Flipped classes threaten universities and publishers

CoreDogs helps flip classes. Flipping shifts the focus from listening to doing.

Here's a normal class:

Normal class

In class, instructors lecture, and students listen. Students practice on their own, without support.

But students need both practice and feedback to learn well. Particularly if they're learning skills, like writing, computer programming, and accounting. So, flip it:

Flipped class

Before class, students read and watch videos to learn concepts. They get help when they most need it: during practice.

CoreDogs takes it further. It reduces class meeting time, replacing most of it with practice/feedback over the Web:

CoreDogs class

Outside class, students learn concepts, and then do exercises. They submit their work over the Web. They get fast feedback. When class meets (maybe 1 hour per week, rather than 3 hours for a regular college class), the instructor gives students personal, one-on-one help.

Flipping works!

Last week, I attended a one-day flipping conference at Clintondale High School, led by Greg Green, the principal. Clintondale is the poster child of flipping. Their results are stunning. Student achievement is up, way up.

I admire what Green and his teachers have done. It's almost enough to give an old cynic hope for the future. Really. It's that good.

But wait. There's more.

StoveIn a large saucepan, mix the learning power of flipping, and the reach of the Web. Add a bunch of independent authors, and three bunches of independent graders. Toss in a generous handful of entrepreneurs. Bring to a boil. Then...

Throw it on the education sector! Stand back, and watch the show.

Flipping wrecks?

Flipping could change things. It would help students learn more skills. This in turn would help employers, and possibly our nation's competitiveness.

But widespread flipping would disrupt two parts of the sector:

  • Universities and schools
  • Textbook publishers

What could happen? Good things? Bad things? Let's speculate. I'll talk about higher ed mainly, but about K12, too.

I'll focus on the CoreDogs version of flipping, called the CoreDogs Way. To begin, let's review how the Way works.

The CoreDogs Way in brief

At the center of a CoreDogs course is an online "textbook."

Why the quotes around

The book uses practices we know work:

  • Outcome-driven.
  • Deep learning of processes, rather than shallow learning of many facts.
  • Metacognition.
  • Appropriate media use.
  • Simple writing.
  • ...

Good research

The book has many exercises, maybe 100 or so for one semester. Not multiple choice, either. Students create content. Write a blog post, write a program, make a financial report, etc.

A CoreDogs course has no lectures. Students work through the book, reading and doing exercises. They submit solutions through the book.

Someone looks at students' work, and gives them formative feedback. "Formative" means that students get an explanation of their mistakes, something they can learn from. Students can resubmit until they get it right.

Grading is a separate process. The goal is evaluation, not learning. Maybe students gather in a computer lab, and are given two hours to complete a task. They get a grade, reflecting the quality of their work. This is "summative" feedback.

Learning and evaluation are different goals.

Every week or so, students meet with a tutor. The tutor gives them exercises, and walks around the room, helping students one-on-one. The "room" may be virtual. The goal is one-on-one synchronous help; if that can be done effectively at a distance, that's OK.

The course instructor gets regular reports on student performance. Since there are several exercises each week, there's no need to wait until the midterm to find out which students are falling behind.

An important point: feedback is not automated. People do it. Computers cannot evaluate a business letter, or a Web page. We can automate grading by giving students multiple-choice questions, but that's not enough. Students need practice writing stories, fixing software bugs, etc. If we are serious about helping students learn skills, we can't skimp on formative feedback.

Too much to grade!

Can't grade writing with multiple choice

Computers can't grade open-ended questions.

Use an efficient grading work flow


That's the CoreDogs Way. In educational jargon, the Way is flipped, hybrid, and assessment-centric.

For more Way goodness, see the short story A Tale of Two Students. Go on, it's a fun read. Check it out. You'll be glad you did.

To see the feedback work flow in action, look at this page.

Flipped out universities

University classes, and many in K12, are organized around the lecture.


One, two, or three times per week, everyone gathers in the same room. Instructors talk about and demonstrate skills, like programming. Students listen. Maybe they get to ask questions. Maybe not.

Year after year, the instructor repeats the lectures. Sometimes with changes, often not.

Students listen in class. They practice skills outside class. At home, during lunch at work, wherever. If they don't know how to do something, they wait until the next class to ask a question. Or they can ask their friends, and hope their friends know.

Students do assignments, from 4 to 20 per semester, depending on the topic. They get a grade for each assignment, counted towards their overall course grade. That's summative feedback, remember. Usually, there are no assignments that are just for practice.

One person - the instructor - does all the work for the class. Class design, lecturing, setting assignments, grading, etc.

At a large school, a beginners' course like Writing 101 can have hundreds of students each semester. How to handle the scale? Have a few mega-sections, with maybe 200 students each. Or have many smaller sections, each with its own instructor. Either way, the same time, same place lecture practice does not change.

Many sections

Lecturing, grading, and other work is repeated in every section. Quality varies, of course.

How does the CoreDogs Way change things? Actually, the Way does not require any changes. That was a design goal. Instructors can use the Way in their own courses, without any institutional change. This lets innovators try the Way, without disruption, and without additional cost.

But suppose a university took full advantage of the Way. What would happen?

  • No lectures. No lecture halls. Only small classrooms for tutoring. Capital costs go down. No bonds, no humongous state grants. Infrastructure costs go down as well. Heating, lighting, janitorial, grounds...
  • Replace several Ph.D.-level instructors with one Ph.D.-level coordinator, and a bunch of less expensive tutors and reviewers (reviewers are the people who give feedback). Because the Way uses learning science practices, learning quality goes up.

Quality is what students can do.

  • Feedback can be outsourced, to retired teachers, parents working from home, advanced students looking for extra money, ... Not just graduate students, with the language problems you often get. 
  • Students at remote locations have the same experience as those at the main campus, if quality local tutoring is available. Local talent will usually be available for introductory courses, and it will be relatively cheap. This could lead to...
  • More competition. Brand-name schools could offer quality courses around the world, with cheap local tutoring facilities.

Universities with large physical campuses will be at a disadvantage. At the moment, they rely on certification barriers. That is, "you can't get a degree from us unless you take 80 credit hours on our campus."

They have a point. Some topics are best learned in a face-to-face format. Nursing practice, theater, public speaking, team leadership...

But most introductory courses don't need as much face-to-face. A good flipped course, and you get good results.

Here are some thought experiments.

  • Suppose legislators forced public universities to accept transfer credits for high-quality introductory courses. The measure of quality would be what students learn, not artificial requirements, like whether the instructor has a masters degree.
  • Imagine new companies forming, to offer high-quality introductory courses in just a few areas. They would not offer degrees, just credits that would transfer.
  • What if Google and Apple partnered to create an educational company? They could use the CoreDogs Way to offer high-quality skill courses at low cost. If they maintained high standards, and were transparent about how they did it, employers would value Gapple (Google and Apple) certification. Maybe more than a traditional degree.

Talk about disruption.

Will faculty care? In K12, teachers care about learning, and administrators certainly care about price. But in higher ed, less so. It might take massive institutional death before higher ed pays attention.

You might be asking yourself:

Self, is flipping directly responsible for these effects?

That's a good question. Give yourself a cookie.

No, flipped would not be directly responsible. Schools and universities can make some of these changes using the lecture model.

However, flipping gives a reason to change, that's based on student outcomes. Want your students to learn more? Flip. And if you're going to flip, why not reorganize learning as well?

The textbook industry

Most textbooks are:

  • Expensive.
  • Low quality.

Usually, university faculty choose textbooks for their classes, and students must buy them. Faculty don't bear the cost themselves. It's no surprise that prices are high.

Worse than high price is low quality. Remember that "quality" means "helping students learn useful things." Publishers don't make learning a priority, largely because most faculty do not. Few faculty even know what learning science is. Faculty who use rigorous, disciplined standards in research, rarely do the same in teaching.

Publishers work with textbook authors, and send their material to reviewers for evaluation. Typically, neither authors nor reviewers have a learning science background. A common result is a book that's "a mile wide, and an inch deep." Many facts about many topics. Little help in doing useful tasks.

Imagine a Web-based tool we'll call CoreDogs Writer (CW). CW helps people write textbooks following the CoreDogs Way. The tool is open source, so that:

  • Anyone can use it for free.
  • It's transparent.
  • People can contribute to the tool, improving it over time.

CW is multilingual. CW is collaborative. People can work on textbooks together, evaluate each others' work, contribute examples and exercises, etc.

An important point: CW is free, but the textbooks created with CW are not necessarily free. Suppose Melissa uses CW to write a textbook on organic chemistry. She would be able to sell access to it, for whatever price she sets. Or she could give it away. Her choice.

Imagine some business models:

  • Authors supplement their income, with specialized titles for small markets.
  • Authors start small companies. They create libraries of a few books. They compete by making them best-in-breed titles.
  • An infrastructure company offers authors a turn-key CW system. Authors host their books with the company, in return for a percentage of sales. The company handles technical issues, financial transactions, licensing, and so on.
  • A company offers universities complete packages, including textbooks and graders. The company would take care of recruiting, paying, and evaluating the people who give students feedback.

The textbook industry is essentially an oligopoly (i. e., dominated by a few large companies). Cheap authoring and online delivery tools would lower barriers to entry, increasing competition.

But wait. There's more. New types of textbooks become economically feasible.

Suppose Bill writes high school algebra books, just for Detroit Schools. The books use local landmarks, like 8 Mile and Ford Field. Bill continually updates the books. For example, graphing exercises use scores from this season's Pistons games. Bill could report up-to-the-minute student progress, city wide, to the Detroit's school district.

Bill could make a living doing this, even when charging as little as $10 per student. Bill would have an incentive to make the book really good.

This is something new. Bill, and hundreds like him, could disrupt the educational publishing industry. Lower price, higher quality, better fit to local needs.

Flipping doesn't threaten the textbook industry directly. After all, Bill could write a textbook for Detroit schools, based on normal lecture practices.

However, improving learning is a powerful reason to flip. Once you decide to flip, you need textbook-like things. They don't exist, so someone creates a tool to make them. That tool lets anyone write a book, on their own topic, in their own language, for their own culture. Suddenly, authors have a low-cost alternative to traditional publishing, one that has clear learning advantages.

The big textbook companies could compete in the flipped marketplace. But they're big companies. Like big universities, they resist change. Can they move fast enough, so they don't lose market share?

Creative destruction

Here's where we are.

  • Flipping is efficient for students. It helps students learn more, at the same or lower cost.
  • Flipping is efficient for universities. Or it could be, if flipping methods like the CoreDogs Way are adopted broadly.
  • Flipping is practical. Any school or college can start. Today. Only inertia stands in the way.
  • Flipped classes are less sensitive to location. Competition can increase, especially if certification barriers are reduced.
  • With the right tools, it's cheap to write a flipped textbook. Individual authors can do it. High quality specialized titles, even titles for individual school districts, are economically feasible.

Put these together, and we have a practical route to a different educational future. We don't need huge investments to get there. We're in a strange situation where we can pay less, and get more. Weird.

If flipping goes mainstream, universities and publishing companies will change. Some will die. That's OK, if it helps students. Jobs will be lost. That's unfortunate, but it shouldn't stand in the way of better learning.

There'll be winners, too. Universities and publishers that make the change. New companies and institutions that deliver or support flippiness. Taxpayers. Most important of all: students.


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