make these active online webinars. I think students online, especially non-traditional and older students, are not yet comfortable sharing and working collaboratively in an online environment. However, we agreed that as technology improves, WGU students participating in active learning online would become more accepted. Also, as technology advances, the online applets and activities will continue to promote active learning.

As WGU continues to grow, the one-to-one time with course instructors will be harder to maintain. For general education mathematics, I see our helpline evolving from one-on-one meetings to more of a live tutoring room. For example, students often call the helpline seeking assistance with distance/rate/time problems in algebra. Instead of repeating the same concepts individually with each student, there could be a “distance-rate-time problems” online room available for students. They could then work collaboratively one-on-one with a course instructor, but as additional students enter, the room becomes a collaborative workspace where students engage in active learning.

As communication technologies and online pedagogies continue to improve, WGU will use these technologies to continue to implement flipped and active learning.



Jerry Overmyer
Jerry Overmyer
Dr. Jerry Overmyer has teaching experience in secondary and college mathematics and is currently a mathematics faculty member at Western Governors University. Jerry is a pioneer and expert in Flipped Learning. He gives frequent presentations on Flipped Learning and was the creator and facilitator for the Flipped Learning Community - a 30,000+ member professional learning network for educators. He is the founder of the Flipped Learning Academy, which provides professional development for college faculty.

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