Reading, Writing, & Revolution

You’ve never taken a flipped class, but your kids and grandkids will. In this learning revolution, homework and classwork are being switched, teachers are presenting online—and UT and its alumni are leading the way.














The 60 Minutes camera entered Courtney Cadwell’s classroom angling to show something unexpected. Cadwell’s seventh graders weren’t sitting in little desks, pulling out brown-bag-protected textbooks as they started their lesson. Instead, Cadwell, BA ’95, Life. Member, launched her class with these instructions: “Grab your computer, log in, and then open Khan Academy.”

Having watched videos at home rather than listening to their teacher talk about math concepts, the Silicon Valley students were now going to work on math problems on laptops during class. Cadwell started receiving instant updates on the answers each student was getting right or wrong. And the madness began.

Gone was the teacher’s typical search for raised hands, head nods, or blank stares. Even the shyest kids got attention. Software calculated the percentage of correct answers automatically so Cadwell could easily see who was stuck and who was ready to move on. She fluttered around the classroom, guiding each and every student accordingly.

Courtney Cadwell had “flipped” her classroom, intoned Sanjay Gupta, 60 Minutes’ special correspondent on the subject. What used to be homework was now done in class. What used to be classwork was now done at home. Revolutionary! Gupta pronounced it. Understanding was greater. Retention was higher. School was changing forever.

The camera turned to the kids.

Laurine Forget was asked what the hard part was. She looked away from the lens, stumped. “There isn’t really a hard part,” she said.

Alex Hernandez said he’d previously been at a third-grade math level. “Khan Academy has opened doors that I couldn’t really open before,” he said.

Is flipping the classroom as simple as subscribing to an online program, then letting it do the teaching? Do students really love it? From kindergarten to college, are great live teachers still necessary?

In the K-12 classes taught by Caldwell and other innovative UT alumni, the reality is much more complicated than it looks on TV. The same is true in the huge college lectures given on the Forty Acres. It’s also more exciting than even 60 Minutes could dream.

You Say You Want A Revolution

The Internet is an adolescent. In fewer than 20 years of widespread use, it’s upended communication, transportation, broadcasting, and countless other industries. But until recently, the Internet had laid just a finger on education—it made research easier.

Millions of students were using the Internet heavily at home, of course, whether IMing friends or searching for info on Wikipedia. But because teachers feared students might lack access at home or get distracted in class, they often kept computers out of traditional classrooms.

Enter Salman Khan. Until a few years ago, he was a hedge fund analyst. He had three degrees from MIT and another from Harvard. They came in handy when his younger cousin in New Orleans needed homework help. He created video tutorials and posted them on YouTube.

Then Bill Gates swooped in. In 2010, he was speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “There are these video tutorials I’ve been watching with my kids, and they’re incredible,” he said. Khan was in disbelief when he heard Gates had mentioned his endeavor—and that the world’s richest man wanted to meet him. Soon Gates’ foundation was funding the Khan Academy to the tune of $1.5 million. Google kicked in another $2 million.

Salman Khan posted his first video six years ago. Now, with 2 million views every month, he’s become the world’s most-listened-to teacher. (The only visuals in Khan’s videos are virtual chalkboards; learners hear his voice but never see his face.) His nonprofit, the Khan Academy, has 13 employees, including programmers and designers.

Courtney Cadwell has worked closely with the Khan Academy in the past year. The organization gives her access to the most cutting-edge tools it is developing, and she in turn gives feedback that helps shape that development to fit the real classroom.

Cadwell appreciates the online support. But she insists her classroom isn’t as fully “flipped” as 60 Minutes represented on camera. Instead, she calls her class a “blended” one. She’s more apt to use a dashboard feature, which tracks students’ results on practice problems, than videos. And she doesn’t flip homework and classwork every day.

“We’re not flipping the classroom in Los Altos,” she says, a touch wearily. “We’re using a blended learning model, where you blend a technological resource or resources with your existing projects. I’m used to being called ‘flipped’ because they did the same thing in Wired and the Economist last year. But my students were very upset.”

You Tell Me That It’s Evolution

Back in Texas, far from Silicon Valley, other UT alumni are testing different levels of classroom flips and blends, often more of the do-it-yourself variety. Robert Gonzales, BS ’03, teaches 10th-grade chemistry in Austin High School’s Academy for Global Studies. He tests different methods in his class and writes about them on his blog, “Flipping the Classroom.”

Having his students reflect on what they do and why is key to Gonzales’ method. He opens his class with the mellow notes of The Head and the Heart’s “Lost in My Mind” to put his students in a thoughtful mood. “Take a moment to reflect on all you’ve learned since the beginning of the year,” he says. “At the beginning of the year, you were counting protons and electrons. And now we’re doing hard-core calorimetry.”

Gonzales’ interpretation of flipping varies from the at-home watching variety. He has students grab school-owned iPads and headphones and watch a video of him talking, or perhaps doing a demonstration like a “Light My Candle” calorimetry experiment right there in class to start things off.

Just as things start to beg the question of why he doesn’t simply lecture his students live, he explains that he wants students to be able to pause, rewind, and replay his words. “I feel like a lot of you are going to want to watch that video again, right?” he asks. After a chorus of yeses, he adds, “Because there’s a lot happening in that video, which is why I made a video.”

Unlike Cadwell, Gonzales isn’t getting guidance on flipping, even from his district. A self-starter, he graduated from UT’s lauded UTeach program, where he says professors “prompted all of us to be creative and push the boundaries of pedagogy.” Last year he decided to change his teaching approach. He developed the corresponding course materials and overall approach independently. He posts it all on a website titled “Gonzo’s Chemistry Course.”

Gonzales doesn’t understand how other teachers do without videos, iPads, and other techie tools. But he also doesn’t expect most teachers to flip a switch one day. Instead, he expects the majority to incorporate more videos and other digital tools into their lessons gradually. “I think it’s a revolution that’s not going to feel like a revolution,” Gonzales says. “It’s a revolution that’s going to feel like an evolution.”

You Say You Got A Real Solution

And then there’s the Forty Acres, where Chemistry 302 is a class that never really shuts up. At least as taught by David Vanden Bout and Cynthia LaBrake.

The professors accept it calmly. The 300 students talk constantly, but observers overhear more about “the positive charge” and “the thing I don’t get” than about weekend plans. The professors and TAs roam, jumping into conversations to clarify confusing points.

Looking back, Vanden Bout can’t believe class used to be quiet except for the sound of his own voice. A 75-minute class felt so eternal, even to him, that he’d call for a stretch break in the middle. “In that room, no one would ever ask a question,” he remembers. “Or if they did, it was something like, ‘Is the review session at 4:30, or 5?’”

Now the quietest the class gets is when the professors ask an iClicker question.

Students answer these pop-quiz-style queries in a flash with a remote, and the results are tabulated instantly. The iClicker questions count toward grades. Naturally, attendance has gone up.

Vanden Bout and LaBrake are part of UT’s Course Transformation program. Developed in spring 2011, with the first courses piloted that fall, the program has taken 40 enthusiastic professors and given them the resources, time, and encouragement to upend their course structure. Already those early adopters have reached around 10,000 students.

The program is internally funded through the provost’s office, with $2.5 million set aside for five years. Vice provost for undergraduate affairs and faculty governance Gretchen Ritter is one of its biggest cheerleaders. “It’s important not to just keep teaching the way we did a generation ago,” she says. “There’s been an explosion in cognitive psychology—we understand much better how students learn.”

UT didn’t develop the Course Transformation Program solo—it got help from experts like members of Harvard’s Mazur Group. At the Cambridge, Mass., university, physicist Eric Mazur has been flipping courses using a method he calls “peer instruction” for 21 years.

Few have employed such methods nearly as long. But UT has quickly become such a leader in the area that when the Chronicle of Higher Education did an in-depth feature on flipping in February, a UT vice provost was the very first expert quoted.

The Course Transformation Program has its deepest roots in math and science courses. But in psychology, professors James Pennebaker and Sam Gosling used it to great effect in the spring. In past semesters, they would occasionally have students bring laptops to class, but for their transformed class, they went totally digital, with no physical textbook, midterms, or finals.

Students in the huge class often break into small groups, or chat about concepts online. Pennebaker, whose specialty is studying use of language and the hidden psychological messages it can reveal, naturally came up with a tool to help.

He calls it the Texas Online World of Educational Research, or TOWER, System. When students break up into groups and chat online in class, the system tracks the language teams use. It periodically gives them a Language Style Matching score, along with an electronic compliment on their teamwork or an admonition to pay better attention to one another.

Pennebaker calls the experience “thrilling ” and “transformative” for both Gosling and himself.

“Most academics are like us,” he says. “We go to graduate school and know we are passionate about research and teaching, but we thought of teaching as what our teachers did. Standing up and teaching to a group of passive students who are presumably absorbing your pearls of wisdom is not how education really works. We have to be asking how this really changes people’s lives and how they think.”

We’d All Love To See The Plan

The way forward isn’t entirely clear. For one thing, there are complications with subject matter. The flip works nicely for math and science. It’s transitioned well to social sciences like psychology. But how well will it work for humanities courses? Some say English courses have been flipped all along, since students do the reading before class to prepare for it. Which begs the question of whether flipping is merely the inversion of traditional classwork with traditional homework or whether it must have a technology component.

Professor Phil Barrish is among those who are going to try transforming an English course (in his case, Masterworks of American Literature) at UT this fall. He plans to employ iClickers and an online toolkit, complete with “interactive learning modules” that guide students through exercises in identifying, say, sound patterns in poems.

Barrish concedes that figuring out which methods to employ has been hard. “There are many fewer models out there for English,” he says. “We’re starting more from scratch. I would say it doesn’t lend itself as obviously as science.”

Another challenge with flipping, particularly on the college level: students don’t always like it. Ritter knows one of the biggest student grumbles about transformed classes is that they have to come prepared, or they’re screwed. She has no problem with that. “Exactly!” she exclaims.

Students working harder isn’t a bad thing, of course, if they’re learning more. But are the time commitments of flipping too much for even teachers to sustain? One prominent critic of the method, Harvard’s Melissa Franklin— the chair of the department where Eric Mazur of the pioneering Mazur Group works—thinks it is too much. Few of her colleagues who have tried it have stuck with it, she told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

At UT, LaBrake estimates that for every hour of transformed class time, she puts in 12 hours of prep, between training TAs, creating slides, developing homework and exams, making videos, meeting with Vanden Bout, and answering student questions. And outside of all that extra time, she says, it consumes her thoughts: “I worry about it all the time.” LaBrake does expect the time commitment to go down once she’s developed all the materials. Ritter says the whole University is “developing approaches that aren’t as time-, labor-, or money- intensive.” What those will be remains to be seen.

Then there are the questions about how to measure success. In transformed courses, for instance, the ratings of even historically well-rated professors tend to go down. Ritter thinks the ratings system can be overhauled to separate out learning from liking. The current surveys ask only, “How well would you rate this professor?”

More context is needed to answer the questions of how much students have been challenged—and how much more they have learned than in a standard lecture. To measure learning, mastery and retention of material would likely have to be tested against a control group that took a traditional class. But it will be complex to gauge all that efficiently across the entire campus, and that will likely take several years.

At the K-12 level, access will continue to be a vexing issue. In Courtney Cadwell’s Silicon Valley class, all but a couple of the students have the Internet at home, and those two who lack it can visit state-of-the-art computer labs after school. But it’s hard to imagine that working for inner-city districts in Dallas or Houston.

There’s no consensus on those issues. But nor is there doubt that an educational evolution—or revolution—is coming.

Courtney Cadwell gets a kick out of thinking she’s a poster child for it all. In fact, when the term comes up, the UT grad at its epicenter starts laughing. “It’s just been a really fun ride,” she says. “I look back over my years in teaching and I would never have thought what I was doing would gain this much attention. The fact that it has tells me that we’re on the brink of something amazing. Education’s about to radically change.”

Illustration by James Wong. Photos by Courtney Cadwell.


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