When you read about the flipped (or inverted) classroom in the media, the focus is almost always on course content. Look at this new way to “deliver” education to our students! And it’s personalized! The focus is typically on video, the internet, how the digital revolution will disrupt education as we know it.

I get it. Tech sells. New, shiny gadgets are exciting. Everyone is, or should be, an entrepreneur … an “edupreneur.” But is replacing a book with a video or a multimedia website really worth all the fuss? (Full disclosure: I am part of an effort to replace a book with a multimedia website.)

If education is purely about content delivery, then no, it’s probably not worth the fuss.

But if education were primarily about content delivery, then why didn’t the printing press kill the school? Why should we assume streaming video on the internet will fare any better? Do we really believe that Salman Khan knows something that Johannes Gutenberg did not?

No, neither education in general, nor the flipped classroom in particular, is about the content. Certainly access to information is important, but what makes the flipped classroom so potentially exciting is not the way that we get information to our students. Education is about the student — their intellectual formation and personal empowerment. And it’s what the flipped classroom has to offer that vision that makes it so potentially exciting for educators.

But let’s step back. Just what is the flipped classroom? If we follow the media hype and the ed-tech marketing pitches,

“The flipped classroom is a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework models of a course are reversed… . The video lecture is often seen as the key ingredient in the flipped approach” (Educause, “7 Things You Should Know about Flipped Classrooms”).

Education World defines the flipped class similarly:

using Web-enabled instructional strategies that allow educators to spend class time interacting with students rather than lecturing.

For Education World, this newly facilitated interaction is largely one-on-one, and the web content highlighted by them is from Khan Academy and Ted-Ed.

Khan Academy themselves define the flipped class as “online delivery of content and instruction,” and they emphasize that the flipped class is an entry point for blended learning and a vehicle for personalization.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gabry (Forbes Magazine) also defines the flipped class exclusively in terms of video, with personalization being the primary goal.

It’s not difficult to see the business model in this video-centric definition. Textbook publishing is still, in many disciplines, a lucrative business. Video creators like Khan Academy can tap into this market, especially if a video-centric definition of the flipped classroom allows them to bill their one-size-fits-all content as an integral part of a so-called “personalized” pedagogy.

In spite of the dominance of the edupreneurial perspective in the media, those who research the flipped classroom (and those who pioneered its implementation) view it differently. Instead of focusing on content delivery and “personalized” learning, pedagogues and pedagogy researchers tend to emphasize the increased focus on active-learning strategies and higher-level reasoning that the flipped class affords. As a result, content plays a supporting role, and for many, technological choices are ancillary to the definition of the flipped class.

Take, for instance, the often cited article, “Inverting the Classroom: A Gateway to Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment,” by Lage et al. (2000):

Inverting the classroom means that events that have traditionally taken place inside the classroom now take place outside the classroom and vice versa (p. 32).

Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly in 2000, their study made use of a textbook to facilitate out-of-class information delivery. Video tapes of lectures were offered, but only as a supplemental resource.

More recently, video has become more commonplace in flipped classes, but scholarly definitions of the flipped classroom are broader. For example, in an interview about the information delivery in his flipped pedagogical approach, Eric Mazur quipped:

I used the greatest invention in information technology, the book… . [Y]ou don’t need a video lecture.

We see this sentiment from a number of pedagogy researchers: the technology used to transmit information doesn’t matter; what matters is what active-learning strategies can be employed in class as a result of the new-found time. For example, Julie Schell states that the flipped classroom can involve a pre-class video or reading at home, with in-class activities focused on applying knowledge. Schell also emphasizes the importance of student agency and higher-level cognitive skills as cornerstones of student-centered, flipped learning. Similarly, Derek Bruff writes that the flipped class begins with pre-class readings or videos, but then students “spend class time deepening their understanding of that content through active learning exercises.” This focus on deep understanding and application is an emphasis that my colleagues and I share: “[T]he use of [digital] technology is not even necessary.”

It is easy to get caught up in the media energy of all the new tech tools we as teachers have at our disposal. It is also tempting to grow weary of all the “disruption” and “revolution” around us and say, “You know what? This is all just hype. I was doing fine before, and I can’t keep up with it all anyway. I’ll just do what I’ve always done.” I don’t think either of these perspectives serves our students well.

We have a responsibility when evaluating our own teaching to exercise the same skepticism and critical thought we expect of our students. Ed-tech marketing may be masquerading as pedagogical philosophy, but we must not throw the pedagogical baby out with the technological bath water.

Ultimately, the flipped classroom shifts the emphasis of a class from content delivery to higher-level thinking and application, from the instructor’s activity to the students’ work. That is the flip that matters. Decisions about when and where to do what are secondary, and decisions about technology are even less a priority. John Dewey wrote, “To the growth of the [student] all studies are subservient.” That student-centeredness is at the core of the flipped class. As long as we don’t get lost in the technology marketing hype.

Photo by aptmetaphor (CC BY-ND).