Friday, November 8, 2013

The Flip Class as a Vehicle to Universal Design for Learning: Week 9 reflections


I received a wonderful letter from a parent. It was truly touching. I won't quote it here but I will explain the content. It was the parent of one of my exceptional students who has consistently worked ahead. The parent thanked me for allowing the student to work at his own pace and shared that this was the first time this student actually felt a science or math course allowed him to work at his own level. Now of course I'm sure that there are/were parents who could say something negative about the flipped class, so I won't overreach here. But I am glad that one of my main motivators to make the switch is actually happening. I do have a number of exceptional students who are ahead of the pace of the course and that number increases as time passes. If I stayed with the traditional model or even a synchronous flipped model, those students would still be kept hostage by everyone else's pace. They would never know what it felt like to get an education specifically geared to their them, rather than to the middle of the class.

I'm reminded of the Universal Design for Learning model. This model is inspired by a similar mode of architecture wherein the building is designed for the extremes rather than the middle. For example, if you build 7 foot doorways, everyone can fit through without ducking their heads. If you have wheelchair ramps at every entrance and exit, then everyone can enter and exit the building. The opposite approach would have doorways the same as the average height of people or only a few wheelchair accessible entrances and exits because most people can walk. If you design for the extremes, then everyone benefits.

The same approach can be done for education. If you design education by keeping in mind the extremes, those who are exceptional and those who have special needs, then you can reach all students. When I designed my flipped class, I kept in mind the strongest students I've ever had and the other extreme. I tried to design the course to meet those extremes, in order to reach all students. The traditional model is designed around the middle of the pack and doesn't do much for the most exceptional or those who struggle the most.

How do I meet the needs of the extremes?

1) First, by having my lectures on video, students can view the content on demand, rewind, pause or fast forward. They can watch the video several times. This really helps those who struggle the most because they typically need to hear and see things several times to get it. This helps the exceptional students because they can view the video once and move on and not be slowed down by the students who have questions or those who need to hear content repeated.

2) The first question I get from colleagues is what happens when a student has a question when they watch the video, especially at home. My students are required to complete a video form after/while watching a video. Part of the form is a required question. Students send their questions to me and I can respond, many times before they come to class. This works for students who struggle because they can ask any question without fear of asking a "dumb" question in front of peers. I can reply with an email or even plan to meet with the student during the next class. The exceptional student gets to ask a question that goes beyond the scope of the course and I can answer it without fear of confusing the students who might not even understand the question.

3) Asynchronous learning cycles further support individualized learning. Weaker students can slow down and work at their pace, while exceptional students can work ahead. The obvious implications are that some students will not finish the entire course, while others will learn content beyond the scope of the course. The former implication was hard for me to accept at first but when I remembered that the weakest students didn't actually learn all of the content in the traditional model anyway, I felt better about the decision. We rush all students ahead at a predetermined rate, usually equal to the pace of the middle students, without really considering that the weaker students haven't learned the earlier material. In a cumulative course, this approach is counterproductive. Either way, the weakest students will not learn as much in a year as the other students. At least in the asynchronous model, they have a chance of mastering some content and feeling good about really learning.


I have a weird policy regarding lab reports that I'm rethinking. Since the first lab assignments, I haven't let students work on their lab reports during class time. The major reason is that the reports take up too much time; if we stopped going through the learning cycle for lab report writing, we would get through a fraction of the curriculum. My workaround has been to allow students to record data and perform calculations in class but write up their reports and make graphs at home; in addition, students who complete the mandatory learning cycle tasks for the week could also use the remainder of the week to either work ahead or work on the lab reports. So far, this is the best compromise that I've figured out and still trying to think of an alternative solution.

Speaking of labs, running an asynchronous course makes it difficult to run labs that require the entire class. So far, I've managed to share last year's data to allow faster students to complete their writeup without waiting for other classmates. Once all of the students have nearly caught up, the entire class set-up the experiment and collect data to be used for next year. What I would like to do instead is let individual students or small groups set up the lab as soon as their ready, then share last year's data with them. This way they are setting up the lab as soon as it is relevant; ahead students won't have to set up a lab they already wrote a lab report for! I still haven't figured out a way to avoid using last year's data in an asynchronous course because I don't want the quicker students to wait too long and don't want the slower students to arbitrarily set up a lab when they haven't even learned the prerequisite material.