Monday, April 24, 2017

Replace Lectures with a Flipped Classroom

The Australian National University (ANU) is replacing the central Manning Clark lecture theatre complex with flexible learning spaces, as part of the ANU Union Court Redevelopment. This provides an opportunity to think about how to improve teaching, rather than just move the old lecture/tutorial format into new buildings. The obvious approach to consider is the flipped classroom. Apart from improved education, this will halve the amount of teaching space required.

A common teaching format is three one hour lectures a week and one tutorial of one hour. However,  student who has sat through three hours of someone talking at them in a darkened room is not likely to recall much, the following week when a tutorial is held.

With the flipped classroom the student reads material on-line on their own, watches some videos or listens to an audio podcast. They might do a short quiz after each few minutes of material and then some sort of on-line forum discussion with other students. They then attend a session where they listen to a presenter for a few minutes, do a small group exercise, listen to the results from other groups.

Key to both distance education and the flipped classroom is to have the students doing something active, as soon as they have been exposed to some knowledge. Also key is to have this activity assessed and to provide the students with feedback on how they are doing, as soon as possible.

But is it feasible to replace lectures and tutorials with a flipped classroom? Will it take too many new buildings and staff?

Consider a typical ANU course with 300 students enrolled and tutorials of 20 students (from p. 4  "A Guide for Parents and Carers", ANU 2016). A typical course will have three one hour lectures a week and one tutorial of one hour. Assuming a 300 seat lecture theater is available, one lecturer can provide the lectures in three hours and 15 tutor hours will be required per week. This would require a 300 m2 lecture theater for three hours and a 40 m2 tutorial room for fifteen hours per week (using University of Melbourne guidelines). This is a total of 5 m2 hours of floor space per student per week. 

Rendering of the TEAL classroom at MIT
A room for cabaret style flipped teaching, such as  MIT's Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) or the ANU Physics Studio, requires about 2.5 m2 per student.  The 300 students would require 750 m2 with 34 tables (each seating nine students). As well as TEAL* this format of classroom is also called SCALE-UP: Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (or Student‐Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs), ALC: Active Learning Classrooms, or TILE: Transform, Interact, Learn, Engage.

A cabaret style room requires about two and a half times as much floor space as a conventional lecture theater. However, savings are made in floor space, as each student spends less time in the room, with the flipped approach. There is also no need for a separate tutorial room. The large flat floor room, with no fixed furniture can also be adapted to other uses (and can be subdivided into smaller teaching rooms with movable partitions).

Such large teaching spaces do exist, as an example, the University of Sydney "X-lab wet lab" accommodates about 240 students. However, the X-lab has a very sophisticated (and expensive) audio system allowing it to be divided for smaller classes.

A more workable option may be to divide a course into multiple sessions. This also provides the student with the option to choose a time which better suits them. A course of 300 students could be divided into two groups of 150. This would require a room of 375 m2, about 19 m2, with seventeen tables. This is a total of 2.5 m2 hours per student per week.

Each flipped class will require a lecturer to be the MC and about five tutors (one for each four tables and one to assist the lecturer). If each  student undertakes one workshop of one hour per week, there would need to be two classes a week (or one a week for a two hour class).

The two hours of flipped class per week will require about the same amount of staff time as the four hours of lectures and tutorials. An emcee (equivalent of a lecturer) will be required for the two hours. While this is less than the three hours of lectures, they will also need to supervise the on-line component of the flipped class and handle the increased complexities of the flipped mode.

While only 10 hours of tutor time are needed in the face-to-face class, there will be extra work in the preceding on-line classes making up another five hours.

ANU is planning to construct  a purpose designed flexible learning building. However, these will take around eighteen months to construct. In the interim alternative teaching spaces will be required. I suggest the flipped classroom approach would halve the amount of teaching space required to be found. Libraries, offices and commercial buildings with flat floors can be easily re-purposed for cabaret style teaching, using mobile furniture and equipment. The ANU Physics Studio, in a former chemical laboratory, is an excellent example of this approach.

* ps: The University of Canberra's Inspire building TEAL room is colored teal (blue-green), which may be an in-joke by the designer.  :-)