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Promise of ‘flipped classroom’ might elude poorer school districts

Jasmine Redeaux (left) and Nakesha Wilkerson (right) team up to finish a worksheet in their "flipped" chemistry class at their Macon, Ga., high school, while other classmates work on a lab. (Sarah Butrymowicz/MCT)

When Portland, Ore., elementary school teacher Sacha Luria decided last fall to try the new education strategy called “flipping the classroom,” she faced a big obstacle.

Flipped classrooms use technology—online video instruction, laptops, or DVDs of lessons—to reverse what students traditionally have done in class and at home to learn. Listening to lectures becomes the homework assignment, so teachers can provide more one-on-one attention in class and students can work at their own paces or with other students.

But Luria realized that none of her students had computers at home, and she had just one in the classroom. So she used her own money to buy a second computer and begged everyone she knew for donations, finally bringing the total to six computers for her 23 fourth-graders at Rigler School. Her students now alternate between working on the computers and working with her.

So far, the strategy is showing signs of success. She uses class time to tailor instruction to students who started the school year behind their classmates in reading and math, and she’s seen rapid improvement. By the end of the school year, she said, her students averaged two years’ worth of progress in math, for example.

“It’s powerful stuff,” she said, noting that this year was her most successful in a decade of teaching. “I’m really able to meet students where they are, as opposed to where the curriculum says they should be.”

Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that flipping classrooms is a more popular practice in wealthier suburban communities, where nearly all students have internet access at home and classrooms are more likely to have computers. Some skeptics worry that the new practice—so dependent on technology—could end up leaving low-income students behind and widening the achievement gap.

“It’s an obstacle,” said Karen Cator, the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. “We do need to figure out ways that students, regardless of ZIP code, regardless of their parents’ income level, have access” to technology both inside and outside of schools.

For more about the flipped learning approach, see:

Engaging Students with ‘Flipped Learning’

The flipped classroom can be traced to a 2008 experiment by Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann, chemistry teachers in Woodland Park, Colo., who were quick to take advantage of the ability to post videos online. The concept is one simple way that technology can transform how students learn. Research on the effectiveness of flipped classrooms is in the early stages, and it’s not known how widespread the practice is.

Bergmann and Sams argue that there are ways to overcome a lack of computers or internet access at home. “Teachers are giving flash drives to students who have computers at home, but no internet access; burning DVDs for students with no computers, but DVD players; and providing additional access to computers either in class or before, during, or after the school day,” wrote Sams and Brian Bennett, who teaches biology and chemistry in Evansville, Ind., in a recent article. “Equity is a very important (and a legal) consideration, but creating equitable access to instructional tools is not an insurmountable hurdle. The issue surround equity can be solved with a little creativity and pooling of resources.”

At Westside High School in Macon, Ga., more than 85 percent of students are minorities and 78 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Chemistry teacher Jennifer Douglass estimated that about half are so transient they don’t have guaranteed places to sleep each night. Members of feuding gangs are placed into classes alongside pregnant teenagers, she said, and parent involvement is rare.

With the help of a federal grant that provided netbooks for all students, a handful of teachers in different disciplines at Westside flipped their classrooms and reported that doing so improved students’ grades and their level of engagement.

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