Flipped, Blended

There’s a lot of talk about “blended learning” and “flipped classrooms” these days, also here at CBS. I, too, deliver much of my writing instruction using a combination of online and in-person interaction. But I sometimes wonder if we’re not a little too excited about all this. I mean, hasn’t education always involved a “blend” of media, hasn’t the classroom always been “flipped”?

Consider the most traditional of classrooms. The students have been given an assigned reading and are told to show up to class prepared to discuss it. How is this less “flipped” than asking the students to watch a lecture or documentary at home and having them show up for class prepared to engage in some “interactive” task based on it? Likewise, isn’t traditional education already a “blending” of reading assignments, writing assignments, group work, classroom discussion and lecturing? The real issue, it seems to me, is not whether we are using multiple modalities to educate the students, but whether we can get them to do the activities we assign, show up for the encounters we have planned.

The introduction of IT has, indeed, changed this game somewhat. There is, especially, a tendency to immerse students in one or another form of “social media”, through which their learning process is continuously in contact with that of their peers and, at least as sometimes experienced, their teachers. Such contact is important, but I think we do well to reflect on whether it really does have to be continuous. I don’t want to get into the very deepest layers of this thorny issue, but we do have to be mindful of the difference between the slogan “Social media means you never have to be alone” and “Social media means you can never be alone.” One problem with our online lives is that they don’t really know when to leave us alone. Students participating in a course cannot be expected to react to updates at all hours, nor can they expect to receive information that is given out in a particular time and place that they were prevented from attending. We need to maintain a certain amount of order.

I think this is an important challenge for education in the future. While I am embracing the new technologies in my own practice (I’ve been blogging since before it was mainstream), I still defend a lot of “old school” sensibilities–brick and mortar, chalk and talk. I don’t, in particular, like the anti-lecturing rhetoric of those who are promoting the new pedagogies, just as I’m wary of the anti-prose rhetoric of the promulgators of “new literacies”. If we really did train the ability of students to read treatises, write essays, and attend lectures, I think our culture would be stronger as a result of it. The ability to read a 25-page chapter, write a 5-paragraph essay, or listen to a 45-minute lecture is not trivial. Training these abilities shapes minds of a particular kind. I believe those minds have a value.

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