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This new tool makes the flipped classroom more social

Watching videos at home is a rather solitary affair. Can a new tool change that?

Flipping your class by having students watch lecture videos for their homework can lead to richer discussions about the content, but only if students come to class prepared. And having them watch a video lecture at home “simply takes a technique that didn’t work in person and puts in online,” said Harvard University physics professor Eric Mazur.

During the 2016 Building Learning Communities (BLC) conference organized by education thought leader Alan November, Mazur unveiled a free tool that he and a team of colleagues developed to solve this problem.

Called Perusall, it’s a social learning platform that will “essentially make sure every student is prepared for class,” Mazur said. It also makes sure teachers are prepared to address students’ key questions and areas of confusion—without creating more work for the instructor.

Mazur spent the first part of his opening keynote recalling how he realized long ago that teaching must be more than simply transferring knowledge.

Early in his career, he would spent countless hours before every class preparing lecture notes from a different textbook than students were using. He even found a textbook that was out of print, so there would be no danger that his students would own a copy—and therefore his notes wouldn’t mirror what they were reading. He also prepared copies of his lecture notes for students to take with them at the end of class, so they’d stay throughout his lecture first. But in describing this strategy, he noted: “Isn’t that already admitting there’s a problem?”

Mazur found that taking an inquiry-based approach to teaching was far more effective for his students. His technique was to introduce his students to a concept by having them read about it or watch a video for homework, and then in class he would ask a question that applied the concept in a whole new context. He would have his students think about their response, then find peers who disagreed with their answer and discuss the problem together.

It’s a technique he calls peer instruction, and he has found that it’s quite effective for students to learn how to reason from each other. He demonstrated the concept with conference attendees, asking a question about buoyancy that challenged attendees to apply what they knew about water displacement to a challenging scenario and discuss their answer with a neighbor.

“Look at this: You all got fired up,” he said when the demonstration was over. By using an inquiry-based approach to instruction, “isn’t it amazing how you can reawaken the creativity of the human mind?”

Next page: Fixing the big problems with the flipped model

Using this flipped classroom model, Mazur has realized learning gains that are three times greater than what he saw when he used to lecture. But eventually he realized there were problems in asking students to watch a video before class.

For one thing, it’s a passive learning experience—it doesn’t challenge or engage the viewer on a deeper level. Also, it’s a solitary experience, whereas learning is more effective when it’s a social activity.

In theory, students can create the space to think more deeply about what they’re learning in a video by hitting the pause button, Mazur said. But in practice, students do the opposite: They often set the playback speed to 1.5 or 2 to get through the content faster. What’s more, “students very quickly discover they’re held accountable for watching the video by answering short multiple choice questions,” he said—and they can often do that by skipping lecture altogether and searching for the answers online.

“For the flipped classroom to really work, what we want is to have every student prepared for class throughout the academic year,” Mazur noted. “And I don’t know about you, but I would like this to happen without doing more work as an instructor.”

Automating a solution

Mazur’s solution, Perusall, turns the out-of-class component of flipped learning into a social experience as well.

At its heart, it’s a social document reader, in which students can interact with each other as they read about the content. When students log in through their preferred social media platform, they can see whoever else is engaging with that reading assignment in top left corner of the screen.

As students have questions about what they’re reading, they can highlight that section of text and post their question. Students can ask questions of specific peers, or they can ask questions for the class as a whole, and they can also respond to each others’ queries. Students receive an automatic email notification when their question is answered, and they can respond by email as well—and these responses automatically appear in the document itself.

“In a sense, you see asynchronous peer instruction occurring, with students clarifying the content for each other,” Mazur said. “The document I’ve given to them becomes a living document, complete with links, connections to other courses, and so on.”

To make sure students are engaging with the content by asking and answering questions, Mazur and his colleagues developed a rubric-based assessment that is based on the quality of responses (annotations must incorporate thoughtful reading and interpretation), as well as how often students comment and whether their comments are posted before the next class meets.

With this rubric, “I get over 20,000 annotations in my class,” Mazur said. “The students write more annotations than the author writes in the actual textbook.” To ensure this doesn’t require extra work for the instructor, Perusall uses a fully automated assessment engine to analyze student postings. “It actually assesses intellectual content, and it does at least as well as a human being” in assessing the quality of these posts over time, he said.

As Mazur was testing the system, “I realized these annotations are like a window into the brains of my students,” he said. “I also realized that if I could read those annotations before class, I could address students’ questions and concerns.” So, he developed a tool for automating this process as well. The system uses sophisticated analytics to generate what he calls a “confusion report” highlighting the top three areas of confusion about a text, complete with a summary of the best student questions.

“This is a great tool for connecting the out-of-class component of flipped learning with the in-class component,” he said.

In testing the system, he found that 70 percent of his students didn’t miss a single reading assignment during the course of the semester—and 95 percent of his students missed no more than one or two chapters. “I think this is as close as we can get to having all students prepared for class,” he said, adding: “Death threats probably wouldn’t work any better.”

Perusall integrates with most learning management systems, and Mazur is working with publishers to make their textbooks available in the system. In the meantime, teachers can upload portions of texts for students to read.

“Education is not just about transferring information,” Mazur concluded. “It’s not about getting students to learn what we know. I want my students to stand on my shoulders, to solve the problems I cannot solve. To do that, active participation and social interaction are a must.”

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