When Two Become One: the Role of Global Collaboration in Defining Terminology

Higher Ed June / June 15, 2018

-by Thomas Mennella-

This month, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Dr. Strang Burton, a faculty member in the Linguistics Department at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. Dr. Burton has been using Flipped Learning (FL) at UBC for a few years, and so we began our conversation in the way that most ‘flippers’ do; we shared our stories of how we began flipping.

UBC is a large research institution serving over 50,000 undergraduates.  And the linguistics program is quite popular. The gateway introductory course into the linguistics program is typically comprised of multiple sections, with each section serving approximately 150 students.  Dr. Burton and his colleagues realized that if they were to attract and retain more students in their major, they needed to somehow increase student engagement in these large classes. They turned to FL to facilitate that focus on student engagement.  

As a testament to UBC’s commitment to the education of their undergraduates, the institution had robust resources to support faculty members who wanted to flip.  These included financial resources that UBC allocated to the Linguistics Department for the purpose of producing high-quality videos that could be used in all sections of the introductory course.  From there, different section instructors were free to make additional videos on their own, share video resources, or devise other individual space activities for students to complete before class. Group space time was used to challenge students with high-level questions that they must approach and reason out in groups (following a model that closely resembles peer instruction).  Other group space activities included what Dr. Burton refers to as “mechanical problems,” where students must use their knowledge of linguistics to fix or address errors in the problem they are given. Students even work through case studies in class, with Dr. Burton noting that these sometimes lead to lively debates within groups as different students apply their knowledge to the case differently. Regardless of the activity type, after small student groups have worked together on the challenge, the entire class is then reconvened for a final debrief and discussion.

I asked Dr. Burton, what were some of the benefits of this FL implementation.  He first noted that student retention from the gateway course to the continued pursuit of the major has nearly doubled since FL was adopted.  To his credit, and like a true academic, Dr. Burton was quick to point out that he couldn’t attribute that success solely to FL. Other factors may have contributed, such as a recent renewed interest in linguistics, in general.  (But let me be the one to say that I’m confident FL was a major contributing factor to this increased retention. Even in our own implementation of FL at my home institution, we’ve noted less attrition of students from year to year, and greater persistence through our majors since adopting FL and active learning throughout our curriculum.)  Another benefit that Dr. Burton shared was a single idea had by a section instructor that I found to be revolutionary in handling FL in large classes.

One of Dr. Burton’s colleagues teaching a flipped gateway class would use her teaching assistants (TAs) to circulate throughout the room.  Those TAs would essentially eavesdrop on the conversations being had among each group of students, and they would take notes on the opinions and points being raised.  Then, as the instructor began to reconvene the class, the TAs would quickly huddle and share their notes, and then use them to create an on-the-fly mind map representing the entirety of the students’ conversations.  The class debriefs would end with this mind map being shared with the students as a record of the group time outcomes. One of the challenges of using FL in large college or university classes is how to capture all of what is happening between all students for all students.  I found this idea of using TAs to create mind maps representing student group conversations to be revolutionary.  

I then asked Dr. Burton to share with me his lessons learned from using FL and his takeaways.  He had three lessons to share:

  1. You need to explain what’s going on to the students. Dr. Burton spoke strongly about the need for students to have FL explained to them thoroughly and early before a course gets underway.  For those students who just know that FL will not work for them, it gives them time to find another section that might not be flipped. This point also re-emphasizes the need for achieving buy-in in college students.
  2. Force your students to come to class prepared. Dr. Burton notes that students who arrive to class not having done the individual space work will not benefit from the group space activities and will often comprise the potential of the student group they are in.  Having systems and policies in place that require and verify student completion of homework before class is an essential component to successful FL.
  3. A 15-minute video takes a lot longer than 15 minutes to produce. Dr. Burton made specific mention of the workload that comes with piloting a flipped course for the first time.  He recommends making the decision to flip well before the start of a new semester and using that time to create videos ahead of time.   

Dr. Burton was unaware of FL3.0 when we spoke, which made his takeaway from his experience that much more compelling. He shared that he believed FL to be a means towards achieving active learning in his course. That FL “takes you in the direction of active learning,” and “anything that promotes active learning is a good thing.”  I then shared with Dr. Burton that FL3.0 frames FL as a meta-strategy under which many different strategies for facilitating active learning become possible. The widely used analogy for this concept claims that FL is an operating system and the group space activities are apps.  Think of how useless a PC or iPad would be if no apps or programs were installed on it… In the same way, there is no magic that comes with students watching videos at home. What makes a PC so powerful or an iPad so fun are the apps that we choose to install on them. But, we needed the operating system first so that the apps would have a place to run.  What makes FL so powerful is the active learning that we, as practitioners, choose to do in the classroom with our students. That’s where the magic is. But without FL, we’d have no time or opportunity to do those activities. FL is the operating system for active learning.

It was at this point in my conversation with Dr. Burton where it was my turn to get a little “meta.”  This June issue of FLR has two complementary themes: global collaboration and how well do we speak the language of FL.  I was on the phone with a college professor in western Canada (global collaboration: check) who was an expert in linguistics (importance of speaking languages: check).  Dr. Burton and I ended our robust conversation by discussing the need for a shared terminology of FL. Indeed, one of the first priorities of the global standards project (GSP) currently underway at the Academy of Active Learning Arts and Sciences (AALAS: http://aalasinternational.org/) is to compile a glossary of standard terms relevant to flipped and active learning.  I asked Dr. Burton, as a linguist and a flipped practitioner, how important is this initiative?  His answer: very important. Dr. Burton agreed that yes, we do need to have a common terminology.  But, he went one step further. “While a glossary would be good,” he noted, “languages evolve, and they evolve through dialog.  Only by using terms in conversation do meanings become fixed and are consensuses of meaning reached.”  In the context of FL, these conversations must be global, as FL is a global movement and the language of FL must be global in kind.  Dr. Burton raised the point of an instructor stating, “I don’t like Flipped Learning” and asked, “Well, what does that instructor mean when they say ‘Flipped Learning’? Are they talking about the same strategy that you or I would mean?”  Only by having clearly defined standard terms could we all be sure that we mean the same things by the words we use. Those standard terms may begin with a glossary, but they will solidify through global dialog.

And so, in the end, this issue does not have two complementary themes; it has only one.  Yes, “words matter” but the only way to figure out which words matter most is through global collaboration.  

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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1 Comment

on June 23, 2018

Thomas, thank you for providing insights learned by your interviews. Dr. Burton’s idea of enlisting the help of teaching assistants for a large lecture class was a great strategy. This strategy has benefits for the teaching assistants as well. They get hands on practical experience in a real-life, real-world teaching setting. I have mentored a nursing education masters student for an in-class practicum. By getting her involved in helping me to flip my nursing class, she gained the confidence and hands-on experience in “what her teachers had talked about in class”- active learning. If I had taught using traditional lecture, she would not have had that experience.

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