Double Flip: 3 Insights Flipping the Humanities Seminar

Double Flip: 3 Insights Flipping the Humanities Seminar

In this piece, the first cross-posted article published on Hybrid Pedagogy, Kathi Inman Berens discusses an experiment in “flipped” pedagogy. Also published at HASTAC. We’ve opened this area of the journal — Page Two — to non-peer-reviewed articles, editorials, announcements, CFPs, cross-posted articles, and more. The page represents a kind of “flip” for us, too.


Procedurally, a humanities seminar is already “flipped.” Exciting student interactivity in a “flipped” engineering class is true of an ordinary humanities seminar.

Is there an equivalently awesome pedagogical innovation that flipping might yield for humanities students?

During fall 2012, the University of Southern California’s Center for Scholarly Technology conducted an interdisciplinary pilot to discern disciplinary differences in the application of “flipped” classroom techniques. A three-week unit was “flipped” in three courses: an engineering lecture, a sociology lecture, and a gender studies seminar. Originating in STEM disciplines, “flipped” lectures are videotaped and accessed as part of the student’s homework routine. Classroom seat time is freed up for active learning exercises, such as discussion of problem sets. Faculty circulate in the classroom as “master tutors.”

Our humanities innovation was to double flip. Homework, not seat time, became collaborative and new medial. And rather than act as “master tutor,” I taught students a range of collaboration possibilities afforded by digital tools, taught them how to align goals with medial affordances, then got out of their way to let them muck around and learn by trial, error and correction.

The “double flip” expanded our sense at CST of how to expand “flipped” practices beyond STEM. Disciplinary specificity is the key.

This 25-minute interdisciplinary panel discussion at USC is a great overview of how disciplinary differences influence the goals and pedagogical design of the flipped classroom. Find my slides for that panel  here.

This short post will summarize what I learned designing and observing implementation of a 3-week “flipped” unit in a 13-person humanities seminar. These observations are part of a larger, cross-disciplinary collaborative project I’m writing with Director Joan Getman of USC’s  Center for Scholarly Technology and others on her team.

First, a caveat: the 3-class, cross-disciplinary pilot experiment did not control for class size, so key performance indicators are not uniform. Instead, our aim was to listen to what motivates professors to try flipping. What course design problem might “flipping” help them solve?

None of the three faculty we worked with had previously used “flipped” techniques.

My project partner, Prof. Jack Halberstram of gender studies, American studies and comp lit, needed to find a solution for 3 one-week intervals when invited lectures obliged him to be away from USC. During those absences Jack wanted students 1) to take leadership of their learning; and 2) communicate their learning in a medial environment he could access on-demand from different time zones — and respond back to them in kind.

Jack successfully met his course continuity goal. Upon return from travels, Jack’s students were up to speed with the reading materials and discussion. He observes: “Their reliance on [me] as an instructor was shifted.” (Hear more of Jack’s observations in the video I linked to above and here.) Students’ firsthand experience emulating Jack’s method of weaving together passages of reading and extra-diegetic context gave them a “maker” perspective on building interpretations they wouldn’t have had if Jack had been there guiding them. In my experience, student-led discussions often make subtle recourse to professorial authority, even if the professor is silent and abrogates the role as de facto leader. The flipped environment, where Jack’s absence meant students were totally on their own, fostered urgency as they relied on each other and negotiated how best to meet their collective learning goals. My goal in this “flipped” humanities pedagogical design was to scaffold collaborative social skills and then designate classroom time to practice under my guidance during one week when Jack was away. Practice made them more canny about crafting learning goals when they “flew on their own” later in the term.

The longer, co-authored paper will describe the experiment design, implementation and evaluation in detail. For now, I offer three humanities-specific observations:

Assessment Language is not “Neutral”

66% of our 13 hum students did not respond to the survey designed to assess their flipped classroom experience. Listening to them reflect on their experience in class, I surmise the survey design was not applicable to their experience. The design was optimized to standardize results across disciplines. This is a laudable goal. In practice, however, raw data may not be strictly correlative. Such work may be interpretive. This small pilot was not conceptualized to produce “apples to apples” results across disciplines, and that’s a great thing. We still need to explore the disciplinary nuances of flipping. To leap prematurely to a “standard” set of assessment rubrics would flatten the results. The 13 hum students wanted to write narrative about their flipped experience. Radial buttons were insufficient to the expressive and summative work of the reflection process. Further, survey language presumed that gradations of performance (low-middle-high) inhered.  In this advanced seminar, it did not.

Donuts > Cameras?

The video capture  element of the students’ “flipped” output turned out to be unnecessary to their learning goal, and even invasive. In a next iteration of this project, audio or a g-doc would be sufficient. Students had to move the camera around which interrupted the natural flow of conversation. The medial element split their attention. And they could not shake “reality TV” as the default medial model, which imparted a sense of fakeness to the enterprise.

Students did not attempt to conduct these filmed sessions virtually, though that would have been easy to do so using Google Hangouts. Students actively preferred physical co-presence. One group brought donuts and ate as they worked. They believed this drew them even closer together. Sharing process later, the entire class agreed. However, students spent too little time together in virtual environments to test whether or not intimacy is an attribute of physical co-presence. My research and experience teaching in virtual learning environments suggests that synchronicity is essential, but embodiment is not.

Train Collaboration > Tool Proficiency

Outside of digital humanities classes, humanities students rarely practice authoring collaboratively. When faculty bring digital tools into the classroom, frequently we spend our preparation time teaching the tools rather than the workflows that would allow students to grow manifold skills most efficiently. Tool proficiency is non-trivial; but because it’s procedural, it’s easy to find YouTube or other tutorials to fill that need.  Collaboration skills can’t be “googled.” They can only be learned through practice, trial, error, and correction.

Your Experience?

Have you flipped your classroom? Do you have best practices or lessons learned that you’d like to share? Post them below! Or come visit some of the materials on my person website, Kathi Inman Berens. I’ve been working predominantly in virtual and hybrid classrooms for three years.

[Photo by suneko]

About the Author

Kathi Inman Berens

Kathi Inman Berens lives in Portland, OR and teaches at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication. She's an IBM Faculty Award Winner and Research Council Fellow at the Annenberg Innovation Lab. She writes about electronic literature, the Flipped humanities classroom, and virtual classroom software. In 2013, Kathi co-curated the first Electronic Literature Showcase at the Library of Congress. She's a principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting in Portland. Her curiosity is piqued by mobile UX and is mobile herself on a ridiculously heavy, hand-me-down bike.

4 Comments
Discussions from the Community.
  1. The trick in these pedagogical engagements that re-imagine/deconstruct/reconfigure the traditional classroom through and by the use of media and technology is to make that technology as subtle as possible – and make it fit the needs of the class. My experience with blended/flipped classrooms is always in the context of much larger classes than the one you write about (minimum 60 students by often 100+). Many of my students can never physically meet after class – competing course and work schedules, and here Google Hangouts have become the method of choice. It has also become the ersatz office hour for me.

    I agree that collaboration is a skill that is best learned by doing, it is also an incremental skill. So the more students collaborate, the better they will get at it. I am currently experimenting by modeling the behavior in class. I have 60+ Freshmen in a history survey class. My assistant is live tweeting the lecture and then making storify boards based on the tweets. These are great review tools for the student. He can’t come to class next week, so I will ask students to live tweet the lecture as they see fit, and then make a storify board based on their tweets – I hope 3 weeks has been enough to sow the seeds of collaboration! The lecture itself has become a collaborative experience with learning games and group work to complement the content learnt out of class, so I am hopeful.

    We are being assessed in comparison to traditional classes (I am out of the loop as to what the metrics are so as to remain unbiased) so hopefully we’ll have some results to share at the end of the quarter.

    Thanks for posting this! Great to see this kind of experiment is happening a bit further west on the 10 freeway too!

    • Juliette, your experiments sound very fruitful. It sounds like you’re using Google Hangouts as office hours; have you ever thought of using it as a broadcast, allowing other lurking students to view in real time? Doing so might get lots of questions answered efficiently, but might also make students more self-conscious than is ideal; one wouldn’t want to lose office hours as a one-on-one tutorial space. The livetweeting & subsequent Storifies of each class sound like a robust note-taking tool, particularly since 1) tweets can include links; 2) Storifies are easy to access and read; 3) Storifies are fast to skim. I also like that you are remaining willfully unaware of assessment metrics to let the organic experience unfold as it will. It’s too early to winnow down options based on assessment criteria. Great work, Juliette!

      • I have used Google Hangout for disc. section in fully online class w/ up to 9 students – have you used it with more participants? Curious how that would work/feel. Disc section on hangouts was pretty great – students actually participated more – perhaps the consequence of the Brady Bunch effect – everyone sees everyone and everyone is equal? I am still feeling out the balance in hybrid/flipped classroom – how much tech / collaboration /crowd-sourcing is too much? How to build-in individual work and manage performance expectations when group is huge. It’s all discovery and innovation at this point! Thanks for posting results of your interesting experiment at USC, Kathi!

  2. Brad Berens says:

    For me, the biggest take-away from this is this sentence, “My research and experience teaching in virtual learning environments suggests that synchronicity is essential, but embodiment is not.” For some time I’ve thought that mass media experiences and satisfaction existed in a kind of pyramid (http://goo.gl/jLQyFU) with asynchronous really big at the bottom, synchronous smaller in the middle, and then a tiny capstone of face-to-face-in-real-time at the top.

    What Kathi’s post makes me wonder, though, is whether face-to-face is simply the cheapest way to get the cognitive boost of synchronicity. By “cheapest,” here, I don’t only mean in terms of money. Once you’ve gone to the effort of getting to a classroom or a theater or a restaurant, the intimacy that Kathi discusses is readily available because of the concrete context and kinesthetic feedback loops of physical proximity to other bodies.

    But is this an enduring difference or a transient one? As virtual environments get more and more vivid and immersive, how long will the special quality of face to face interactions persist, or will we shift to a more binary sense of real-time versus asynchronous?

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