Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

The Flipped Classroom

For those of us who care about education, at either the college or high school level, there is nothing more exciting and terrifying today than the promise of the use of technology in teaching. At this moment, numerous companies around the country are working with high schools and colleges to create online courses, tutorials, and webinars that will be able to provide training and information to millions of people around the world. In fact, I just took a webinar today, required by the New York Council for the Humanities, a mandatory course that was supposed to train me to facilitate a Community Conversation on democracy that will be held next week at the Arendt Center.

Many of these web-based courses are offered free. They will be taught by leading experts who teach at the best universities in the world. And they will be available to anyone in any country of any income with a computer. The possibilities and potential benefits of such courses are extraordinary.  And yet, as with any great new technology, these courses are also dangerous.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes Tony Hyun Kim, a MIT graduate who moved to Mongolia and spent three months tutoring and teaching local high school students as they took a course in circuits-and-electronics class, a class that is usually taken by MIT sophomores. The class offered free online by edX, a consortium of MIT and Harvard, uses video and interactive exercises and is available to anyone who signs up. What Mr. Kim did is use this advanced course taught by MIT professors as a basic resource for his high school students in Mongolia. He then helped the young students to take the course. Twelve of his students passed the course and earned a certificate of completion. "One 15-year-old, Battushig, aced the course, one of 320 out of students worldwide to do so." According to the Chronicle:

The adventure made the young MIT graduate one of the first to blend edX's content with face-to-face teaching. His hybrid model is one that many American students may experience as edX presses one of its toughest goals: to reimagine campus learning. EdX ended up hiring Mr. Kim, who hopes to start a related project at the university level in Mongolia.

What is now being called the "flipped classroom"—authoritative professors lecture thousands or hundreds of thousands in their dorm rooms while young facilitators then meet with students physically in classrooms—has enormous consequences for education around the world and also in the United States. 

 Currently, every university hires Ph.D.s as professors to teach courses and high schools hire teachers. These professors and teachers teach their own courses, set their curriculum, and are responsible for creating an educational environment. Often they are large lectures or poor classes in which students learn very little. Sometimes at research universities the professors have graduate students who spend time with the undergrads while professors do their own work. Often these graduate students in turn care less about teaching than their own research, leaving poor undergraduates to fend for themselves. In most instances, large lecture courses provide students with painfully little personal attention, the kind of one on one or small group interaction in which real education happens. What is more, these courses are expensive, since the universities subsidize the research and training of the professors.

Now imagine that community colleges and even large universities embrace the flipped classroom? Why not have students take a course from edX or Coursera, another similar service. The course is free. The college or university could then hire facilitators like Mr. Kim to work one on one with students. These facilitators can be cheap. They may even be free. As the Chronicle reports, Harvard professors E. Francis Cook Jr. and Marcello Pagano are working to mobilize a crowd of volunteers to help teach their courses.

The veteran professors will teach a class on epidemiology and biostatistics this fall, one of Harvard's first on edX. Details are still being worked out, but they hope to entice alumni to participate, possibly by moderating online forums or, for those based abroad, leading discussions for local students. Mr. Cook sees those graduates as an "untapped resource. We draw people into this program who want to improve the health of the world," he says. "I'm hoping we'll get a huge buy-in from our alums."

There will be many young people who will volunteer to facilitate such courses. In return they will learn something. They will meet smart young potential employees and recruit them to work in their business ventures. And they will do a service to their alma maters. This enlistment of free labor to help with online learning is already happening. And it will upend the teaching profession at all levels, just as star doctors at major hospitals will increasingly diagnose hundreds of patients a day from their offices while assistants around the world simply follow their instructions.

Will the new educational regime offer a better education for the students? In some cases yes. There are unmistakable advantages both in cost and maybe even in quality that such flipped courses offer. But there is also a profound loss of what might be called educational space and, more importantly, educational authority.  

If such facilitators are recent college graduates, like Mr. Kim, or if they are Ph.D.s but hired not as professors and thus without the authority of present professors, there is a loss of the very sense of what a university or college is—a space for the transmission of knowledge from scholars and scientists to young citizens. What does it mean to lose the community of professors who currently populate these educational institutions?

And what about when this hollowing out of the professoriate infects elite universities like MIT and Harvard themselves? The Chronicle asks:

One question is how edX might improve elite universities, which are late to the e-learning game. In the spring, MIT tested the edX circuits class with about 20 on-campus students. It was a hit: A majority said they would take another Web class....Another benefit: Students could rewind or fast-forward their professor. Data showed MIT students tended to watch the videos at 1.5 speed, which makes voices sound almost like chipmunks but delivers information more rapidly. "I do want MIT to offer more online education," Ms. LaPenta says.

A hit with students it may be. And they may indeed learn the material and pass the course. But listening to their professor's lectures at 1.5 speed—that is fascinating and frightening. We all are aware of the ways that technology divorces us from the traditional pace of human life. We drive or fly and travel distances in hours that used to take years. We send mail at the speed of the internet. But what will it mean when we speak at 1.5 speed? And speaking is one thing. But teaching and learning?

I have no doubt that studies are being done right now to measure the optimal speeds at which students can listen to lectures and still process the information. Pretty soon students will watch lectures like many of us now watch t.v., on delay so that it can be fast-forwarded, rewound, and sped up. It is one thing to imagine this as useful for individuals who want to learn how to program a computer or fix an engine or publish a book. But to think that our most illustrious liberal arts institutions will adopt the motto of education at the personal speed of the internet is more than simply strange.

Education, writes Hannah Arendt in The Crisis in Education, is predicated on the basic fact that human beings are born into the world. Young people come into the world and, because they are newcomers and uninitiated, need to be educated, which means they must be introduced to the world. Parents do this to some degree in the home, bringing the child from the home into the wider world. But the primary institutions in which children are educated, in which they are led into the world, are schools.

Normally the child is first introduced to the world in school. Now school is by no means the world and must not pretend to be; it is rather the institution we interpose between the private domain of the home and the world in order to make the transition from the family to the world possible at all.

For Arendt, the key element of education is the authority of the parent, teacher or professor. The teacher takes responsibility for bringing the child into the world, which requires authority:

The teacher's qualification consists in knowing the world and being able to instruct others about it, but his authority rests on his assumption of responsibility for that world. Vis-à-vis the child it is as though he were a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: This is our world.

The authority of the teacher is, at bottom, a matter of his or her willingness to take responsibility for the world. In other words, the teacher must be conservative in the sense that his or her role is to "cherish and protect something—the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new." The teacher conserves both the world as it is—insofar as he teaches the child what is rather than what should be or what will be—and the child in her newness—by refusing to tell the child what will be or should be, and thus allowing the child the experience of freedom to rebel against the world when and if the time is right.

Arendt's point is that education requires that a child be confronted with the world as it is, not how the student wants it to be. This will often be painful and uncomfortable.  It requires authority, and it requires that the student learn to conform to the world. An essential part of education, therefore, is that the student not be in control and that students be led by an external, adult, and respected authority. Which is why, for Arendt, education depends upon the authority of teachers and professors. The idea that our best institutions are imagining an educational present where students spend more and more of their time online where they, and not the professors, control and determine their way of learning does present a threat to education.

Of course, the goal of education is to create independent thinkers. The capstone experience at Bard College, where I teach, and at Amherst College, where I studied, is a senior thesis (at Bard this is mandatory, at Amherst only for honors students). The senior thesis is the transition from education to adulthood and it can be an extraordinary and moving experience. But it is a mistake when students insist—as they often do—on doing too many tutorials or seminars too early in their careers. Students must first learn and such learning requires being led by an authority. Too many students and professors today ignore the importance of authority in education. Technology threatens to feed that already present cultural tendency to free students from their tutelage to professors.

Amongst the myriad of benefits promised by distance learning and the flipped classroom, it is imperative to see where the real dangers and pitfalls lie. The grave danger of the flipped classroom is precisely in the perpetuation of the dominant trend of progressive education that has infiltrated teaching at all levels since Piaget and Dewey. It is the claim that students can and ought to be in charge of their own education.

In freeing students from the classroom, in distancing them further from the authority figure of a professor, in replacing Ph.D.s and professors with lesser trained facilitators, in giving students the power to speed up or slow down the professor's lecture, we are empowering and liberating students and giving them ever more control over their education. This may allow them to learn better or graduate more quickly. It may reduce the cost of college and high school and it may train people better for certain jobs. They may enjoy their education more. But such an education does not teach students what the world is like. It does not insist that they first learn what is before they begin to fashion the world as they want it to be. It comes from a loss of faith in and love for the world as it is, a loss that pervades our society that no longer believes in itself. Such an attitude does not assume responsibility for the world and insist that young people must first learn about the world, at least as the world is now. And it is just such a responsibility that educators must adopt.

The real problem with the rush towards technological education is that is focused interminably on the future. On qualifications for jobs and preparation for what is to come. Education, at least education that might succeed in introducing young people into a common world which they love and treasure, requires a turn towards the past. Just such a turn from the backwards-glancing education of the liberal arts to the forward-thrusting education to prepare students for jobs and careers is the real threat inherent in the present mania for technologically-enhanced pedagogy. Technology is not evil; it can be greatly helpful. But we must first understand why it is we are so desperate for it if we are to integrate it into our world. Otherwise, it will break the world.

On this weekend, I encourage you to take up Hannah Arendt's essay, The Crisis in Education. You can order it here  from Amazon. Or listen to Hannah Arendt read from her essay in animated form here.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

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