Flipping Your Classroom

Lately, I’ve received several articles in my RSS feeds, Zite feed, and elsewhere promoting the concept of the flipped classroom.

Two articles, Wong’s “Colleges Go Proactive with Flipped Classrooms” and Educause’s “7 Things You Should Know about Flipped Classrooms” are particularly helpful in explaining the concept.

According to these articles, in a flipped classroom, lectures and other content are delivered outside the classroom, usually via the Internet; work that is traditionally done outside the classroom (e.g., homework, group work) is done during class time.

The thought is that if students come to class with conceptual knowledge, they can spend their time in class in practicing skills or gaining applied knowledge related to those concepts. The instructor’s role is to facilitate the hands-on learning.

Wong notes that the flipped classroom is not a new concept but says technology has made using the flipped classroom much easier for instructors because they can put lectures online or work from electronic textbooks.

According to Educause, the flipped classroom presents many advantages. For example, students are not likely to get all of the information they need from listening to an in-class lecture once, but in a flipped classroom, they can visit a video lecture on the Web as many times as they need to. In addition, by using class time for hands-on work, instructors can gauge how well students understand the material. Further, in the flipped classroom, students must take charge of their learning as they become responsible for leading discussion, participating in a group, or completing their work. Challenges for teachers, however, include finding the time to create video lectures and motivating and training students to engage in the flipped classroom model.

I am guessing that many business communication instructors spend at least some of their time flipping the classroom. In my class, for example, students read the text and complete a guided reading quiz outside of class and then come to class with their computers, ready to draft or peer edit. I can visit with students and provide feedback before they have to turn in an assignment for a grade.

Do you flip your classroom? If so, what do you do? Please share your ideas. We look forward to learning from you.

And for those of you who find yourself on a semester break, may you enjoy your opportunity to recharge and regroup. We wish you a very happy and successful new year!

A Classroom Case: “This Embarasses You and I”

Some of you may have seen the recent article “This Embarrasses You and I” by Sue Shellenbarger. Shellenbarger discusses the impact of informal communication (e.g., through email, Twitter, and texting) on the use of standard grammar in the workplace. She cites one survey in which 45% of 430 employers say they provide some kind of remedial writing training to employees. Other employers hold competitions to try to improve employees’ grammar, while some require spelling and grammar tests as terms of hire.

Also included with the article are a short video interview with Shellenbarger (“Managers Fight Grammar Gaffes at Work”) and an interactive, 21-question grammar quiz.

The article and video present a classroom opportunity to discuss the importance of good grammar to one’s professional image and the need to tailor one’s language to the audience and occasion, while the interactive quiz might challenge some students’ perceptions of their grammar skills.

However, if you’re looking for something more extensive, the Wall Street Journal’s Weekly Review: Accounting” provides a more in-depth case based on Shellenbarger’s article. Discussion questions range from the introductory to the advanced. These questions are accompanied by a small-group assignment requiring students to take the interactive quiz, work with group members to determine the reasons for their errors, and analyze which errors are most common among group members.

If you have other suggestions for using this article in the classroom, please share them with us.

Many thanks to Meg, my colleague, for passing this information along so that I could share it with you.

Maximizing the Creativity of Groups

A recent issue of The New Yorker magazine contained an interesting article that could have some bearing on our teaching. Entitled “Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth,” the article explores two issues having to do with maximizing the creativity of groups: whether or not brainstorming actually works and how close—in terms of both social and physical proximity—group members should be in order to be as creative as possible.

Is Brainstorming Effective?
The word “brainstorm” was first used in the 1948 book Your Creative Power, written by Madison Avenue ad man Alex Osborn. He recommended the strategy as a way for groups to generate an abundance of fresh ideas. The most important feature of the technique—the one that distinguished it from other methods of the day—was that the group should freely generate ideas without critiquing them. Osborn believed that fear of ridicule would inhibit expression. This assumption seems so logical that team leaders, creativity professionals, teachers, and many others have embraced it without question for decades.

In fact, research begun as early as 1958 has failed to support this assumption. In studies that have compared teams who used brainstorming to those who did not, the process of generating ideas without judging them has been found to be less productive than generating ideas in a more debate-like atmosphere. “Dissent stimulates new ideas,” the article explains, “because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.” And as one researcher commented, it has the element of “’surprise,’” which “’wakes us right up.’”

How Close Should the Collaborators Be?
In another strand of research, those looking for the best conditions in which to generate creative ideas have studied the impact of social and physical proximity on groups’ powers of invention. One such study looked for correlations between the interconnectivity of those on a Broadway production team and the success of their musicals. It turned out that “the best Broadway shows were produced by networks with an intermediate level of intimacy.” In other words, groups who knew each other too well and those who were relative strangers at the start of the process scored fewer Broadway hits than groups who were made up both of artists who’d worked together before and some newcomers. The researcher explains that the latter type of group “’could interact efficiently—they had a familiar structure to fall back on—but they also managed to incorporate some ideas.’” The results suggest that productive groups are “comfortable with each other,” but not “too comfortable.”

Turning to the impact of physical proximity, the article describes two cases in which a physical environment that enabled chance meetings between different types of group members generated enormous creativity. One is the case of Steven Jobs’ Pixar headquarters, which was “designed around a central atrium, so that Pixar’s diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other.” So intent was Jobs to force employees to encounter each other in the atrium that he moved the mailboxes there, then the cafeteria and coffee shop, and finally the restrooms! Jobs’ efforts have paid off; one current employee comments, “’I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people that I do sitting at my desk.’”

M.I.T.’s Building 20 is one of the most striking cases of the influence of architecture on creativity. Built as a temporary structure in 1942, the building wound up housing a wide assortment of intellectuals who tore down walls, got lost because of the strange room numbering, and took advantage of its horizontal (instead of vertical) layout. Their random interactions led to numerous electrical engineering breakthroughs and nurtured the creative genius of Amar Bose, the founder of the Bose Corporation, and renowned linguist Noam Chomsky.

Are There Takeaways for BComm?
The results of the brainstorming studies may remind us of findings that Rebecca Burnett shared years ago in an often-cited chapter of Professional Communication: The Social Perspective (1993): student groups who reach agreement too fast do less well than those who reach agreement through a certain amount of arguing. Our students may well need to be encouraged to disagree. While they should listen respectfully as each member voices his or her ideas, they should also offer tentative assessments of those ideas and use the back-and-forth to generate the best solutions they can.

The social proximity study also supports the idea that groups who are too cozy won’t propel each other to reach their best insights—a finding with implications for how we set up our student groups. As for physical proximity . . . I wonder how we might increase the number of random productive interactions among our students. What is the academic equivalent of Jobs’ atrium, M.I.T.’s Building 20, or the employee break room? And what does that communal space look like in online courses? Here, my own creativity fails me. If you’ve used innovative ways to spark your students’ collaborative energy, please share them.

Just Drop It…

One of the many reasons I enjoy working at a university is the opportunity to learn from my students—especially in the area of technology. Our student IT interns are raving about Dropbox, a file synchronization software that lets people simultaneously save their files locally and on Dropbox’s server. It’s instant back up. Dropbox’s file sharing feature could also be useful for group projects.

Yes, yes, I know…Many of us already use the “Save As” feature to back up our work to a network drive or flash drive, and the really conscientious among us daily or weekly back up our work to an external hard drive,  but how many of us have had this conversation:

STUDENT: I did my homework, but my computer crashed last night, and I lost everything on my hard drive.

INSTRUCTOR: That’s awful! Good thing you backed up your work, eh?

STUDENT: Backup? Ummm…..

I know that many times I, too, will not take the time to back up my work and have been extremely fortunate that the technology gods continue to smile on me. I need a better plan, and I think my students do, too. Automatic backup might just be the solution.

Dropbox can be used with Windows, Mac, Linux, and mobile platforms, and the free version should be sufficient for most students; additional storage is available for a fee.  Is Dropbox for you? Check it out at Dropbox.

Managing Online Student Teams

 Managing student teams in online environments presents special considerations. Students who may be comfortable in face-to-face environments where they can see and hear their teammates find themselves less comfortable in an environment where teammates seem anonymous, distant, and not readily accessible.

Students in my online Business Writing class write a report in teams of four. Using a secure discussion forum, each team member contributes his or her part; then team members communicate with one another to compile the parts into one document and edit the report to its final form. Four strategies help me facilitate team work in this fully online course. 

Strategy #1: Preparing Students to Work in Teams Online

Before students know who their team members are, they discuss their experiences with team projects—what they like, what they do not like. I also ask them to discuss the challenges the online environment may present for their team projects.

Frequently, students say they enjoy teams because they ease the workload, allow for the exchange of a variety of ideas, and reassure students who wonder whether what they are doing is “right.” What they don’t enjoy is having team members who do not do their share of the work or who do not contribute quality work. However, the online students’ greatest concerns are timely communication and accommodating members’ varying schedules.

Following the discussion, I summarize students’ concerns in a course announcement and remind them to be a team member they would admire.  Incorporating this discussion at the beginning of the assignment establishes not only my expectations but the students’ expectations for one another.

Strategy #2: Matching Team Members Appropriately 

Matching students in teams with others who have similar academic abilities and levels of participation in the course works well. Whether students are A students or C students, their ability to participate in a project where group members’ expectations do not exceed any one member’s ability focuses the members on the task and the writing; they deal less with interpersonal conflicts that arise when students are perceived by their group members to be over or under achieving.

Furthermore, teams whose members participate in the group’s discussion area frequently do not wonder when or if members are going to participate; conversely, teams with less active participants seem content with that level of involvement and do not appear to believe that “good” team members need to check in several times a day.

Interestingly, teams with frequent member participation are not necessarily more likely to submit better reports. Some teams’ members communicate infrequently, yet they submit quality work when they do communicate and therefore do as well as teams with high member participation. Thus the quality of the interaction and like-mindedness among team members appear to influence the quality of the final assignment more so than the frequency of members’ interactions.

Strategy #3: Establishing Deadlines

Instructor-established deadlines for submitting individual work and editing the team’s report are essential. Students are more frequently accountable to my schedule than they are to one another’s.

Strategy #4: Holding Students Accountable

Holding students accountable for their participation and quality of their work discourages social loafers and offers other students some recourse if team members fail to participate. Students complete a survey to rate each team member’s participation on a scale of 1 – 5 regarding communication with the team and quality of their work. Students whose evaluation averages are a 4 – 5 share in their team’s score. Students who receive a 3 – 3.99 receive a letter grade deduction; average scores of 2 – 2.99 result in a two-letter grade deduction. Scores of 1 – 1.99 result in a score that’s 50% of the team’s report grade.

Students rarely contest peer evaluations; if they do, the online environment provides a great track record of a student’s performance.

Overall, making expectations explicit, matching team members evenly, and having structure and peer evaluation built in to the assignment make the management of online teams easier. Yes, conflicts still occur but as I’ve integrated these strategies, issues arise much less frequently and the teams run fairly smoothly. As always, if you have strategies to share, we’d love to hear about them.